Ramadan brings little but misery for those trapped in Syria’s rubble

Although the war in several villages and towns of Ghouta has ended as has the siege, prices remain sky-high.
Sunday 13/05/2018
A man arranges sweets to be sold ahead of Ramadan in Douma, the principal town in Eastern Ghouta.                        (Reuters)
Tough times. A man arranges sweets to be sold ahead of Ramadan in Douma, the principal town in Eastern Ghouta. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Um Amin, a widow from Douma, the principal town in Eastern Ghouta, looks much older than her 63 years. Wrinkled, with a limp in her left leg, she recently emerged from six years of siege, having lost her husband and two of her brothers in the battles of the Damascus countryside.

She resides at a state-run shelter in Damascus, alone, waiting to return home. Both her children managed to get to Europe four years ago, escaping the war in their country on the now infamous death boats. The Arab Weekly met her at the gates of a charity organisation in Mezzeh, called Sayyed Quraysh, ahead of the start of Ramadan.

“I come here once a week to get a free box of canned food, which lasts me for one week. My children cannot send me money. They are making barely enough money to live in Germany,” Um Amin said.

One works at an Arabic restaurant and the other teaches Arabic courses online, she said, adding that she refused to join them before travel became too difficult.

“I was born here and I want to die here, in my home in Douma!” she said.

The Syrian woman and her family are among the millions affiliated neither with the government nor with the armed opposition, regular citizens whose life was torn apart by the spiralling Syrian civil war.

Harsh time

The holy month of Ramadan is a particularly harsh time for the former residents of Ghouta, who are spending it for the first time away from home. “Everything was so expensive during the siege” Um Amin noted, saying that a kilogram of sugar costs 7,000 Syrian pounds in Ghouta ($16); in Damascus, it sells for 300 pounds (less than $1).

Although the war in several villages and towns of Ghouta has ended as has the siege, prices remain sky-high, said Ghada al-Sheikh, a former schoolteacher in Arbin, also in Eastern Ghouta. She refused to leave, despite the heavy bombing of her hometown during February and March. “Commodities are still sold on the black market, with no regard to Ramadan,” she said.

“Smugglers, crooks and soldiers are in charge of everything that sells here and they have kept the prices of 2015-18. A bundle of bread still sells here at ten times the price in Damascus. In the capital, it costs 50-100 SP (Syrian pounds, $0.23-$0.46). In Arbin, it can reach up to 1,000 SP ($4.65).”

Sheikh added: “All the mosques are closed, either destroyed by the bombing or transformed into barracks. Where will people pray? Where will they attend the taraweeh?”

In nearby Damascus, mosques remain open during prayer time but are locked in-between to prevent religious classes from taking place or the homeless from spending the night.

Those who have stayed in Ghouta are destroying the Qurans printed with the emblem of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Army, which reigned in Douma from 2012-18. In previous years, they were found in abundance, distributed at mosques and in schools of Ghouta. Now possession of one of them is a capital offence. Hundreds have been burned in the pitch dark of night, to avoid being spotted by security services because throwing a Quran away, or tearing it apart, is not allowed in Islam.

As if prayer and Quranic reading challenges are not enough, residents also complain about economic issues, ranging from how to pay for meals to where to make money to rebuild homes.

“The state told us, back in 2015, that we would be exempted from all fees of reconstruction. They have not taken that back and say that they are going to charge us,” said Usman Mustapha, a carpenter from Kafarbatna, another destroyed village in Ghouta.

No fixed amount has yet been set, although owners of destroyed property fret, finding it impossible to rebuild their homes without financial assistance from the government — assistance that doesn’t seem to be coming because Syrian coffers are empty.

“Even those whose homes are unscratched are facing very difficult circumstances. They don’t have regular electricity, with blackouts that can last up to ten hours per day. Summer is coming and dusk is nearly at 8pm, making fasting in Ramadan painstakingly hard.” Mustapha said, adding another worry, on what to do with the children.

“Schools were closed this year and there is talk of opening them in the summer to compensate for the lost academic year. The cost of sending the children to school is high. Where are we going to find money to buy the books, notebooks and uniforms? I won’t be sending my child to school this year.

“To hell with it. I would rather he find a job to help the family make ends meet.”