‘I don’t know how we are still alive’: In Deir e-Zor city, regime districts survive on airdropped rations while surrounded by Islamic State

AMMAN: In the eastern Syrian provincial capital of Deir e-Zor, 100,000 civilians are “living like animals” without adequate food, services and safety as regime forces attempt to stave off Islamic State (IS) fighters who are surrounding them on all sides, three trapped residents told Syria Direct.

Residents of Deir e-Zor city, who have already lived under siege for years, say they are finding it even more difficult to secure food and feel any sense of safety. Six months ago, Islamic State (IS) fighters captured territory along a highway that linked the two regime-held pockets and effectively cut the encircled city in two.

IS encircled the northeastern city of Deir e-Zor, 100km west of the border with Iraq, in the summer of 2014. The lightening advance, just after the capture of Mosul, saw the group sweep up swathes of oil-rich territory in Syria’s eastern desert. 

Since the siege began, the UN’s World Food Programme, in conjunction with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have regularly airdropped food and aid to the city’s encircled residents. This is the only way to keep the residents alive, as IS completely surrounds the pockets.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) battalions stationed in the city’s western residential areas and eastern military airport regularly drive back IS attempts to breach the two regime-held sections of the city.

In January 2017, an IS offensive cut the N4 highway that connected the two halves of the northeastern provincial capital, Syria Direct reported at the time.

In the city’s west, government forces control several residential areas—two of them, al-Joura and al-Qasour, in their entirety—located near the banks of the Euphrates River. To the east, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers continue to hang onto the military airport on the outskirts of the city and two adjacent residential areas, Harabish and al-Rasafa.

The N4 road that linked the two enclaves is the target of both IS and regime sniper fire, while the large cemetery that runs alongside the road is the site of frequent SAA-IS battles. 

Syria Direct spoke with three civilians inside the besieged capital who explained that the challenges residents face depend on the half in which they live.

The western half, home to the vast majority of encircled civilians, live under the constant threat of an Islamic State advance and shelling of residential areas. In the eastern half, which is relatively calmer, residents are cut off from airdropped humanitarian assistance and municipal services that remain available in the western districts.

“I don’t know how we are still alive,” Ibrahim, a resident of the western al-Joura district, told Syria Direct on Monday. “My children and I are living through a tragedy.”

‘Our biggest nightmare’

In his home in al-Joura, Ibrahim and his children fill up bags to store water because it only comes once a week.

The government-run electrical grid has been offline for years and the city runs on generators to power its infrastructure.

Food and other essentials are regularly airdropped by Syrian and Russian planes and distributed by SARC. However, there is not enough to meet the needs of the western districts’ 93,000 residents, and what does land is not always intact.

“At this point, SARC is trying to reconstitute food commodities that had been partially damaged during previous airdrops…in order to meet at least some of the growing needs,” according to a January 28 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

Ibrahim, trapped in the west’s al-Joura district, said food often arrives from the air damaged or dirty.

“A kilo of dirty rice, gathered [off the ground] because the bag ripped during the airdrop, costs SP6,000 [$11],” he said.

The 42-year-old al-Joura resident tells Syria Direct that humanitarian assistance is regularly commandeered by military personnel and then sold to residents, a claim echoed by several pro-opposition websites.

“Don’t be surprised when I tell you that many are living off the grass that grows on the side of the road,” Ibrahim said.

Civilians, already struggling with the siege economy, must also cope with regular attacks by Islamic State fighters, positioned just a few kilometers away.

“There’s a possibility that at any given time [IS] will take control of the city,” Abu Yahyah, a second resident of al-Joura, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “This is the biggest nightmare in the minds of Deir e-Zor’s residents.”

 An undated photo of a World Food Programme humanitarian airdrop. Photo courtesy of UN News Centre.

On Monday, IS militants launched mortar shells into the encircled districts of al-Joura and al-Qasour, killing 15 people and injuring dozens more, state media agency SANA reported the following day.

Abu Yahyah was preparing food with his family to break their Ramadan fast when a mortar shell fell near his building.

“We began to hear the sound of people screaming, and we knew that civilians had been hit,” said the 37-year-old.

Despite poor municipal services, IS-SAA clashes and a lack of food, al-Joura resident Ibrahim says he is thankful that he is not isolated in Deir e-Zor’s eastern neighborhoods.

“We are living like animals, but, as we see it, this life is a peaceful paradise compared with what is happening in Harabish,” says Ibrahim.

‘We can’t leave’

Khadija climbs up to the roof of one of the buildings in the eastern district of Harabish, where she lives with her family, once a month. It is the only way she can find cell service to contact her parents because the cell tower that receives power is located in the western districts of Deir e-Zor city.

The 35-year-old only calls her parents once a month because on the roof she is an easy target for “sniper fire by the Islamic State or the SAA,” she told Syria Direct on Monday.

 Pro-government fighters in Deir e-Zor city. Photo courtesy of Deir al-Zour News.

The Islamic State’s January offensive cut off Khadija from her parents, who live in one of the western residential districts of Deir e-Zor controlled by regime forces.

“We can’t leave the district,” says Khadijah.

Khadija is one of an estimated 6,000 residents in the eastern neighborhoods. Though less then 4km away, they are cut off from the western half of provincial capital, where the majority of government institutions and airdrop locations are situated.

Bread is airlifted into the eastern enclave once a week, says Khadija, but it is so stale that residents must soak the loaves in liquid for them to be edible.

“People boil tree branches into a tea and [soak] the bread in order to cut it,” she tells Syria Direct.

This past April, pro-opposition news site Micro Syria reported the death of one Harabish resident due to malnutrition.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.