To gauge the ways the civil war has affected all of Syria, a look at seven cities on the fourth anniversary of the first uprising against the regime. A chronicle of death and life going on.
This week marked the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution, and no one is celebrating.
Syrians on all sides of the conflict have suffered beyond measure. Nothing is the same and no one has been spared. Almost every city and town has at one point or another felt the terror of explosions, gunfire and bloodshed. Far too 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.
Abu Ahmad, a 28-year-old lawyer in the city where the uprising started, recalls thriving business, education and health services in Daraa before the revolution. "Things have deteriorated over the past four years. Now there is unemployment, disease and poverty. The city is also now divided in two between areas controlled by the opposition and the regime.”
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 very modest, and 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.
The capital is facing a level of poverty that did not exist before the war. 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.
In “On the street, people seem to have adapted to the situation," says Omaima, a 31-year-old teacher. "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.”
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, 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, and rising food prices even as salaries have remained the same. As for the health sector, public and private hospitals are still working, but many doctors from the capital have left the country.
The country's largest 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,” says Najwa, a 49-year-old housewife.
Instead, the western side is rather 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. Still, 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. 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 western 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 last May, 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 overall poverty. More specifically, 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.
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 coastal 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,” notes Amjad, a 24-year-old college student.
Schools in Latakia are overcrowded, and the teachers work in two shifts to cover the large number of refugees. The people of Latakia complain about the increasing prices, the lack of fuel and 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 meters 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 did not 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 ISIS, the Islamic State, in Raqqa. This was a whole new stage for the people of Raqqa. The authorities forced women to cover even their faces with veils; they established Islamic centers; and they distributed posters with lists of bans on smoking, music and shaving beards. “When you have a beard and you dress in a ISIS style, your life gets much easier,” said Mezar Matar, a 30-year-old journalist from Raqqa.
ISIS forced members of some professions, such as medicine and teaching, to 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," reports Ahmad al-Khalil, a journalist from Qamishli.
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 had remained stable until the recent clashes between the Kurdish troops and ISIS.