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Surviving in a torn country: A day in the lives of four Syrians

The country has lost 15 percent of its population, now in exile, and more than 200,000 people have died

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Edward has always lived in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo and is still a merchant. Besides that, his life has totally changed. Before the summer of 2012, when the Syrian war reached the city, he used to work on the textile industry. Aleppo, located a 100 kilometers south from the Turkish border, was back then the most populated city in the country and its economic center.

“The city was a major industrial and commercial trading, but for the last two and a half years we are living in a war-economy environment.” Edward stopped textile production and now trades with generators, truck batteries and LED lights. “The necessities of people have changed, you can find now strange things that you wouldn’t find before: petrol, fuel, canisters being sold on the black market.”

Edward is in his mid-thirties and lives on the north-western suburbs, an area controlled by the regime. Before the war started, he used to go to the old souk in the city center, the focal point of the trade in Aleppo. The car ride from his house lasted 15 minutes.

This area became in 2012 the frontline that divides the city in two halves. As the last open crossing point was closed a year ago, every citizen that wants to reach the other side must engage in a long and extremely dangerous journey of more than 700 kilometers through the countryside.

This is why Edward feels that “Aleppo is like Berlin before but with an active front.”

The consequences of the ongoing conflict have affected all inhabitants in Aleppo. There are regular power shortages and they have to rely on expensive fuel to run the generators which provide them with electricity. But in times of high demand, the fuel disappear from the market.

“This winter was very cold and people had to stay at home and cover themselves with coats and blankets. Even if you had the money, it was impossible to find fuel.” Summer does not bring much relief. Last one was very dry, and water in areas under regime control was cut off for “five or six weeks, so we had to rely on wells.”

Widespread poverty

Four years after the first massive demonstrations, Syria is a torn country. The foundations of its economy have been destroyed. A U.N.-backed report published last Tuesday states that 80 percent of Syrians inside the country are now poor, unemployment surged from 15 percent in 2011 to 58 percent by the end of last year and life expectancy at birth, who was 75.9 years in 2010, is now down to 55.7.

The country has lost 15 percent of its population, now in exile, and more than 200,000 people have died. Out of the 17.65 million that remain alive inside the country, nearly 40 percent are displaced.

The coastal Mediterranean city of Latakia is hosting many of them. “The city is overcrowded from Syrians displaced from other areas under fire, causing high unemployment,” explains Ahmad, a 40 year-old engineer from Latakia who used to work in a government company. Latakia avoided major fighting but the population suffers from what they call a “financial disaster.”

Reem is a 35 year-old teacher in a state school. Her salary is still the same than before, 30,000 Syrian pounds, but what used to be 600 dollars per month is now 125 dollars. The Syrian pound has lost 80 percent of its value since the beginning of the war and the cost of life is much higher. “Prices have gone crazy! We have nearly nothing to do, but we must endure,” she said.

Schools and other state institutions still operates in regime-held areas, but at a lower level. The government pays the fuel to generate enough power to run hospitals, universities or governmental buildings. “Here in Aleppo public institutions still open and employees receive their salary, but they have nothing to do,” said Edward.

In rebel areas the situation is the worst. Karim is an activist from Damascus in his mid-twenties. He lives near the city center, but knows many people in the eastern suburbs, under the control of opposition groups. “Prices here have increase by four or five times, but over there up to ten times, and they suffer from constant shelling from the regime.” Video footage from Ghouta, a suburb under the control of the rebels, that can be found in YouTube shows the apocalyptic level of destruction.

This situation has pushed many people to seek refuge in central Damascus, which has doubled its population. Rents have “multiplied by four” in the capital and Karim has seen up to four families sharing one house.

A war with no end in sight

The government controls now a core that stretches from Damascus to the coast. Opposition groups hold a significant area in the north between Aleppo and the Turkish border, some suburbs in East Damascus, and territories in the southwest. ISIS controls a long area in the East and Kurdish groups control some parts on the north.

The regime, with the vital help of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese militia Hezbollah and paramilitary groups, has recovered control of most of the core and is looking to expand it to the borders.

“I don’t see a major strategic shift in the foreseeable future, but gains in specific areas” said Michael Young, opinions editor for the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star. “Even before controlling the borders, you want to control the supply lines. If you can basically limit the passage of supplies to the rebels, then you are in a better position to weaken them in these areas”.

By now, Young doesn’t see any outcome as the war wages on “in a very powerful military logic… I don’t think that there will be any breakthrough through dialogue, I don’t really see any realistic political solution.”

To the east of this core that the regime is looking to consolidate and expand lies Raqqa. The fiercest fighting there stopped at the beginning of 2013, when opposition fighters expelled the Syrian army. Raqqa is the only capital of a province that the regime has fully lost control of. But after some months under the governance of opposition groups such Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS overran the city and converted it on the laboratory of the “caliphate” they proclaimed last July.

Fauzi still lives there, in contrast to many of his friend who left when ISIS took power. He has stayed “to report what was happening.”

“The situation is chaotic,” he said on a chat. The Internet connection is so bad that he cannot speak by Skype. “Public services are almost absent, except for few hospitals, and their conditions are miserable.” NGOs helped providing basic services when opposition groups governed the city, but the presence of ISIS drove them out.

“Communications and transport are organized by the people and ISIS has nothing to do”. The radical militants, who executes people openly in the streets, provide basic services such as electricity and street-sweeping. For each service, they collect a 9 dollar tax from each business.

No more school

In Raqqa, all schools are closed. The U.N.-backed report said that since last year, half of Syria’s children are no longer attending school.

“Life under ISIS is strict, but there is still a margin because they can’t monitor everyone.” Fauzi smokes in his house despite being banned by ISIS and does not “pray or go to the mosque and other things, but I have to make sure they do not know.” He said there are many foreigners in Raqqa, but their number is decreasing as they are moving to Aleppo province.

The combats have no end in sight. Four years after the massive demonstrations that swept the country, Syrians are skeptical to an end of the conflict. They all suffer the war on a way or another despite living in different areas. All of them sound tired and are just looking to return to a life without fighting.

“I don’t see any ideal outcome who will satisfy all people” said Edward Dark, “but by the end of the day, the most important [priority] is to stop the killing.”