In the traditional market of Bab Srigeh, near the old city of Damascus, thousands of people walk along the narrow passages lined with small shops selling vegetables, fruit, meat and spices. Merchants shout loudly to attract customers.
Oum Khaled, a 45-year-old woman, approaches a butcher and asks for 200 grammes of meat, then buys some apples and oranges and a half kilo of rice, saying that those would constitute today’s and tomorrow’s meals for her family of five.
“My husband passed away four years ago. We had to flee our house in East Ghouta. Now I live with my four children in a rented room, and I earn a living from domestic service,” she says. “Ramadan in war is nothing like before and we cannot afford buying a lot of food as we used to do. Sometimes I depend on charities to get free meals”, she added with a long sigh of despair.
Residents of the Syrian capital Damascus spent the first two weeks of the holy month of Ramadan amid de-escalation of fighting around the city but with hiking prices. This is their first month for nearly seven years without a battle on their doorsteps, after the Syrian army took back full control over all of Damascus and the surrounding areas in May.
Large areas of the city’s outskirts came under under opposition control in 2012, and heavy fighting continued in the intervening years, with thousands killed, injured, and displaced from their homes. The UN estimates that 5 million Syrians are now refugees, and other 6.5 million are internally displaced.
The lost joy of Ramadan in Damascus
A traditional proverb describing Ramadan habits in Syria goes “The first ten days are for food, the second ten are for clothes, and the final ten are for presents”. Those habits have changed significantly since the grinding Syrian war started. A war that has affected the lives of almost all Syrians on many levels.
A 35-year-old man said now he can rarely invite his family to break their fast in a restaurant, unlike the times before the war. He says “I used to invite my family out for Iftar six or seven times during Ramadan. Now we can hardly afford to go out twice during Ramadan. We need around 25.000 Lira ($55) for each time we break our fast in a restaurant”.
Ramadan’s first ten days for food are no longer there for Syrians. The UN food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, said in a report published in January that 33 percent of the Syrian population are facing food insecurity and are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Samer, owner of a clothes shop in Salhyieh market near the city centre, indicated a decline in sales. On an average day he barely makes a profit, but during holidays, the sales improve as most of the families prefer to save some money and buy new clothes for Eid.
Families still try to maintain the tradition of buying clothes for Eid, but as the prices of goods, especially clothes, have gone up 10-fold since 2011, their spending is unlike it was in the old days. Samer says, “We still come and open our shops everyday as we do not have any other choice. Life must continue. Sometimes I spend the whole day without selling a single item. Although holidays are better, buying habits have changed. In Eid, all family members used to wear new clothes, but now mothers prefer to buy new outfits for only one child, and the others have to wait until the next Eid to get theirs”.
The Syrian currency has lost much of its value since 2011. The exchange rate of the Lira against US Dollar has dropped from 45 in 2011 to 440 today. Increasing inflation has forced prices up. The World Bank says that more than 75 percent of the Syrian economy has been destroyed, and that the war has caused a loss in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$ 226 billion, equivalent to four times the GDP in 2010.
Predictably, the unemployment rate has shot up to drastic levels, with official statistics released a week ago by the Syrian government claiming that it now stands at 45 percent, up from 14.8 percent before the war. World Bank statistics suggest the rate of youth unemployment is as high as 78 percent. Such statistics confirm the hardship experienced by most Syrian families inside the country.
For many families, the loss of their loved ones, who either escaped the country or have been killed, is more bitter than the damaged livelihoods and the lost habits of Ramadan.
Rawia is a mother of two boys who fled to Germany to avoid military service. She misses them during every Iftar, while eating with her husband. “Life in Damascus now is much better than the past years after the fighting ended, but the pain of loss is overwhelming. I wish there was a way to bring my sons back to me, or even to see them once before I die”.