The Syrian war has killed 100,000. But what about those who are still alive?

In his final dispatch from Damascus, Patrick Cockburn describes how ordinary Syrians fight for survival

Damascus

Samir and Hassan in the Buzuriyah souk used to earn their living selling luxury sweets to visitors to the nearby 18th-century Azem Palace. Their shop in the covered market stays open, multicoloured tubs of sweets on display, but Samir says gloomily that “business is very bad and our customers are few”. The factories that make his sweets in the villages around Damascus are closed or cut off by fighting and he must pay for expensive imported ingredients in devalued Syrian pounds.

Customers in the souk are no happier than the shopkeepers. Ramadan starts this week and Umm Said, a housewife in her forties, has come with her two daughters to the market from her home in the al-Midan district of Damascus in the hope of finding cheap foodstuffs for special Ramadan dishes. “I am disappointed,” she says. “Prices here are just as high as in the small shops where I live and they will get even higher later in Ramadan.” The economic breakdown in Syria is exacerbated by the country being broken up geographically as government and rebels hold their own territory, making it unsafe to produce and transport goods. This is frustrating for Khalid, a neatly dressed elderly shop-owner in the souk who sells Syrian folk remedies made out of herbs, flowers and almost anything else.

Above his head at the shop entrance hang dried starfish, ibex horns, tortoise shells, dried frogs and other health-giving items. He complains that his main stock in trade is 25 different types of dried flowers and rare herbs which he can now only obtain with difficulty and at great expense.

He says that “women from the villages west of Aleppo and in Idlib used to go into the mountains and spend all day collecting a kilo of flowers. Now they are too scared to do that so there is no supply for me.”

One medicinal herb came from near Darayya, a southern suburb of Damascus that has been much fought over in the past two years. The few families that cultivated the herb have fled and nobody else has their expertise. Foreign imports of dried flowers and herbs from Egypt and Sudan, stored in sacks in front of Khalid’s shop, are very expensive because the importers want payment in dollars.

The Syrian pound used to be 47 to the dollar and is now about 200. But, despite the laments of the shopkeepers, the centuries-old Buzuriyah souk is full of bustling crowds because Syrians have seen their incomes plunge and prices in souks are cheaper than in shops elsewhere.

Parts of the economy have disintegrated or are badly hit. A study led by a former Syrian Planning Minister, Abdullah al-Dardari, on post-war reconstruction, estimates the total damage so far at $60-$80bn or a third of the pre-war economy.

Oil exports worth $8bn have stopped because the oilfields in the north-east are in the hands of the al-Qa’ida-related al-Nusra Front and because of US and EU sanctions on importing Syrian oil. Tourism, once worth $8bn a year, has vanished and Syria’s great monuments stand empty or are closed. Agriculture is crippled by war, which has hindered cultivation and raised the price of transport. One Damascene complains that tomatoes used to cost very little at this time of year “but now you pay the same for a kilo of tomatoes as you paid for 20 kilos three years ago. Fewer are produced and it is costly to get them here.”

Physical damage is difficult to assess but many factories in rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the site of so much of Syrian industry, have been destroyed or looted. Much of the plant on the outskirts of Damascus is located in contested districts.  A businessman who manufactures lighting equipment in a factory he owns in China says “my warehouses in Syria with $5m- worth of stock have all been destroyed. How stupid we Syrians are to let this happen!”

How do Syrians survive the burdens of civil war? The answer is that many of them do not. In a school in Homs, I met an 85-year-old man called Awad al-Izou who is a refugee from Baba Amr district whose house – “it had seven rooms” he recalls – in that former rebel-held bastion has been destroyed. “I had five sons, one of them martyred, two in prison [one in Damascus, the other in Homs], one disappeared and one living in a distant village.” He lives in a government-run refugee shelter in a school because “at least here I have a bed, food and electricity”.

Chance encounters with strangers invariably produce sad stories. In the Tekkiyya al-Suleimaniyah – an entrancing 16th-century Ottoman complex of mosques, gardens, khans and ancient schools – I met a woman called Fatmih al-Hassan. She had lived in Aleppo but her husband disappeared and she suspected he was dead. The government had given her compensation, which had been stolen, and a small pension which she had to share with his sister. She said: “I came to Damascus with eight other women and we have rented a small house for 7,000 Syrian pounds [about $35] but we are running out of money.”

Civil war has disastrously damaged the economy in government-held areas, but it has not entirely sunk it and may not do so. Electricity, mobile phones and the internet still operate in Damascus, Homs, Tartous and other cities most of the time. There are queues at petrol stations but there is petrol and diesel for those who wait.

Bread, rice, cooking oil and cooking gas are available at heavily subsidised prices. Queues outside bakeries are a common sight because people buy in quantity so they do not have to queue again for a few days. Overall, Damascus compares quite well with Baghdad, though this is a tribute to Iraq’s uniquely corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional administration.

The government is keen to maintain normal life and services, such as hospitals, in the areas it controls. People in rebel areas sometimes get their pensions but districts where the opposition is strong such as Eastern Ghouta, the rich agricultural lands east of Damascus, are squeezed, with people unable to get to work outside them because of checkpoints even if they still have a job. A failure of the opposition has been its inability to provide even rudimentary administration and facilities where it is in control, though the government is eager to compound these failings of the opposition by cutting off supplies.

The Syrian economy is weak and getting weaker. The rebels might cut the electricity supplies in Damascus as their counterparts used to do in Iraq. But the Syrian government is buttressed by close alliances with Russia and Iran and friendly relations with China. Kadri Jamil, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy, was quoted as saying these three countries deliver $500m in oil on credit each month. “It’s not bad to have behind you the Russians, the Chinese and Iranians. Those three countries are helping us politically, militarily – and also economically,” he said.

Syria may survive but many Syrians will not. Unicef says that 6.2 million Syrians, out of a population of 23 million, are in need of direct assistance. Half of them are children. The plight of refugees fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan gets  international attention but the 4.25 million displaced inside Syria are less visible. In Homs alone, 400,000 people have fled the Old City and in Damascus whole families are often crammed into a single room.

Many Syrians have suffered catastrophe and more have seen their lives disrupted and their standard of living collapse. Ibrahim is a manager in a hotel and has kept his job “but they cut my salary in half because the hotel is almost empty and is losing money”.

He had a house in the hills west of Damascus, but the road from there became too dangerous so he sold his car two years ago and used the money to rent another house in a safer area. He says “a few months ago I could no longer afford to pay the rent and I moved into my parents’ house”.

Most dispiriting for Syrians is not just that life is hard and getting harder, but they do not see why it should get any better.

Syria is facing a conflict akin to the Lebanese civil war that lasted 15 years. A diplomat in Damascus said “both government and opposition think they can win. That is why the war is going to go on a long time.”

And a long war leads to irreversible losses such as a sustained lack of confidence in the economic future, emigration of the best educated and a damaged infrastructure. Even if the civil war ends tomorrow – which it will not – Syria will be a crippled society and economy for years to come.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss