December 17, 2014

AMMAN: Soaring prices and chronic shortages of food and fuel have left residents of Douma caught between the regime encirclement of their East Ghouta town and the inattentive rule of rebel brigades.

Today, at least half of Douma’s population has fled. Those remaining are subjected to ongoing shelling from government forces stationed outside East Ghouta’s de facto capital, an agricultural city known before the war for its grape harvests.

Douma was one of the earliest centers of public protest during the unrest that precipitated the civil war. After witnessing a back-and-forth between regime and rebel forces, rebels took control of the city in October 2012 and have held it since. The regime began its encirclement of the East Ghouta suburbs that same fall.

Located 14 kilometers northeast of Damascus and with a pre-war population of 500,000, Douma is the hometown of several prominent rebel leaders operating in Damascus' outskirts and beyond, including Zahran Aloush, the head of Douma's most powerful rebel group Jaish al-Islam.

Regime supporters consider the capture of Douma to be key in retaking rebel-held areas surrounding Damascus, Amin Hatit, a former Lebanese brigadier general and military and political analyst, wrote in an October piece in Syria's official news agency SANA.

“Damascus' situation is outside the circle of terrorist danger almost entirely after dealing with what remains in the periphery [of Damascus], represented essentially by Douma.”

The regime's 20-month “encircle and starve” strategy combined with negligent rebel leadership has made life for Douma residents a struggle to secure basic necessities.

In early November, the Syrian army tried to enter Douma through the Wafideen refugee camp. The last open road into Douma at that time passed through Wafideen, home to thousands of internally displaced Syrians. 

While the army failed to break into Douma during its November campaign, it did shut down the Wafideen camp crossing, effectively cutting Douma off from the outside world.

“With the camp closed, there is no way to get aid in now,” said the head of the Al-Muhajirin al-Ahrar office in Douma, who asked to remain anonymous. The organization distributes aid to families “who have lost their breadwinner, or those whose husbands have been injured and cannot work–a very common situation in light of the regime’s repeated bombings.”

“Because of the blockade and the high prices, we eat only one meal a day,” Ismael Abdullah, who works in a money exchange shop in Douma, told Syria Direct.

“We make it late in the day, at sunset, so we don’t have to eat again.”

The blockade means the city no longer has access to medical supplies, food, fuel and electricity.

There are only 10 doctors in Douma and medicine is so scarce that surgeries are being done with no general anesthesia. Multiple families share one line of electricity from the neighborhood generator to wash their clothes and charge their phones, which costs $44/month for two hours of use a day.

Even the winter harvest is “spoiled,” says the aid office manager, due to a lack of fuel for agricultural equipment and pesticides for crops.

While there are no official estimates, joblessness is pervasive, with former aid workers now roaming the streets as vendors. The comparatively affluent in Douma make their money selling electricity through generators or exchanging currency—among the few profitable industries remaining.

The average salary stands at about $75 per month. Prices have risen at least five-fold, with a kilo of tea costing about $70 and a kilo of rice $7.

“The rise in prices happened within days of closing the road,” Abdullah says, referring to the Wafidin crossing.

Leadership failure

Protesters took to the streets of Douma Tuesday celebrating the recent rebel victory in Wadi a-Deif in Idlib province and demanding a rapid end to the encirclement of their city.

One elderly protestor spoke out against the rebel leadership in Douma: “The first place to be liberated in Syria was Ghouta...and the first to grow feeble was the [rebel] leadership of Ghouta.”

Douma residents organized a similar protest mid-November, after the closing of the Wafidin camp, against the various rebel brigades ruling Douma (including the most powerful faction, Jaish al-Islam). Chief among their concerns was the prohibitive cost of basic goods, and the sense that rebels were tolerating, or working with, price-gouging traders.

But Jaish al-Islam says it provides security to Douma, and is not involved in running day-to-day matters.

A Jaish al-Islam spokesman who asked to remain anonymous said that the group is less concerned with administering the city and  "only interested in security and war-related affairs."

The Joint Command's economic office is responsible for regulating prices, he said.

The Joint Command, formed last August, aims to unite rebel brigades in East Ghouta to prevent chaos and streamline military and judiciary efforts [Joint Command announcement here].

Neither the Joint Command nor rebels appear willing or able to put a stop to price gouging. Traders' depots remain stuffed with food reserves, and they reportedly refuse to sell anything until after meeting the needs of opposition fighters, wrote Al-Monitor on November 24.

During the mid-November protests, "demonstrators attacked depots belonging to charitable organizations" close to rebel brigades "and the depot guards opened fire on us," a protestor calling himself Omar A. was quoted by Al-Monitor as saying.

Other attempts to rein in hoarding traders have been met with a similarly violent response.

One day after the East Ghouta Judicial Council issued a warning threatening "blood traders who hoard goods in their depots," 15 members of the council had poison placed in their food, reported pro-opposition Mojez news, a charge corroborated by sources inside Douma. No one died in that incident and the perpetrator remains unknown.

Local rebel faction Jaish al-Umma said it prevents price-gouging by monitoring local businesses.

"We regulate traders' activities and force them to put stored goods into the markets at reasonable prices," said Mohammed Abu Udei, of Jaish al-Umma's media office.

But Jaish al-Umma is one of many rebel groups in Douma, none of which has established clear authority in administrative affairs. Umma’s role in enforcing consumer protections, therefore, is minimal.

Desperate times

The price of fuel in Douma has skyrocketed because of scarcity and inflation. Five liters of diesel, enough to provide a family of five with heating for a day, costs $65.

With electricity out of reach for most Doumans, many are now burning garbage, old clothes or pieces of furniture for heating and cooking.

“Anyone who cannot secure the price of firewood resorts to burning garbage and rags and breaking furniture,” said Adnan Mubeid, an engineer in Douma.

The fuel shortage has also severely limited residents' means of transportation. Doumans get around by walking, or riding bicycles and horse-drawn carts.

“Income does not match expenses,” money changer Ismael Abdullah says. “Many people receive money from their relatives beyond East Ghouta or outside Syria.”

Some Douma residents, weary of war and shortages, say they hope for a quick end to their predicament—military or political.

“The [rebel] leadership’s compass is lost, of course that has an impact on us [civilians],” a resident of Douma who wanted to remain anonymous told Syria Direct.

“Randomness and reactions are what’s governing us.”

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