- - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

AMMAN, Jordan — Damascus resident Goud Abdulsalam telephones her family in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria every day, but the call usually doesn’t go through. Her family rarely has electricity, much less food or other necessities.

“Every day, my father goes out foraging for food in the markets,” Ms. Abdulsalam said. “He’s looking for anything, anything at all.”

The plight of the residents of Deir Ezzor illustrates how many Syrians are suffering more than ever five years after the start of the Syrian civil war. That’s especially true in cities parceled out between the Syrian government and Islamic State.

The Islamic State attacked Deir Ezzor two years ago. The jihadi group failed to take it, but Islamic State fighters surrounded and have laid siege to it ever since. Today, around a sixth of the approximately 100,000 of Deir Ezzor’s residents — or a third of its former population — now live under the militants. The rest are ruled by regime troops who have been fighting to keep the terrorists out.

“They are caught in a vise,” said Ms. Abdulsalam, whose family lives in the besieged government-controlled zone.

One bakery supplies bread for the city, say residents. When people manage to obtain a loaf, they dry it out in the sun to preserve it. Later, when food is scarcer, they soak it in water to make it edible again. When sugar ran out in January 2015, they turned to bags of powdered juice to sweeten their tea. There has been no gas for cooking in two years.

Islamic State fighters call the city “the welfare district,” and some city residents even say life is better under the jihadis.

“We’re in a better situation here than those who live in the regime districts,” said a Deir Ezzor resident who only would disclose her name as Jouman, 28, who lives in the area controlled by Islamic State. “We can grow our own crops like wheat, corn, vegetables and fruits. There it’s just a city with walls and buildings.”

She was employed as a first aid worker until the Islamic State took over the countryside outside the city two years ago.

“I started to cover my face six months before they took control,” said Jouman, who says she didn’t want to draw attention to herself or be forced to cover her face.

She was most concerned about the high price of agricultural fertilizer, water shortages and the steady escape of her neighbors leaving for Turkey and Europe. “But we cannot stop growing our food, otherwise we’ll starve like people in the regime areas,” she said.

Because the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, controls the roads around Deir Ezzor, travel in and out of the city only occurs via the air. To fly out, however, one must bribe army officers and brokers for around $500, far more than the remaining residents can afford.

Food costs 10 times more than before the siege. Staples such as tea, rice and bread are now luxuries.

“Some stuff which could be smuggled or produced in the city are very limited and cannot cover more than 5 percent of the need,” Mohammed Kaddour al-Aynea, governor of the Deir-al-Zour province surrounding the city, told the Alfurat local newspaper recently. “But we facilitate its passage even if it’s highly priced, so it will keep circulating in the market.”

U.N. lifeline

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is one of the city’s few lifelines, sending 880 metric tons of food supplies through airdrops since the beginning of the year. Russia has also dropped food into the city. But activists say much of the food is split between regime fighters and the Syrian Red Crescent aid group, whose workers sometimes sell the food to line their pockets.

Still, World Food Program communication officer Marwa Awad said the program was working to ensure the total of 88 recent airdrops delivered rations to Syrian families at distribution centers inside the city.

“WFP also carries out through third-party monitoring, to the best extent possible, considering the ongoing conflict around Deir Ezzor city,” she said.

At the same time, stealing from neighbors or even strangers was once virtually unknown in Deir Ezzor. Now theft and other social ills, including prostitution, is common.

“Girls are now sleeping with men in the streets for a loaf of bread or with Syrian army soldiers to get food,” Ms. Abdulsalam said.

Food is not the only scarcity. Despite the nearby Euphrates River, a serious water shortage also threatens the residents.

Islamic State controls the water sanitation stations that had been purifying the city’s sewage before it reached the river. Now the militants aren’t providing fuel to keep the stations working, making the river undrinkable. A fuel convoy reached the treatment plants in early June, providing around 2,000 liters of fuel that kept the plants running for around 12 hours.

Now, when people dare to drink from the river, they risk exposure to hepatitis, tuberculosis and cholera. Belal Houej, a 2-year-old, died on Aug. 3 due to hepatitis from contaminated water.

Those who fall ill are left with limited medical care. Under the siege, hospitals are barely functioning and medicine is scarce. Though military hospitals on both sides are operating, they rarely treat civilians.

“Islamic State fighters can get medicine for free, but civilians need to pay for it at a very high price,” said Dr. Momtaz Hiza of the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, a Turkey-based NGO.

Dr. Hiza estimated there are only three doctors in the regime-controlled areas and less than 25 doctors serving the 500,000 residents living under Islamic State in the region. The last specialists, including surgeons, left the city for France two years ago. Those who suffer serious injuries from shelling and mortars face immediate amputations, said Dr. Hiza.

The dangers of practicing medicine in the middle of the Syrian war zone were on display again Monday.

The Associated Press reported that a pediatrics hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in a rebel-held northern Syrian province has been destroyed in a series of airstrikes over the weekend that killed 13 people, including four staff and five children.

The international medical charity, known by its French acronym, MSF, said that two of four airstrikes directly hit the hospital in Millis, in the northern province of Idlib, and put it out of service. Six other hospital staff members were wounded in the broad daylight airstrikes Saturday, the AP reported.

Still, residents of the Islamic State-controlled portion of the city are faring better than those in the besieged government-controlled zone. Residents say foreign jihadis and their families have taken over residential buildings in the al-Omar oil field, for example, one of Syria’s largest. The militants receive food from supply lines that run throughout eastern Syria and western Iraq.

“Honestly, people are wishing for the Islamic State to gain control of the city,” said Ms. Abdulsalam. “In Islamic State areas, food is thrown in the streets because it’s so cheap and available.”

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