Syrian city’s survivors describe three years of siege under the Islamic State


PHOTO/Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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