‘We live just to sustain ourselves:’ On war and water shortages in Damascus

The hallway chatter has changed in the past several years at the Damascus elementary school where Umm Suheib teaches.

“The only talk I hear nowadays is about destruction and this horrible situation we’re suffering,” the 45-year-old mother of three tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

Electricity cuts, soaring food prices and water shortages in the Syrian capital due to clashes around the spring in nearby Wadi Barada have left the city’s five million residents with few options to lead a normal life.

More than 80 percent of Syrians nationwide live below the poverty line, according to the most recent information, published in a 2016 UN report. Life expectancy has plummeted by 20 years, from 75 years in 2010, just before the conflict began, to 55 years in 2014, according to a 2015 report by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR), a Damascus thinktank.

“Life here in Damascus isn’t how it was before the war,” says Abu Juwwad, a 41-year-old father of three who works as a public sector employee. “Now, we live just to sustain ourselves and meet our daily needs to stay alive.”

“When I want to go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables, I always wait until after 4 pm because that’s when the prices are lower,” says Umm Suheib.

“This is life for most people in Damascus. Even a loaf of bread is hard to come by.”

Um Suheib, from Damascus, 45 years old, elementary school teacher, married with three children.

Q: Almost six years have passed since the Syrian revolution began. Since then, life has changed drastically across the country. What has changed in your own daily life these past several years?

We live in isolation from the world around us, and we’ve been forced to resurrect old ways of life that disappeared long ago.

Though we have adjusted to life without electricity, years of war have made life difficult for people in Damascus.

When I go to work at the school, the only talk I hear in the hallways nowadays is about destruction and this horrible situation we’re suffering in.

The cost of living in Damascus has risen greatly, including for basic necessities. When I want to go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables, I always wait until after 4 pm because that’s when the prices are lower. This is life for most people in Damascus. Even a loaf of bread is hard to come by.

Two weeks ago, I ran out of cooking gas. Whenever I go to exchange my old gas cylinder for a new one, I’m told there’s no gas. The priority goes to soldiers manning the checkpoints and their families. The people selling the gas cylinders will ask a price of SP5,000 ($23), while asking the soldiers SP3,500 ($16). They’ll only give me a gas cylinder if I pay a bribe of SP500 ($2), which raises the total price to SP5,500 ($25).

Diesel is in such short supply that we’ve started lighting our stoves with paper, cardboard and even our old shoes.

Transportation is also a mess. If you want to go anywhere, the best way is walking. Other forms of transportation are costly due to the widespread checkpoints and inspection from the security forces there, and we’re afraid that we or our children will be detained.

Clothing is very expensive, so we’ve started recycling all of our clothes. We don’t get rid of any pieces, because we know we’ll need them for something else.

Finally, the water crisis is a huge burden for us, as there is no life without water. We make sure not to waste anything, and to savor every last drop. There is no gas for cooking and there is no water for washing, so we depend on water tankers sent by the government. We stand in long lines to receive water. Even then, most of the water is gone before we reach our turn, so we’ve started buying bottled water, which cost SP100 ($0.50) before the crisis. Now the price has reached SP250 ($1).

Q: As a teacher, how have you seen your students’ lives change since the beginning of the war? Are there any students who stand out to you?

My students’ psychological health is declining. The sounds of the warplanes and airstrikes around Damascus, the spread of security forces carrying guns around the city streets—it’s changed their ways of thinking.

There was one boy in third grade who left an impression on me when I asked the students what they wanted to be when they grow up. His response: ‘when I grow up, I want to kill the Islamic State, because they destroyed my country.’

Q: How are you and others around you coping with your lives, knowing necessities like water and electricity are often out of reach?

We remember the past—when we were carefree—with sorrow.

When I think about what is happening to Syria, I cry. We used to live a calm, normal life. Nowadays you can’t find a single family without a member who has died or fled the country. Even our social ties and relationships have changed completely, because everyone is preoccupied with securing their basic daily necessities.

Abu Juwwad, 41 years old, married with three children, is a public-sector employee.

Q: How are you coping with life, now that necessities such as water and electricity are hard to come by?

Life has become very difficult, and everything is hard to come by due to the water and electricity shortages. The security checkpoints, high prices for essential items, and total lack of fuel for heat also make life hard. The recent water shortage has made securing water seem impossible.

I’m unhappy with my life, but I have a family for whom I’m the sole breadwinner. It’s my duty to take care of them and make sure they have what they need, though sometimes I fail in that regard.

Life here in Damascus isn’t how it was before the war. Now, we live just to sustain ourselves and meet our daily needs to stay alive. I earn only SP20,000 ($93). This isn’t enough for anything, so many types of food have disappeared from my family’s plates.

We began to feel the consequences of the revolution here in Damascus a year after it began. The government cut off our electricity, and now after several years we are still living in darkness. Now, the recent water shortage has only made our troubles worse—my children haven’t taken a bath in 15 days. In addition, we are afraid of forced conscription into the army. Nothing is easy about life in Damascus.

We are clinging to the hope that the situation will improve and the war will end, and that Syria can return to how it used to be—safe, with everything you need for daily life, available in a short amount of time.

Hope for the end of the war is what keeps us going in the face of all our troubles.

Q: Have you considered leaving Damascus to go to another country, or to areas under opposition control? As a civilian, what can you do to improve your current situation?  

Though many Syrians have left the country, it is still a precious place despite the war. That being said, I feel like I’m living in one of the camps that don’t have basic necessities.

There’s nothing I can do to make this new situation any better.

Image: AP/Bilal Hussein

Article: Syria Direct