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Against the Odds: Stories of Survival and Ingenuity

From underground hospitals to improvised compost to natural power sources, people in Syria’s war-torn neighborhoods have shown a willful and often imaginative resolve to survive against the odds.

Written by Mohammad Namous, Syrian Independent Media Group Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh in northern Syria on Dec. 10, 2012. AP/Muhammed Muheisen

ISTANBUL – In war, civilians do whatever they can to survive. Nowhere in the world is that more evident today than in Syria, a country in its sixth year of a brutal civil conflict.

There are heartbreaking stories of survival: People in the government-besieged areas around Damascus, for example, are eating grass to survive. Many have starved to death. In the winter, families have burned their furniture and anything else that will hold a flame to fend off the deadly cold.

But despite the day-to-day horrors, there are also inspiring stories of how Syrians have shown tremendous resilience and uncanny ingenuity in the face of overwhelming hardship.

The most inspirational are the accounts of doctors and nurses who have kept clinics up and running in the face of barrel bomb attacks and other horrors. Many clinics, for instance, have burrowed deep underground to stay hidden and protect themselves. Other networks of doctors operate in secret, frequently shifting locations out of fear they will be targeted by the next government airstrike.

Regular civilians too have shown ingenious creativity in the effort to keep basic services up and running.

Across the country, when internet service was cut off in the areas that rebelled against the Syrian regime, people turned to satellite internet access. When electricity services were cut off and electricity providers closed their doors and sent their employees home, people turned to small, gas-powered generators. When water was cut off, people dug wells.

Animal dung and trash are not discarded but are used to generate power and grow crops.

Some of the best stories of people using their wits to survive have to do with making fuel, which has become prohibitively expensive and can literally keep you alive in Syria.

A Syrian woman who fled her home cooks for her family outside her tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh on Dec. 11, 2012. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

A Syrian woman who fled her home cooks for her family outside her tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh on Dec. 11, 2012. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

In rural Idlib, for example, one man named Abu Omar described how, when he realized he could no longer find or afford to buy fuel to cook, he decided to try to make his own bio-gas from animal dung.

“I saw an experiment on TV and decided to try it at home,” he said.

Working outside his village as a safety precaution, Abu Omar placed a coating on a well, along with a filter, and filled it with animal dung collected across the village. Then he covered it and allowed nature to do the rest, collecting a naturally produced bio-gas – or fuel – after about 18 days.

Following five months of trial and error, his experiment was successful and he started to produce a viable fuel source – enough for his family and several neighbors.

He ran a pipe from the well to neighboring houses, and attached a pressure meter that controls the amount of gas flowing to each home.

“This method saves a lot of wood, which is what’s usually used to generate power and heat,” he said.

At a time when one gas cylinder costs upward of $100 – an entire monthly income for many families – the cost of supplying three households with the materials needed to generate the gas is just $300, without any additional costs, Abu Omar said.

The materials used in the process, such as water and waste, are recycled afterward and used as natural fertilizers – essential to maintain farming in the region.

In rural Aleppo, a metal-shop worker named Abu Mohammed, 43, developed a method to generate electricity from water by turning discarded metal scraps into water turbines.

The process took six months. Those who watched as he and his friends lashed together metal scraps, barrels of water and water pumps in experiment after experiment had little faith the project would work. But they were wrong.

“We were eventually able to connect around a hundred homes with electricity for seven hours a day,” he said. The production of one ampere of electricity costs around $5; the money goes toward cable repairs and other expenses.

“It all started because of the unbelievably high cost of power generators and fuels,” Abu Mohammed said. “We had to find other ways, and water was the only easily obtainable resource.”

Residents of the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta also turned to an abundant local resource to create the compost they needed to revive agriculture: rubble and trash.

A lack of fertilizers and constant bombardment in the area resulted in lots of neglected lands. To help farmers start growing more productively, the local council launched a campaign to extract compost from rubble and waste.

Omar al-Shami, a member of the local council, explained the process used to make the compost. “We collect the rubble and garbage in a designated area and leave it to decompose for a year or two,” he said.

“We then pick out plastic materials, glass and large stones and put the remainder in bags and distribute them among farmers.”

In an area where both income and good nutrition are hard to come by, the council’s compost production scheme provides a stable livelihood for those who make it – and has improved food production as well.

“The land is more fertile now and we are able to plant different kinds of vegetables,” said Abu Muhammad, a local farmer. “The crops have improved significantly.”

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