For four years, Syrians have been forced to celebrate Ramadan – the holy month for Muslims – against the grim backdrop of civil war. As locals suffer from severe shortages of food and medicine, the besieged community of al-Waer, located in Homs, is no exception.
Al-Waer was once home to more than 700,000 people, but most have fled as daily life grows increasingly difficult due to the fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and anti-Assad rebel groups, many of whom also fight each other. A mere 80,000 people have remained, according to local activists, who explained that a brutal siege imposed on the area in 2012 by the regime motivated most of them to seek refuge elsewhere.
Like cities, towns and villages across Syria, al-Waer is enduring a humanitarian crisis as shortages plague locals and the death toll rises. More than half of all bakeries in Syria have closed since the uprising began in 2011, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, adding: “Bread prices [have increased] by 300 percent on average and up 1,000 percent in the hardest hit areas.”
At the beginning of 2015, negotiations with the regime were fruitless, and fighting has since continued unabated. Ramadan festivities include celebrations with relatives and friends and large evening feasts to break the daytime fast undertaken by observant Muslims. In al-Waer, however, the siege has left many people unable to put food on the table, according to 24-year-old activist Muhannad al-Mahmoud.
“It is very difficult to provide vegetables and meat to the neighborhood, and it’s getting more impossible by the day,” al-Mahmoud told Syria Deeply. “Syrian government cars were allowed to bring in food and sell it for a while. That was a little while before Ramadan started. Now the roads have been closed for about a week, however.”
“People have been forced to use canned food because they are included in the [aid packages of] food baskets distributed to locals,” he said. “Despite that, these items are also scarce.”
Local civilians – among them doctors, lawyers and teachers – formed a coalition to advocate on al-Waer’s behalf and campaign for an end to the siege. The regime responded by demanding that locals evict all armed opposition groups from the area, a task that they are either unable or unwilling to do.
With traditional Ramadan treats like cranberries and dates unavailable, some locals say they have become desperate and tried cooking insects and plants that they hadn’t consumed before.
Al-Mahmoud says many of al-Waer’s residents anticipated that the food supply would be cut off by the regime. “They already feared that would happen, so they started cultivating vegetables, like cabbage and lettuce,” he explained. “Some other vegetables didn’t grow well here – squash, potatoes, tomatoes.”
The siege doesn’t just limit the food that comes into al-Waer; it also regulates who can and cannot leave the area. Civilians are only allowed to cross the regime’s checkpoints in certain cases: if they have been pardoned by the regime after signing loyalty statements; if they are government employees or students with no known record of supporting the uprising; or if local businessmen are authorized to engage in commerce with the regime.
The strict regulation of movement and the restrictions on food supplies have resulted in inflated prices, says al-Mahmoud. “Some prices have doubled,” he said, adding that charities and humanitarian groups do not have the means to provide enough for everyone.
While locals who are able to move back and forth from al-Waer and other parts of Syria are only able to bring small quantities of food with them, other items have been banned altogether. “Salt is completely banned from entering the area by the regime, as they believe large amounts of salt could be used as an ingredient in making bombs,” he noted.
Ramadan ritual foods like special cakes, tamar hindi (a traditional drink) and licorice were formerly affordable for everyone, rich and poor alike. Their prices have doubled and even tripled in some cases, however, leaving them inaccessible for many people who live in the besieged area.
Humanitarian groups such as the Red Crescent and the International Committee for the Red Cross have distributed donations and aid packages to civilians in al-Waer, but the scale of shortages still renders most residents in need.
Amina, a 36-year-old activist who works to provide psychological support to locals, says that only a few families have received financial support. “There are some donors outside Syria who donate money to needy families,” she told Syria Deeply, “but the number of families who actually receive this aid are very few. No more than 20 out of 15,000 families.”
Many Muslims are now preparing themselves for Eid al-Fitr – the final night of celebration that marks the end of Ramadan – later this week. Yet, with a declining security situation and no end to the siege in sight, Amina says the holiday will be bleak in Homs. “There won’t be much holiday preparations here or surprises for children because this siege is suffocating us.”