Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution, and no one is celebrating. Syrians on both sides of the conflict have suffered beyond measure. Nothing is the same and no one is untouched. Almost every city and town has at one point or another felt the terror of explosions, gunfire and bloodshed. Many families have felt the wrenching grief of sudden and violent death. Hundreds of thousands have had to leave their homes and now live as refugees or on handouts – their business, their schools, their dreams shattered. People say their lives before the conflict seem like another world, yet many still also resiliently cling to their previous lives and go to work, study and shop. In a civil war, these simple everyday acts are also acts of defiance – and even sometimes acts of heroism. To mark this anniversary, Syria Deeply asked people across the country how their cities have changed.
“The situation in Daraa was excellent before the revolution – business, education and the health sector, all of it. But things have deteriorated over the past four years. Now there is unemployment, disease and poverty. The city is also now divided between the opposition and the regime. Daraa al-Balad is a flashpoint and is largely controlled by the opposition. As for Daraa al-Mahatta, most of it is controlled by the regime.” Abu Ahmad, a 28-year-old lawyer describing Daraa, the city where the uprising started.
Finding even the basics has become extremely difficult – especially fuel, medicine and food. People get no more than four hours of electricity a day. There’s also a water crisis because it’s difficult to find fuel to operate the water pumps to get water to people’s homes. The split in the town has affected education. The university is in the regime area. Students there still go to classes and live their lives normally. In the opposition areas, the schools opened by the opposition only go up to secondary level. Hospitals in the opposition areas are basically field hospitals and they’re mostly very modest. These hospitals can barely cover simple paramedic cases, while in the regime areas the health situation is almost still the same although they have trouble with electricity.
Currently there are a large number of people in Damascus living in poverty. There are still people who do OK, but things haven’t been easy for them either. After four years of chaos, people try to cling to some semblance of normal life.
“On the street, people seem to have adapted to the situation. Restaurants, malls, parks and markets are often crowded until midnight despite the occasional shelling and the cruel poverty. Despite the difficult circumstances, people still go to work, children still go to school and friends still meet,” Omaima, a 31-year-old teacher, said.
“Damascus has been receiving refugees from neighboring areas and other cities, making it difficult for local people and newcomers to survive under such tough financial circumstances,” Rafi, a 22-year-old student, said.
The city is crowded with checkpoints although the regime forces removed many of them recently. And the fear of being forced into military service at a checkpoint has had a big impact on the lives of young Syrian men. These young men also have problems finding jobs; there are barely any jobs in Damascus and employers mostly refuse to hire men who have not served in the military. Across Damascus there’s a scarcity of electricity and a lack of fuel. All items, especially food, have become too expensive, while salaries have remained the same. As for the health sector, public and private hospitals are still working, but many doctors have left the country.
The city today is divided into east and west. The western side is under regime control, the eastern is under opposition control and moving between the two sides of Aleppo now takes up to 12 hours.
Most areas on the eastern side are ruined and deserted since most of the people moved to areas close to the frontlines because the barrel bombs don’t usually hit areas close to the regime forces. The rest of the people of eastern Aleppo left for Turkey, the countryside or one of the safe cities.
“As you enter Aleppo, and walk for almost an hour all you see is destruction,” Najwa, a 49-year-old housewife, said.
As for the western side, it’s pretty much full of life: the streets are crowded and people celebrate weddings and attend parties, although the parties and other events must end before dark. Schools and colleges are crowded with students, although the streets of the western side are not completely safe from the shelling of the opposition forces, while schools in the opposition areas moved to basements as most of them were destroyed by barrel bombs, so most of the parents preferred not to send their children to school anymore. The city suffers from repeated breakdowns in services and the electricity shuts down for long periods, forcing people to depend on electricity generators.
The regime managed to regain the city of Homs after vicious battles that left many areas destroyed and a large number of people displaced. A truce was signed between the regime and the opposition in May last year, after which the city witnessed a real change. Streets are alive again and shops have opened everywhere. Some of the people returned to their homes and the city became crowded with the newcomers from other damaged areas.
