Eastern Ghouta, Syria: A story of life under siege

A message from a resident of Eastern Ghouta (photo taken in November 2017)

Walking through besieged Eastern Ghouta one day, I came across a woman of 45, Fatima, with her children, writes Rokaia Alshamy from CARE partner organisation Women Now For Development in Syria.

Her elderly husband was unable to move. I saw a young man with a cart hurrying in our direction. Meanwhile, the woman’s three young children – two sons and a daughter – were busy collecting plastic bags and fallen leaves for their mother to use to bake with.

When I asked her what she was making, she replied:

When life becomes almost too much to bear, and no one but God is left to provide for you, you become an inventor to support your family.

This is her story

“My husband used to work on cars, and he provided us with what we needed. But then he fell ill and became bedridden, and he could no longer work. So my son began working in the alleys of Ghouta, and he was able to provide for us. But then a grenade destroyed his legs.

My husband was unable to move, and my son was badly injured, and I was left with no one to provide for me or my children.

“Little by little, my son’s condition began to decline. There was not a piece of bread in the house. There was not even a single olive. I sat in front of the fireplace, miserable, staring at a pile of sticks. What can I make out of a pile of sticks?

I thought long and hard. And in a moment of inspiration, I realised that I could turn my misery into life!

“I would gather up that brittle pile of sticks to bake bread, bread filled with life and coloured with hope.

“With that pile of sticks, I set my misery on fire and reignited the flame of life.

“I began baking bread. Eventually I baked so much that I became famous throughout my entire region. It got to the point where people were racing to get to my house for me to bake them bread, bringing their flour with them. Even the most prosperous people were bringing me wheat flour worth as much as 3000 Syrian Liras (£4.15) a kilogram.

It was the case not long ago that the only people who ate wheat were poor. If the wealthy are eating wheat now, what do poor people eat?!

“Some of these people also brought me barley – costing 1500 Liras (£2.10) a kilo – which has been mixed with seeds of yellow corn – costing 1000 Liras (£1.40) a kilo –  and some grains of wheat. By mixing these together they are able to get decent quality bread. These are members of the middle class.

“Finally, there are people who bake with feed, which costs 800 Liras a kilogram.

I don’t see much of them, because they don’t have enough money to pay me, even though my price is low when you consider overall price increases.

“These people prefer to bake their bread at home to avoid paying what I charge for each kilo of flour. Because they don’t have any wood for the fire, they are left to rummage through garbage containers and collect plastic bags or gather leaves by the side of the road, so that they can bake their feed bread.

“Yes, in Ghouta human beings are turned into animals. But they preserve their dignity.

For many of Ghouta’s inhabitants, bread is out of the question. They are left with no other option than to pick the shrubs which grow by the side of the road. What’s more humiliating than that!?

“Only the luckiest of Ghouta’s people were able to prepare themselves for the crippling siege. They grew wheat and barley which they had stored in years past, and which they now bring me to bake bread.

“Some households come to me for bread because their women have to work and no longer have time to bake.

“There are also those who have been affected by the closure of most of Ghouta’s ovens, due to the increase in fuel prices.

In my town there is only one oven, and they do not accept people who bring their own flour.

“And you can only bake with pure wheat flour, which, at 4000 Liras (£5.50) a package, is too expensive for most ordinary people to buy, given their meagre daily salaries.

“The packages of oven-made bread come from big merchant monopolies, who buy them all regardless of price. They can exploit the inhabitants of Ghouta, who are cut off from the world.

“As for the lower-quality packages of flour, used by some of the surrounding area’s industrial ovens, they contain a mixture of wheat, barley, and corn, and cost 2600 Liras (£3.60) each. But they weigh only 750 grams and cannot feed even three people for a single meal.

“Through my work, I have been able to serve my community and come to the aid of myself and of my children.

“I have also supported my husband, who has supported me for so long. I have been, in a way, reborn, and from my baking I have made for myself a new life.”

Rokaia Alshamy works at Women Now for Development, the largest women’s organisation working to protect and empower women in Syria, partnered with CARE International.

CARE is urging the international community to support women’s organisations and the role of women in responding to the Syria crisis. Read more in our CARE Insights blog.

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