x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrians struggle to find festive mood this Ramadan

In one rebel-held city, residents have resorted to begging for crumbs at a local soup kitchen, while in a refugee camp on the Jordanian border, Syrians hounded by the desert heat and dust break their fast separated from relatives back home.

A drummer rouses residents to have their pre-dawn suhoor meal before fasting as part of Ramadan in a rebel held town, north east of Damascus.
A drummer rouses residents to have their pre-dawn suhoor meal before fasting as part of Ramadan in a rebel held town, north east of Damascus.

DAMASCUS // As the holy month of Ramadan began, many Syrians who observe the dawn-to-dusk fast that is broken with lavish family meals are struggling to find the usually festive mood and holiday warmth as the country's bloody conflict rages for a third year.

In one rebel-held city, residents have resorted to begging for crumbs at a local soup kitchen, while in a refugee camp on the Jordanian border, Syrians hounded by the desert heat and dust break their fast separated from relatives back home.

Reflecting the deprivation brought on by the war, the UN food agency said that 7 million people were now reliant on food aid simply to eat. The fighting that has destroyed much of the country, combined with prices that have soared in recent months, have left many Syrians struggling to get by.

"People come by the kitchen just begging for scraps, it tears the heart," said an activist in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Maarat Al Numan.

He said activists were using a communal kitchen to distribute a simple Ramadan evening meal of rice, vegetable stew and soup to some 400 of the city's neediest families. He identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Anas, fearing for his safety.

In the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, many of the 120,000 Syrians that live in the sprawling tent city home were homesick and miserable.

"Carrying out the Ramadan fast in this refugee camp is extremely difficult in every way imaginable," said Abu Qusai, a 32-year-old construction worker from the southern province of Daraa, where the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began in March 2011. "It is as dry as a bone and the dust is kicking up ... we're thirsty, dirty and very uncomfortable. We're fed up."

The hardships in Syria, where the civil war is now in its third year, have eroded much of the Ramadan joy.

Even those considered lucky enough to have stayed in their homes found themselves cutting back on traditional Ramadan delights like sweets and meats as they awoke to their fragile currency falling once again, this time to 270 pounds to the US dollar.

It was likely to set off another rise in food prices that residents say has already increased five-fold.

Still, residents in Damascus said the mood was better than last year, when rebels tried to overrun the capital. In the past few months, the military has gone on the offensive and has succeeded in clearing rebels from many areas on the edge of the capital as well as in the country's centre . Encouraged, many Syrians abroad returned to visit relatives this Ramadan.

Syria's conflict began as an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad's regime. It descended into a civil war that has killed more than 93,000 people, displaced more than 5 million and turned over 1.5 million into refugees, according to UN figures.

On Wednesday, the World Food Programme said it needed Dh99m every month to deal with the growing ranks of Syrians made hungry because of the war and refugees crisis abroad.

If the organisation did not provide for them, "they simply will not eat," said Muhannad Hadi, WFP's emergency coordinator in Syria, speaking at a new conference in New York.

The food crisis is partly caused by the rising price of fuel, a lack of imports and farmers abandoning their fields because it's unsafe to work.

The Syrian decline in the value of the Syrian currency is likely to further push up prices.

It made an average teacher's salary equivalent to some Dh257, a resident explained.

"Yesterday, I bought 2 kilograms of potatoes, one kilogram of beans and two kilograms of tomatoes with 1,000 pounds," said Qassem Al Zamel, a 37-year-old employee, ticking off once-cheap produce. "I stopped buying meat."

Supermarket owner Adib Mardini, 62, said he was changing food prices by the hour on some days but there were few shoppers.

"People have run out of money," he said.