‘Nothing is as it should be’: Residents in East Ghouta struggle under broken economy six months into government rule

Al-Jalaa Street, site of Douma’s largest market, in December 2014. Photo courtesy of Khaled Oyion.

AMMAN: Numan Abu Rateb doesn’t like to speak about life under siege.

For the better part of five years, the 42-year-old lived in a cramped apartment with his extended family in the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs.

“No one but God knows what we lived through,” the father-of-five tells Syria Direct, asking that his real name be withheld for security reasons. “I have no idea how people survived [the siege].”

The Syrian army and allied militias first surrounded and besieged Ghouta, a sprawling constellation of working-class towns and villages just east of the Syrian capital, in 2013, cutting off both rebels and civilians alike from the rest of the country. Farmland and orchards within the besieged pocket, alongside a well-organized labyrinth of smuggling tunnels, initially allowed East Ghouta a degree of self-sufficiency.

But bombardment by Syrian and Russian warplanes, as well as regular artillery barrages, soon became a daily reality. The Syrian army captured the bulk of Ghouta’s farmland in May 2016, and, almost one year later, shut down all of the rebel pocket’s smuggling tunnels. Gradually, food and fuel started to disappear from local markets.

Under the government siege, the price of basic goods skyrocketed. By 2017, the cost of a given supply in East Ghouta was 24 times as expensive than in the markets of Damascus, only a few kilometers away.

An iron worker by trade, Abu Rateb ended up having to work odd jobs for cash in his hometown of Douma, the largest and most significant of East Ghouta’s cities. The pay was never enough—instead, Abu Rateb’s family lived off donations of food and money from international and local charity organizations operating inside the siege.

“As hard as it was, we were able to get by on a food parcel here, or money sent from our family abroad there,” says Abu Rateb.

The Syrian government is now in control of what remains of East Ghouta. Yet the area’s towns and villages—once the industrial and agricultural heart of the Syrian capital—have been gutted by years of bombardment and fighting. Residents tell Syria Direct that unemployment is rampant, with much of the population impoverished and struggling to feed themselves.

And while basic goods like food, clothing and medicine are returning to Ghouta markets, sold at a fraction of their former cost during the siege years, several current residents tell Syria Direct that without remittances from abroad and aid from humanitarian organizations, the collective burden of destroyed infrastructure and crippling unemployment is hitting civilians hard—some say even more so than during the siege.

“It’s like the old saying goes,” Abu Rateb says, “‘A camel costs a lira, but you don’t have a lira [in the first place]’.”

“Everything is cheap, but there’s no work.”

‘Now, there’s nothing’

The city of Douma is the administrative and economic heart of Damascus’ eastern suburbs. Hundreds of local businesses and markets were clustered in the working-class area before the war began. East Ghouta’s largest market even stretched down a long road through the center of Douma, where dozens of shops and businesses crowded both sides of the road.

During the siege, pro-government warplanes launched hundreds of airstrikes on Douma—controlled at the time by powerful opposition faction Jaish al-Islam—decimating the city and killing thousands of its residents. Similar destruction ravaged the towns and villages surrounding Douma, gutting key economic infrastructure that once supplied the Syrian capital with everything from furniture to appliances, manufactured goods to fruit and vegetables.

The Syrian army and its allied militias recaptured East Ghouta in April 2018 after an evacuation deal that saw as many as 70,000 opposition fighters and civilians leave the suburbs for the country’s rebel-held north.

The agreement, brokered by rebel and government negotiators, came after a brutal, three-month-long government aerial and ground campaign that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands more. Those who chose to remain behind—the majority of East Ghouta’s 400,000 residents—were mandated to reconcile their status with the government within six months.

But as fighting ended, new challenges emerged. With many of East Ghouta’s businesses in ruins and roughly a fifth of its original residents displaced, getting by—let alone rebuilding—appeared a monumental task.

“Everything’s stopped—there’s no business left,” Abu Muhammad a-Shami, a 25-year-old Douma resident who requested that his real name be withheld for security reasons, tells Syria Direct.

Others say that work is hard to come by, and former support networks have disappeared with the return of government control. Ironworker Abu Rateb used to rely on regular aid payments and food parcels from humanitarian organizations, he says.

