Twelve-year-old Mustafa grinned as he bit into an apple, munching away excitedly. Only a month ago, he sunk his teeth into a piece of fresh fruit for the first time in three years. Mustafa, along with his family, survived a siege.
Mustafa’s mother, Sara, her face gaunt like that of her teenage daughter, described how they made it. “We would have to buy tomato paste by the gram,” said Sara, whose family name The Intercept is withholding for security reasons. “Our daily food consisted of rice or lentils. Get meat, fruit, or vegetables out of your head, they didn’t exist. Forget the fridge, there was never any power to keep it running. Forget everything.” Pointing to Mustafa, she asked, “Look at him. Does he look like a normal 12-year-old? Look at the girls. Do they look healthy?”
All the children in Deir al-Zour appear small for their ages.
Mustafa looked like a child of eight or nine years old. All the children in Deir al-Zour appear small for their ages. Sara’s daughters had dark circles under their eyes, their skin tinged yellow, and their cheeks ever so slightly sunken in.
Since the end of 2014, the residents of the city of Deir al-Zour in Syria had been all but cut off from the outside, besieged by the Islamic State as it attempted to consolidate its power base across northern Syria and Iraq. Water, fuel, electricity, and channels for communication slowly disappeared. Basic food products like tea, sugar, meat, and fresh produce became unaffordable luxuries, held hostage by a handful looking to profit off the siege.
After months of intense battles, the Syrian army and its allies broke the Islamic State siege on Deir al-Zour in early September. It took another three days for Syrian forces to reach the main entrance of the city; the Islamic State had surrounded the nearby military post with thousands of landmines.
The city is the capital of a region of the same name. Deir al-Zour Governorate, too, was mostly freed from the Islamic State’s grip following months of heavy fighting by both the Syrian government and its allies on one side of the region and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on the other. Today, control of the province is split along the Euphrates River: The government and its allies control the territory south of the river, while the Syrian Democratic Forces and its allies control the territory north of the river.
Sections of the road to reach the city of Deir al-Zour still remained under Islamic State control for a few weeks after the siege ended. Traveling by air remained the only way to access the city. By mid-October, however, according to Syrian military officials, the road leading directly to Deir al-Zour was cleared of standing threats. Aid trucks, civilians, and, finally, journalists were finally able to travel by land to the city.
Deir al-Zour is a shell of what it used to be. Once a bustling city home to around 700,000 people, now the city’s roads are pockmarked by years of shelling; its buildings lie crumbling, caught between destruction and abandonment; and the city still wants for basic services, such as electricity and communication lines. Mobile phone reception is sporadic at best, and most houses are running full-time on generators or large battery packs. A World Bank report released in July 2017 estimated that Deir al-Zour province suffered the highest housing destruction as a result of the war.
Residents who stayed behind, approximately 100,000 by January 2017, as the blockade drew on endured a double siege: One siege by the Islamic State, which prevented people or supplies from entering or exiting; and the other inside city limits, perpetrated by those who saw in the misery an opportunity to turn a profit.
Today, they are war-weary, undernourished, and frustrated. While some neighborhoods are pushing to return to normal, there is an underlying concern that, just as the city had been overlooked during the siege, its residents will quickly be forgotten about as the cries of liberation and victory fade away.
At the outset of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Deir al-Zour was a hotbed of opposition activity, and was attacked by the Syrian army. By 2013, rebels from the Nusra Front and other groups held the city, jostling for control with other rebel factions and fighting off government offensives. By 2014, the Islamic State took over much of the surrounding area and laid siege to the city — until its defeat this fall.
The road to Deir al-Zour, a nine-hour drive from Damascus through a vast expanse of unfriendly desert, reveals how much still needs to be done before civilians can return to any sort of normalcy following the Syrian government’s recapturing of territory from both the Islamic State and the Syrian opposition. Palmyra, the last major town before Deir al-Zour that was recaptured from the Islamic State — for the second time — in March 2017, is still in ruins. Only a handful of civilians remain. Instead, pro-government militiamen — from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, to the Afghan Fatemiyoun group, to local Syrian forces — dot the streets, with each faction commandeering its own residence from what buildings still stand, while Russian troops guard the ancient ruins.
Most of the vehicles traveling beyond Palmyra have a military purpose. The Russians are here, along with Syrian regular forces and pro-government paramilitary groups. Pickup trucks with Syrian, Afghan, and Lebanese fighters pass by, their flags flapping in the wind. One particular checkpoint on the main thoroughfare connecting the province of Homs to northeastern Syria — the cities of Deir al-Zour, Al Mayadeen, and Abu Kamal — is manned by a Syrian soldier, a Russian soldier, and an Afghan fighter. At the entrance of the recently recaptured town of Sukhnah stands a massive billboard with the words “Death to America and Israel” plastered across it, with Fatemiyoun flags at its edges.
