It is 5am on a January morning. It is freezing cold – the temperature is -3ºC, and the city lies in darkness. People are about to wake up and start their day.
This could be a normal scene in any city at this time of the year, but in Damascus, there is more to the picture. There is no fuel for heating, nor power for electricity. Tiny details are making people’s lives a misery. One Damascene has quipped, “We are in hell – why is it so cold?”
The Syrian war is winding down, and the country is living through the same pandemic as everywhere else. But after a decade of fighting and oppression, the levels of poverty are so deep that not many people feel that anything is changing.
The city’s residents have become accustomed to total darkness when the sun sets. The shortage of fuel adds to the burden of merely surviving in today’s Syria, where nearly 90 per cent of the population are impoverished.
The cost of living for ordinary Syrians has risen so high that an average salary can hardly buy an ordinary family a week’s worth of food. Public employees’ average income dropped to under 100,000 Syrian pounds ($30) a month – a tenth of what it was a decade ago. The pound’s value dropped drastically to the dollar. Basic commodities like sugar, tea or dairy products have now become luxuries that millions cannot afford.
Ten years since the call for change and freedom started in Syria, there is neither bread nor freedom. For many, there is not even a light at the end of this tunnel.
The violence, much of it perpetrated by government forces, has pushed more than 6 million to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and around the world, and left nearly 9 million internally displaced. Those who endured the drastic situation during the war years were waiting for bombing and violence to end in hope of economic recovery, which the government repeatedly promised. Instead, queues for passports are longer today than ever before. Many of the youth, especially, are desperate to leave.
While some of the refugees have tried to get to Europe through Belarus, paying thousands of dollars to get their visas in Damascus, many entrepreneurs and industrialists have closed their businesses and moved to Egypt, which opened its doors last summer to those who can add to the country’s production, or Gulf countries that have eased their visa requirements. The cost of getting to these places can mount to $3,000 per person, but people find the cost to be worth it for a chance to leave their misery behind.
In recent months, the government has established new policies to extract more money from individuals. Taxes on establishing businesses, revenues, selling and buying properties have skyrocketed. The system allows tax authorities and security services to trace any transaction and make sure to keep all money inside Syria. No dealings with foreign currency are allowed, and there is a crackdown on currency exchange operators and businessmen caught dealing with dollars. Even many loyalist who defended President Bashar Al Assad’s policies over the past 10 years have begun to feel that their support for the regime is leaving them out-of-pocket.
Fear of security apparatus is still a major concern for those who are still living in government-controlled areas. Detentions, arrests and disappearances are still ongoing. Most of the times there are no formal justifications – reasons could include the usual spying reports that get someone to detention centres or, these days, “failure”, as the security apparatus see it, to pay taxes. But the line between who is and isn’t paying taxes owed is flexible, depending on who is paying what.
Covid-19, on the other hand, does not have many people afraid. Although lockdowns and some restrictions have worsened the economy, the government has not applied rules strictly, or provided much in the way of protection to people. There are no clear records of number of infected or dead cases, and consequently, precautions like mask-wearing are not taken seriously everywhere. Money used to buy a mask could be spent on bread.
Most tragically of all, this is all happening at a time the world’s agenda has shifted away from Syria. Covid-19, as well as events in Yemen, Afghanistan and now Ukraine have taken turns on front pages, but Syria is not on there much these days. The fatigue and shortage in humanitarian aid have convinced many countries that the way forward involves some form of reconciliation or a cold peace with Mr Al Assad, in spite of the violations and crimes ordered and conducted by his regime. Russia, Mr Al Assad’s ally, hopes that this may get the money needed to rebuild the country to flow. That’s what Mr Al Assad is betting on, too.
But most Syrians inside the country are not counting on help or aid to come soon. There is a pervasive sense that they are truly alone. If there is any light to be found in their darkness, it comes from the solidarity that people show to one another – shared loaves of bread, or taps on the shoulder to ease the pain. This winter, there is little else.