Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Ramadan is no longer for us’

This year’s Ramadan in Syria, amid the ongoing war and terrorist acts by the regime, brings no joy, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

No more lavish gatherings. No more lights in the streets. No more trips to dessert stores or all-night outings at neighbourhood cafes. If you’re Syrian, this Ramadan, like the last four, brings only heavy memories and worry. Ramadan, the month of celebration that anchors the Muslim year, has become just another reminder of the ever-worsening deprivation.

Nearly 400,000 Syrians are believed to have lost their lives during the last four years of conflict. Another 100,000 are missing, and 750,000 have been maimed. Ten million people have fled their homes for cramped shelters in nearby towns or makeshift camps across the borders.

Short of money, living on the brink, the crisis growing out of proportion to what regional and international donors can handle, the Syrian people today are leading a miserable existence. Nearly 2.6 million Syrian children no longer attend school. More than half the country’s young people are without jobs, and three out of four live below the poverty line.

This is not just an economic crisis. It is a general crisis — in supplies, in security, in the utter absence of normality. Power is out across at least 80 per cent of the country. Most factories have shut down, and most farms have been abandoned.

The only people with money in Syria today are blackmarket racketeers, smugglers, arms dealers or those close to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, all people who know how to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Unable to finance its own militia, the regime is allowing its armed gangs, known locally as shabbiha, to rob the local population of cash.

Even the country’s mosques have not been spared. One out of every four has been severely damaged, and it is believed the regime has destroyed nearly 2,500 in various parts of the country, mostly by shelling them from the air. Many Syrians have given up going to mosques altogether.

About four million Syrians are now living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, with no hope of seeing their homes again in the near future.

LIFE IN THE CAMPS: Iyad Radi is from Nasib, a farming village near Daraa in southern Syria. He now lives in the Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. His happy memories of Ramadan only a few years ago contrast with the harsh realities of camp life today.

“We used to wait for Ramadan impatiently,” he says. “It was the most important month of the year. We used to gather every day with members of our extended family. My brothers and their children would arrange to meet at my father’s house for iftar, the sunset meal.

“The women would be cooking the food. The children would be playing around the house. The men would come home after work shortly before sunset, bringing along desserts of all kinds, things that we have forgotten now how they tasted. Iftar was followed by other gatherings, with relatives and neighbours meeting at home or in mosques.”

In the camp today, by contrast, “life is very difficult,” Radi adds. “We don’t even have the bare necessities. There is no work and no source of income. We are constantly struggling to put food on the table.” What makes the current hardship particularly disheartening is that going back to normal life doesn’t even seem to be an option.

“Even if we go back home, Ramadan will never be the same. We have lost two of my five brothers and three of their sons, all killed while fighting against the regime. My sister-in-law was crippled by shrapnel. The joy that was Ramadan is gone forever,” he concludes.

Lena is from Homs. A grandmother at 50, she cannot fight back the tears. She lost her husband, a barrel bomb destroyed her house and and killed two grandchildren, and two of her sons are missing.

“Ramadan is no longer for us,” Lena says. “It is not for those who are bleeding. It is not for those who live in abject poverty. If the lost come back, if the clock is turned back, only then can we rejoice.”

Nevertheless, despite the gloom, a hint of joy sometimes breaks in, interrupting the dreariness of camp life. Children run around, enjoying the opportunity to stay up late, a privilege that Ramadan confers on all, regardless of age and class. People still attend the tarawih, a special nightly prayer service exclusive to the holy month. Occasionally, the less indigent among the refugees throw a dinner party to lighten the mood.

In the Lebanese and Turkish camps the mood is similar, a blend of despair and acceptance as a newly impoverished nation dwells on its suffering and tries to take solace in the rituals of gentler times. Relief groups and charity organisations are trying to provide assistance to families in need.

The most popular form is food hampers containing supplies of oil, wheat, rice, and sugar. Activists often publicise these activities on social media, urging people to donate to their charity efforts.

But international officials are concerned that the crisis in Syria may have exceeded the capacity of the humanitarian agencies. Jonathan Campbell, World Food Programme (WFP) coordinator for Syria, warns that the funds for assisting Syrian refugees are “inadequate.”

The WFP needs $41 million to help the Syrian refugees in Jordan over the next three months, he says, but it only has $4 million. For this reason, the monthly allowance per refugee has been cut from $28 to $14, Campbell says.