As the road approaches Deir al-Zour, the landscape is scattered with small clusters of flat, one-story houses, now abandoned and derelict. Just beyond the main Syrian army checkpoint, an arch with large pieces of its mosaic tile design missing welcomes visitors to Deir al-Zour. According to local residents and Syrian military, landmines still dot the vast expanse of desert stretching out around the city entrance, making it unsafe to travel by foot. After another Syrian army checkpoint, a large statue of a jug welcomes visitors, but no one stops here — Islamic State snipers still lurk in the distance.
As the city turns to residential blocks, Syrian army checkpoints dot the streets. Jeeps with young men in military fatigues — a mix of Syrian army and local pro-government forces — can be seen driving through the connecting neighborhoods. They are keeping close watch over what is left of Deir al-Zour; in the western outskirts of the city, entire neighborhoods are completely destroyed, the enormous scars of the Islamic State’s presence and the subsequent battles that forced them out.
Loud whispers of the “tujjar” — the Arabic word for traders or anyone who demands money in exchange for something, including services — float between shoppers in the souk, as residents, vegetable sellers, and even children talk of how they were, as one shopkeeper described it, “under siege on the outside and the inside.”
The tujjar tended to be locals, either from the city or the countryside, who capitalized on the Islamic State siege. They sold everything from bread, wheat, rice, bulgur, and canned food, to aid, diesel, wheat, oil, government passes, and spaces on planes or helicopters to be airlifted out. The tujjar hailed from many different backgrounds. Some were from local gangs who had been absorbed into the different branches of the National Defense Forces, a pro-government militia; others, like Hossam Qaterji, were high-powered businessmen who organized aid drops and allegedly negotiated trade deals over wheat with the Islamic State.
Once the sun set, gangs would often loot the neighborhoods and houses of those who had fled.
Sara described how the tujjar lined their pockets. “The aid drops we got were collected by the tujjar, divided into two, of which half was put into warehouses to expire” — in order to inflate prices — “and the other half would be sold at exorbitant prices to the residents in the souks,” she explained. They “are also responsible for our suffering.”
Once the sun set, gangs would often loot the neighborhoods and houses of those who had fled. According to one resident, his neighbor found his entire kitchen, including the fridge, for sale off the back of a pickup in a nearby city.
“Just watch now, the pickup trucks coming back from Al Mayadeen, full of goods looted from the homes there,” said Abu Mohammad, who asked his proper name not be used because of security risks. “These gangs did the same here, inside our city.”
“Everything was for sale in Deir al-Zour,” explained Mohammed Saleh Alftayeh, an expert on the Syrian military and politics, who is from Deir al-Zour. “Everyone had something that others needed.”
In order for a government employee to be able to leave the city, for instance, he would have to get official permission, which came at a price. Once the government employee left, he would have to pay his way through checkpoints on the outskirts of the city to allow him to travel by land or pay even more to be allowed to use helicopters or a cargo plane. And the fees increased as the siege went on.
In February 2015, the fee to get airlifted out was around 25,000 SYP (around $100 at the time) per person, according to a number of residents both inside and outside the city, including those who left via airlift. In the fall of 2015, when Islamic State forces crept too close to the airport, airlifts by cargo plane stopped entirely. With only smaller planes — and therefore fewer seats — making the flight out, prices skyrocketed. By October 2015, the fee had increased tenfold: A family of three would have to pay 700,000 SYP — and, even then, a waitlist remained, full of people waiting to escape.
Those who could not afford to be airlifted risked their lives by attempting to cross by land through Islamic State territory.
“I doubt it will be a focus for the government in terms of reconstruction,” said Alftayeh, the military and political analyst. He pointed to the government’s retaking of the war-torn city of Aleppo in December 2016. “It has been almost a year now for Aleppo, and there is no organized, government-led reconstruction,” Alftayeh said. “As long as there is no international funding, I doubt there will be serious reconstruction in Deir al-Zour, where the scale of destruction is huge.”
“It will be another 10 years before anything can get back to normal here.”
Residents are expected to come back to the city, yet two months after the siege was broken, only a slow trickle have returned. “There will be a flow back, partly because the section that was under the control of the government during the past years is in better condition that other parts, and it can accommodate significant numbers,” said Alftayeh, “and partly because the government wants internally displaced people to return to their original cities, Deir al-Zour included.”
In late September, the government issued a decree stating all public sector employees must return to their original workplaces within a month; in the case of Deir al-Zour, the deadline was extended to the end of the year.
Some humanitarian organizations are eager to see public sector workers return home, including to Deir al-Zour. “Public sector workers tend to fall into the poorest class bracket, and they are the ones who provide the basic services to any community for it to work properly again,” said one official working with an international organization across Syria, who asked for anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the media, “so we are keen to see them return.”
Those who stayed behind and weathered the siege in Deir al-Zour, however, are less optimistic about the future. Haifaa, another resident in Qusour who was forced to stay behind while her husband left to seek medical treatment for their child in Damascus, said, “It will be another 10 years before anything can get back to normal here.”