An East Ghouta market in May. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

Abu Rateb’s brother was killed in the early years of the conflict, he says, and he invited his widowed sister-in-law and her children to live in the same home. The two families survived on the same patchwork of cash and food parcels: Abu Rateb claimed remittances from relatives abroad and worked when he could, while his sister-in-law claimed financial and humanitarian aid from a handful of charities and organizations.

It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to scrape by.

“We were all in the same home, so we helped one another,” Abu Rateb remembers.

“Now, there’s nothing. No aid for orphaned children, no work—nothing.”

The vast majority of international and local humanitarian organizations are no longer active in East Ghouta, ending operations when rebels and civilians were driven from the area earlier this year.

“The Syrian government heavily limits what humanitarian groups can do [in East Ghouta],” says Mohamad Katoub, senior advocacy officer with the Syrian-American Medical Association (SAMS) in Turkey.

SAMS previously operated dozens of medical facilities in East Ghouta and treated thousands of local residents through its employees on the ground during the siege. Almost all of the organization’s medical and field staff evacuated the area as government forces took control of East Ghouta in Spring 2018, Katoub says.

“We’re not registered [as an aid group] in Damascus, and we can’t work there,” Katoub explains. “The largest issue presently is that [even] humanitarian groups working in Damascus can’t observe what’s happening in East Ghouta—they can only provide very limited services.”

According to Katoub, originally from Douma himself, SAMS can only gather limited information about conditions in East Ghouta from relatives and friends who stayed behind—meanwhile, Damascus-based humanitarian organizations “do not share much information.”

“This worries us greatly,” he says.

The ‘backbone of the market’

Since an airtight blockade imposed by the Syrian army largely prevented humanitarian organizations from bringing in supplies from outside East Ghouta, they bought the materials for food parcels and aid packages from local businesses instead. In conjunction with cash payments to struggling residents and salaries for their thousands of employees, money from aid organizations pumped cash into the local economy.

“These organizations were the backbone of the market for years,” says Abdulrahman al-Hassan, a 40-year-old business owner who sells stationary supplies in East Ghouta.  

Aid workers in East Ghouta were some of al-Hassan’s only customers with steady salaries, he says. “That was our main target [demographic]—humanitarian organizations and their employees.”

Now, many former aid workers are unemployed. For others, like public school teacher Muhammad Salim, current salaries are a fraction of what they were before the siege.

Salim, 42, lives in Douma with his wife and two children. Although employed full-time with the Syrian Ministry of Education, he is classified as a temporary worker—and paid a fraction of a government salary as a result—he says.

“My salary each month is 18,000 Syrian pounds [approximately $34],” says Salim. “How am I supposed to live on that?”

During the siege on East Ghouta, Salim worked in a former government school that had been commandeered by the local, opposition-run administration. Salim’s school teacher’s salary alone was roughly $100, he says, and he and his colleagues supplemented their main income by working teaching jobs for NGOs.

“Think about it: the people who have a steady job can’t buy what they need even if it is cheap and available,” says Salim. “So what about the majority who can’t even find work?”

With five million Syrian refugees having fled the country and another six million internally displaced, many East Ghouta residents relied on remittances sent from relatives in Europe or beyond. But local residents say receiving money from abroad has become harder since the Syrian government retook Ghouta and effectively dismantled the hawala money transfer system that previously allowed those in opposition areas to transfer money to and from Syria.

“I haven’t received a single lira from family abroad for five and a half months,” resident Abu Rateb tells Syria Direct.

Earlier this week, pro-opposition media reported that the Syrian government is imposing new restrictions on money transfers to and from areas it controls, requiring that recipients of funds from abroad must provide justification for the transfer before getting access to the funds.

The Syrian government maintains that it is working to repair and rebuild the capital’s destroyed eastern suburbs, earmarking the “necessary funds” to restore basic services to East Ghouta in April, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Nevertheless, residents and business owners fear that with no money from abroad and little work to be found, there is no end in sight to East Ghouta’s economic woes.

“The markets are stagnant,” business owner al-Hassan tells Syria Direct.  

“Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be.”

With additional reporting by Mareem al-Hourani. 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.