TARGETING MOSQUES: In Ramadan, the regime tends to shell mosques with even more intensity than at other times of the year, some saying that it is trying to punish the population for keeping the insurgency alive.

The shelling usually gets worse during the tarawih prayers, when the mosques tend to attract larger congregations. This pattern of collective punishment started nearly four years ago, when protests used to be launched after prayers. Back then, at the beginning of the crisis, the regime wanted to prevent demonstrations from spilling out of mosques.

 Because Syria has nearly 9,000 mosques and each would need perhaps 50 policemen to disperse any protests, the regime was in a quandary: it would need half a million policemen to stop the protests, a number it could not possibly field. Instead, it decided to shell the mosques to keep people away.

Over time, this became a habit, and the regime has not abandoned this tactic. Even though the protests have ended, the conflict having morphed into a civil war, the shelling of mosques remains an entrenched tactic of the regime. Also, after iftar during Ramadan the regime routinely shells farmland near Damascus, keeping up the bombardment until suhur, the pre-dawn meal. According to activists, 95 per cent of the casualties in such bombardments, which the regime claims are directed against armed insurgents, are civilians.

After iftar, Damascus becomes a ghost city. The streets, usually crowded at this time of year, are abandoned. The markets are without customers, and even the mosques are less crowded than they used to be.

The mesahharati, local chanters who traditionally move around during Ramadan carrying a small drum to wake people up so they could have suhur, have practically disappeared. Their nostalgic, pre-dawn songs are no longer part of life in Syria. They are nowhere to be found. The banquets and all-night outings that used to make Ramadan a memorable month for all Syrians are now only a memory.

FOOD SHORTAGES: Before the conflict, people used to buy foodstuffs ahead of Ramadan to avoid the rush on the shops during the holy month. Today, few people have the money to buy more than the bare minimum in the first place, and most do not see the point of buying extra food. Many Syrians actually fear they won’t live long enough to justify stocking up on food.

Prices have also skyrocketed. Over the past four years, the cost of many goods has quadrupled. Inflation has soared, leaving the currency worth only a fifth of its previous value. Government employees now make between $50 and $100 a month, leading most to take on second jobs. Sweets and meat have become luxury items, even for formerly middle-class families.

Only the super-rich in Syria today, people with close ties to the regime or who sell scarce supplies at inflated prices, continue to live the good life. Samer Abdel-Hadi, who lives in the Yarmuk Refugee Camp near Damascus, says that the disparity in incomes in Syria has reached obscene proportions.

“I ask those with any sense left to quit posting images of their Ramadan banquets on Facebook. They are going to sleep with their stomachs full of good food while others, like us who live under siege in the camps, go hungry. We don’t get more than one loaf per day, and we have to eat rotten vegetables. Meat and sweets are things we haven’t seen for two years at least,” he says.

There is still an entire market in Damascus dedicated to oriental desserts, now priced out of the range of most of the population. Before the war, the shops were lavishly decorated during the holy month, but now merchants don’t bother. The decorations are gone, along with the charity banquets many organisations and wealthy people used to organise for the poor during Ramadan.

Syrian authorities, clamping down on public gatherings, have banned the banquets in the areas under their control. In areas outside the regime’s control, there is simply no money for such acts of generosity.

The regime has now lost control of nearly two thirds of Syria and more than half of its population. In the areas still under the regime’s control, including the capital and coastal areas, there is a semblance of normal economic activities. But in other areas where the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS) group are in charge, life is particularly austere. The regime is blocking delivery of relief supplies and discontinuing normal services, ensuring that the areas controlled by its adversaries have minimal access to food, fuel and medicine.

FOOD WITH A MESSAGE: Thousands of displaced people have fled to Damascus from surrounding areas, seeking a bit of the normality that the capital at least partially provides. Their plight has attracted the attention of charity groups, prompting them to come up with initiatives to ease their ordeal.

These groups are now offering food hampers to the needy in Ramadan, without differentiating between pro- and anti-government families. The charities solicit noncash donations. Aware of the charges of graft against government and opposition officials alike, the humanitarian groups are now refusing to take cash. Food and clothing items are welcome, as are any efforts volunteers are willing to make to prepare food or distribute the hampers.

The Ramadan food initiatives have come with a call for national reconciliation. One charity group asks, “Let us relearn to break bread together.” Another has said: “We are on the side of all Syrians, wherever they may be.”

Government critics and supporters, Muslims and Christians, and people from all walks of life have taken part in these campaigns, giving bread along with a prayer.

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