Ramadan has come and Muslims across the world fast from dawn to sunset. However, there are Muslims in Syria who have been forced to fast even before Ramadan.
Two years ago, the eastern Ghouta of Damascus was home to more than two million citizens. Nowadays, it is under a crippling siege by regime forces for having taken in fighters for the Free Syrian Army and Jubhat al-Nusra.
The inhabitants today number less than a million. Those who remained behind were unable to flee their homes to find an alternative refuge. Aside from the lack of security, the people of the Eastern Ghouta are forced to live without the simplest daily requirements such as electricity and clean drinking water. The ongoing siege is medieval in scale; the regime's war of attrition chokes supply lines and food is prohibited from entering the Eastern Ghouta. Inhabitants and their livestock survive on what little can be grown.
Shirin works in government offices in central Damascus but lives with her family in the Eastern Ghouta. On her way home back from work she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by regime forces who had spotted a packet of flat bread in her handbag: “you either get rid of the bread and enter or go back to where you came from!” one of them shouted at her. Strict orders from on high had been given to push the people of the Eastern Ghouta to the brink of starvation. Shirin had no choice but to hold on tight to her loaves of bread refusing to throw them away and go back to Damascus.
Far to the north, Aleppo is torn between loyalist Assad forces and armed militias fighting the regime. Two weeks ago, the latter made some strategic gains on the front-line in the city following the receipt of quality weapons including Grad missiles. Militias took advantage of advances made in the east of the city to impose a complete blockade on West Aleppo which remains under the control of the regime and is inhabited by a quarter of Aleppo's residents. Traders in West Aleppo have shut up shop, having run out of basics like bread and water. For the residents of West Aleppo heading east to try and buy everyday groceries has become a dangerous adventure with incalculable consequences.
The buffer zone between East and West Aleppo is a wide highway separating Bostan al-Qasr – under militia control – and al-Qasr al-Baladi – under the regime's. The siege imposed by the armed groups prevents any person and any thing from entering. Whoever tries to break it risks having to run the gauntlet of snipers perched on rooftops.
Abo Omar father to six children lives in the Nile Street neighbourhood. He was caught by members of one of the armed militias trying to smuggle in some vegetables. They arrested him and seized his car telling him: "not a single green stalk will enter your areas until the shabiha end their siege on Homs!” The perversity of supposedly religious groups preventing people from having access to food in this sacred month will probably go unnoticed in the fund-raising appeals which dominate television schedules during Ramadan. Abo Omar is now in jail waiting to appear in front of the Shariah Committee which functions as a court in "liberated areas".
Aleppo and the Eastern Ghouta aren't the only places where Syrians are living under conditions which can no longer be described as fit for human habitation; there is Homs in the middle of Syria which has been under siege for nine months.
With the Syrian economy in free-fall and faced with unprecedented hyper-inflation the misery of Syrians has been magnified exponentially, particularly for those inside besieged areas. Caught in the middle of a bloody armed conflict, civilians seem to be the victims of dictatorial policies followed by both the regime and some powerful armed militias. Increasingly, as this conflict wears on, both the regime and the militias fighting it begin to resemble one another. For war-weary Syrians the only difference seems to be in the colours of their flags.
During these times when civilians suffer from hunger and oppression, those who trade in politics – be they with the regime or against – seek more and more weapons while sitting at caviar-laden tables. As for the ordinary Syrian citizen, her dignity now amounts to a single loaf of bread or a kilo of tomatoes which she might lose her life for.
Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.