Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, has been under siege during most of Syria’s war. In October 2012, the regime cut the power in eastern Ghouta. Residents have been without food since February 2013. “In September 2013, the regime completely stopped letting people get in and out, even the sick, elderly and children,” says Abu Toni, a photographer.
Abu Toni survived the chemical attack on eastern Ghouta in August 2013, lived without food, was shot by a sniper, and suffered a broken leg that forced him to use crutches while shooting photos on the front line. He finally decided to leave eastern Ghouta after receiving threats from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Once he escaped the siege in Ghouta, he said the biggest shock was seeing working lights and refrigerators stocked with bread, because he had grown so accustomed to living without steady electricity or food.
Here, Abu Toni describes the conditions facing residents of eastern Ghouta.
Eastern Ghouta is divided between warlords: the regime and a growing presence of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Then there are the people caught in between. Warlords control what comes in and out of eastern Ghouta at their checkpoints, including food. They are the decisionmakers, as well as anyone who has funds or weapons.
Most children now don’t have fathers – their fathers are in jail, have been killed, or are fighting on the front line. It’s easier for children to beg for food than for their mothers to beg. They walk 10-15 kilometers to get water and food, without regard for the risk of getting killed, kidnapped or sexually harassed.
Some of them even have the courage to cross from besieged eastern Ghouta to the Wadi al-Deif camp, which is regime controlled, to see if they can smuggle food back to sell for a higher price inside eastern Ghouta. For example, little children can buy a kilo of rice for less than a dollar in the camp and smuggle it back to eastern Ghouta to sell for $5.
Food prices have soared inside eastern Ghouta because of the siege, and people can no longer afford to buy it. I met a man who has six daughters and one son, all of them under the age of 13. They managed to survive by sharing one meal a day, skipping a meal on some days. His children wake up in the middle of the night crying asking for food. Little children don’t know what a siege means. They only know that they are hungry.
Many residents have resorted to eating chicken feed. As a result of malnutrition and the lack of food such as meat and eggs, the elderly and the children now have face digestion problems, including diarrhea, malnutrition, infectious diseases like typhoid, and problems with their teeth. They can’t get treatment because they do not have access to medical treatment or supplies. A pregnant friend of mine had to remove the metal from her leg before giving birth. They had to tie her down so that she could handle the pain of removing the metal without anesthesia.
We only have one or two doctors for each of the hospitals; the rest of their staff are volunteers. Many people decided to go into the medical field or education instead of fighting at the front line. But they don’t have anyone to protect them from kidnapping, death or shelling, and are forced to create makeshift schools in basements and mosques.
Medical points started to close in 2013 because we didn’t have fuel to operate generators. Fuel now costs $21 per liter. You can easily pay $42 for two liters of fuel, just to cross Ghouta and come back on a motorbike. Most people walk instead, but some use bicycles. A bicycle inside Ghouta now costs $105, while as it only costs $5 in Damascus. However, it’s very exhausting to keep walking or riding your bike when you are hungry.
But people are innovative under these circumstances. For example, some people put liquor into their motorcycles after they found a warehouse full of alcohol. We used to joke, saying that we would all get drunk off of the fumes.
Nowadays, you can pay money at the checkpoints to get out – starting from $300 to $1,000 per person. But most of the people in Ghouta are farmers who have lost their farms to the front lines, and as a result are too poor to escape the misery.