“There aren’t any men left in town, except for college students and those who finished their military service and have jobs,” Odai, a 20-year-old law student, said.
Food is available but is very expensive, which has led to an increase in poverty. The al-Waer neighborhood has been under siege for more than a year and a half and is still exposed to occasional shelling from the regime. Life in al-Waer has become difficult because its people are suffering from shortages of medicine and food, as well as long power outages.
Latakia is one of the few places in Syria that has remained relatively safe and peaceful throughout the past four years, so it has attracted large numbers of refugees. The number of people in the city multiplied, causing constant traffic delays that have changed the rhythm of life.
“The road between my home and my college used to take 10 minutes, now because of the traffic it takes almost an hour,” Amjad, a 24-year-old college student, said.
Schools in Latakia are overcrowded, and the teachers work in two shifts to cover the large number of refugees. As for higher education the situation is still the same despite the fact that a few shells have landed on Tishreen University. The people of Latakia complain about the increasing prices, the lack of fuel and the expensive transportation. And like the rest of the Syrian cities, Latakia is suffering from power outages for long periods due to the targeting of electricity lines by the opposition forces.
After four years of war, pictures of deceased men from the regime forces are all around in the streets. “In every building there’s a martyr or two, in my street, which is 300 metres long, there are now more than 100 martyrs,” Amjad said.
People from all walks of life lived together and shared the city of Raqqa before the revolution, and although the majority of the people are Muslim Arabs, the city was not considered conservative. Many women didn’t wear the veil and weddings were usually held with men and women together.
Raqqa has passed through three stages since the beginning of the revolution. In the first year Raqqa was still under the regime’s control, and the situation in it didn’t change much; in the second year several demonstrations against the regime were staged; in the third year, in March 2013, the Free Army and Jabhat al-Nusra entered the city after prolonged clashes with the regime. People started fleeing Raqqa because the regime was targeting areas held by the Free Army.
In June 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in Raqqa. This was a whole new stage for the people of Raqqa. The authorities forced women]10 to cover even their faces with veils; they established Islamic centers; and they distributed posters with lists of forbidden and banned things, like smoking, music and shaving beards. “When you have a beard and you dress in a ISIS style, your life gets much easier,” Mezar Matar, a 30-year-old journalist from Raqqa, said.
ISIS was able to establish its control rapidly, and it immediately opened institutions in Raqqa, such as an Islamic police and migration department, al-Hesbeh brigade and al-Khansaa’ female brigade. ISIS also changed school curriculums by dropping some subjects like history and philosophy, and they established their own faculty of medicine. ISIS forced members of some professions, such as medicine and teaching, to attend and pass religious training courses and prevented those who didn’t attend from practicing their professions. There are black flags on all the city’s streets and people live in fear.
The regime is in control of most of Qamishli through its ally – the Kurdish party, PYD. In the beginning this party was supported by the Kurds of Qamishli because it seeks to maintain the Kurdish identity.
“The regime still controls Qamishli, government employees are still in their jobs, and the regime is the one providing the city with food supplies – only through PYD since it’s on the ground and close to the Kurds,” Ahmad al-Khalil, a journalist from Qamishli, said.
Education is ongoing, but with different teaching curriculums. The Kurdish language is now taught, while the subject of ‘nationalism education’ – which mainly focused on the Arab Socialist Baath Party – has been dropped.
Qamishli depends economically on agriculture. The harvest has fallen by half because there is not enough fuel to operate the machines and distribute the harvest.
This has coincided with a significant increase in prices and unemployment. The inhabitants of the city managed to find alternative solutions for many of the problems created by the war – for example, due to the constant power outages people have resorted to sharing power generators, and because of the water shortages most people have started depending on wells. People are also using bicycles instead of cars. Militarily the city remained stable until the recent clashes between the Kurdish troops and ISIS.