Over the course of 2017, much of Deir ez-Zour Province in eastern Syria has been cleared of ISIS’ threat, leaving the militant group confined to a few isolated pockets along the peripheries of the province. However, the region is still grappling with devastation, displacement, sporadic skirmishes and political tension. In such an environment, one would think that the provision of internet to villages in Deir ez-Zour is something of a skewed priority. However, the establishment of an internet centre in the village of Koua al-A’amo shows that internet is a necessity for many locals who lack other effective means of communication.
The internet centre in Koua al-A’amo was opened recently after being shut for some five years due to the conflict raging across the province. Much of the province, including the provincial capital of Deir ez-Zour City, was affected in the same manner, leaving the region something of a black-box even as the rest of the country remained connected to the world even amidst conflict. Since the opening of the centre, it has become something of a communal hub not just for the village, but for many other neighbouring villages. People travel as far as 30 kilometres daily to connect to the rest of the world.
The need for internet is no trivial matter either. Many of the villagers here have relatives and families that have been displaced across the country and the world. The internet offers them an ability to communicate with their loved ones directly, giving them the opportunity to get news or reassurance after years of being disconnected. For others, the internet offers the only reliable means to reach suppliers of products required for the revival of economic, industrial and agricultural activities.
To an outsider, the sight of villagers in traditional clothing using modern smartphones might be a strange sight, a juxtaposition that was used by some xenophobic groups to justify the notion that displaced Syrians in Europe and around the world were not as destitute as they appeared. Such a skewed view, however, belies a different truth. Since restrictions on internet use in Syria were lifted in the 2000s, internet penetration across the country skyrocketed. Easy internet access often compensated for the lacklustre infrastructure across the country before the war and widespread destruction thereafter. This is a pattern that has been witnessed in many other countries with similar development patterns who often skipped investment in expensive, restrictive and increasingly obsolete landline infrastructure for mobile phones and internet that are now available cheaply even in conflict zones.
Far from a trivial luxury, internet access offers these isolated villages in Deir ez-Zour an opportunity to contact loved ones and resume economic activity after years of displacement.