The city of oil, wheat, cotton and the magical Euphrates lost all meaning of life. Life is lost with everything that has been occurring, on a daily basis, in the most heated area in Syria, on both temperature and military levels. As-Safir headed to Deir ez-Zor in pursuit of gathering details on life in the State of Goodness [Wilayat al-Khair].
Traveling overland [normally] would take five hours from Damascus to Deir ez-Zor. There are other options, of course, such as flying through Qamishli, which would take three hours, or even taking a ride on the river from Raqqa. But wait a minute, the situation has changed now. The only possible option is to go through the desert on a trip that takes over 10 hours.
You will not be taking this road alone, though. Dozens of people travel there daily, under different circumstances, such as work or family visits. The trip will be one of a kind. You will listen to a number of instructions before getting on the bus. Women have to have veils with them and sit in the back. They should wear the veil along with black clothes to avoid angering the Islamic State (IS) checkpoints. The driver might take dirt roads in order to avoid them, which would be an additional reason for delay. The roads might even lead to Raqqa or Mayadeen and Bukamal. Everything is possible, such as getting lost or the bus breaking down on the way from Damascus to Homs, then Palmyra and finally reaching Deir ez-Zor.
The trip ends at the Panorama roundabout, at a Syrian army checkpoint, since part of the city is still under its control. However, the areas under the control of IS can only be reached by passing through Raqqa or Mayadeen, then cross the Euphrates river through al-Siyasa bridge.
Life against all odds
Many stories of the current events are being told inside the city of Deir ez-Zor. Everything has changed there. Destruction is spread throughout the main streets toward al-Rashidiya, al-Nahr street and al-Huweka. The [Deir ez-Zor] suspension bridge, one of the most important sites in the city, on which most citizens pass daily, has been struck and destroyed in the middle.
The old souk [market] is no better. Of course, one can get killed by simply walking through it. Other neighborhoods sheltered the displaced from the destroyed areas, which made them even more miserable than they were before, where the danger of being bombed is constant. In a nutshell, life in Deir ez-Zor can only be described as a miracle.
Control of Deir ez-Zor is divided between the Syrian government and IS. The first is controlling the neighborhoods of al-Joura, al-Kousour, al-Muwazafin and the military airport, while IS members spread throughout the rest of the neighborhoods and the entire countryside. But one way or another, the circumstances of living are similar in both areas. Electricity is only available for a few hours a day, if ever, in a city where the temperature could reach 50 degrees [122 Fahrenheit]. The water situation is a bit better, but the Euphrates’ level is significantly decreased due to drought and dams.
The landlines are working just fine but the mobile network and the Internet just work every now and then. Gas, however, is more than abundant and is distributed at a very cheap price.
Despite the difficulties of living, the people are coping with these circumstances. Hassan, a 33-year-old employee, says, “We are economizing our food habits. We prepare enough meals for a single day, since the fridges are no longer working and the heat quickly ruins the food supply. Even though some have power generators, the poor are unable to own generators and the oil price increases on a daily basis. There’s nothing more we can do. There is only one hospital in the city, on the entrance of al-Sham road, and most of the doctors have already left.”
Sami, 29, who works as a teacher, explained how the people are adapting to the current situation, and said, “Many of the shops have opened their doors, while state institutions are functioning normally. A couple of weeks ago, we took the high school exams, and we are now preparing for university. Whenever the electricity goes out, people leave their houses and use simple lights to move. The Friday trip to the river is still a weekly ritual.”
“We are condemned to stay no matter what. Going to Damascus is very expensive and life there is unbearable. I know many people who left [for Damascus] and ran out of their savings or were unable to find work and returned here.”
IS tries to earn the trust of the population
In the rest of the neighborhoods where IS is in control, the scene seems normal. This applies to the countryside, with the exception of the tension that rose a few days ago between the Shaitat tribe and the [residents of] neighboring villages. The Islamic State's dealing with the people has changed. It closed dozens of roads and started establishing barriers and carrying out arrests amid residents' concerns of mass executions.
As for the “revolution” activists, some declared their repentance and remained in the city under surveillance, while others preferred to depart, fearing arrest or execution. Some preferred to swear allegiance to IS and opt for militancy in dealing with their opponents.
A young man from the area, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “The early days of the Islamic State's control witnessed the public being content. The fact is that the organization’s control put an end to the chaos of weaponry in which the region sank as multiple battalions fought with IS. The groups that usually rely on stealing or smuggling oil were forced to either pledge allegiance and comply with the orders of the governor or just leave, as did the rest of the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, among other major factions that waged war on IS. This contentment, however, is plagued by concerns and tension over any act of betrayal or suppression against the residents similar to what is happening in neighboring Raqqa.”
“We are sick and tired of the multiplicity of authorities and the daily state of war and fighting. There are many families that have no place but these houses, and cannot move, in addition to the displaced people who are originally here,” another man said.
A nurse in his 20s pointed to something the IS commanders might seek to achieve in order to gain the people's trust. This endeavor would consist of controlling the chaos and distributing aid. However, all of this could turn into a vigorous war as soon as the residents react to this. A good example is what happened with the Shaitat tribe and in the city of Shehil. Add to this the organization’s closure of the Deir ez-Zor channel, which broadcasts news from the region, and the setting of new work conditions.
No one knows what lies in store for the people of the Euphrates, and for a city that has been marred by unlucky events for decades amid the absence of supporting development projects. Add to this the occurrence of successive crises of drought and the recent events that reshaped the map of the eastern region. Accepting the reality has become the only option in Deir ez-Zor. It is as if this city is destined to continuously witness tragedies and wars.