EASTERN GHOUTA/BEIRUT – Abu Kamal’s farm in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus used to house rows of tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. But now the 50-year-old farmer tends exclusively to rows of sacks, hung from his ceiling, where he grows mushrooms.
“Did you know that mushrooms taste very similar to meat?” he asks.
Meat has been particularly hard to come by since government forces besieged Eastern Ghouta in 2013, leaving the estimated population of nearly 393,000, including some 99,500 internally displaced people, with very limited or non-existent access to food, healthcare and basic services.
Syria and Russia escalated their airstrikes and shelling on the area last month, worsening the already dire humanitarian conditions, especially in the suburb of Harasta where pro-government forces have been battling insurgent rebel groups for more than a week.
More than 129 civilians, including 30 children, have been killed by shelling and airstrikes in Eastern Ghouta since Dec. 29, according to the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Dec. 24, an airstrike damaged a primary health center in Harasta, and since then at least three paramedics have been killed in the suburb, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.
Despite the increasingly poor living conditions, Abu Kamal and many other residents in the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital have developed a wide range of strategies to adapt to living through more than four years of siege.
“Shops are empty, streets are in ruins, the shelling rarely stops,” says Mohamad, a 20-year-old unemployed resident. “Sometimes it feels like a Hollywood movie, especially when I learn what people are coming up with in order to survive.”
Mushrooms are much cheaper and do not require much space or financial investment to grow. Abu Kamal said that he grows his product in sacks that hang from his ceiling – a process that has been adopted in Eastern Ghouta to help residents meet their nutritional needs.
The rebel bastion also suffers from severely high rates of famine and malnutrition. UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under the age of five were suffering from severe malnutrition. This is “the highest rate ever recorded in Syria” since the conflict started, the agency said.
High malnutrition rates are the result of years of food shortages and skyrocketing price of what food is available. According to the World Food Program (WFP), the typical price of a basket of food in November in Eastern Ghouta was 268,744 Syrian pounds ($521) – more than eight times the national average.
After more than four years of siege, many residents have come up with strategies to capitalize on what little food is available.
Abou Mohammad, a 60-year-old street vendor, says his family sun-dry most of the vegetables they purchase to make sure they will have some in stock when winter comes. He says they cut vegetables into slices and place them under the sun for hours, sometimes days, before packing them into bags or jars – or turning them into pastes – that are stored away.
“Here is what happens,” he tells Syria Deeply. “If I was able to buy 1kg (2.2 lb) of tomatoes, we [my family and I] would cook and eat half of it immediately, but save the other half to dry and preserve for winter time.”
“The situation is hard,” he adds. “But at least we are finding temporary solutions”.
Residents are also finding substitutes for foods that have become too costly for the impoverished population.
Bread is a prime example. According to the WFP, the price of this daily staple in Eastern Ghouta leapt in mid-November to 85 times the price for the same commodity in Damascus, just 15km (9 miles) away. Osos, an organization that monitors food prices in the suburbs, said that a standard pack of Arabic bread retailed at around 1,550 SYP ($3) in December.
Abu Yasser, a local baker, says the price of 1kg of pure flour, which could produce around three packs of bread, could reach up to a maximum of $12 in the besieged suburbs. As a result, he is now having to supplement flour with fodder (dried straw or hay) to bring down costs.
“A modified version [of flour] that contains larger amounts of fodder would cost around $3,” he says. “People tend to buy the cheapest [option], of course.”
Residents are also finding substitutes for rice, which according to the WFP, cost around 3,915 SYP ($7.60) per kilogram in November – less than in October but still 174 percent higher than six months ago. Osos said the price of rice dropped to 2,600 SYP ($5) in December.
Mohamad says that he sells plastic from the street to buy corn as an alternative.
“We replaced rice with corn. One piece of corn costs $1 or even less, so I buy six or seven pieces for my family, which is sometimes more than enough.”
“I also try to buy some fodder so that my mom can make her own bread,” he adds.
Even with these alternatives, most Eastern Ghouta residents still have limited access to cooking fuel. Consequently, most families rely on melted plastic, which costs SYP 3,500 ($6.80) a liter – 10 times the national average price of diesel, according to the WFP.
With limited access to fuel, residents also sought out alternative heat sources during winter. Najla, 34, said that some people collect wood from the rubble, often from broken doors, couches or beds.
“We used to count on either traditional heating or heaters. Today, all we can count on is the amount of wood that one can pick,” she says. “It’s like being back in the 18th or 19th century.”
Najla says that for the children, collecting wood has become a game – “some sort of competition.”
“I’m sure that soon enough the competition will become very real since the stock of wood will run out,” she adds, explaining that burning wood has become a main source of heating for most residents.
Despite more than four years of siege, Youssef, a 26-year-old media activist living in Eastern Ghouta, still hopes that the situation will one day improve.
“I believe that we did everything that we were supposed to do; now we just need to wait for the day in which the siege will be broken,” he says.
“I am positive that better days are coming for us.”