There were no sweets for the children and no flowers for the dead on Sunday as Syrians marked the first day of the Eid Muslim religious festival under the shadow of unrelenting violence and fear.
“The children in the Old City district are sad because there are no sweets, no food, no gifts, no new clothes this Eid,” said a young man from the city of Homs in central Syria who gave his name as Abu Bilal.
In Damascus, several families said they would not make the traditional visit to cemeteries to place flowers on the tombs of departed loved ones and recite prayers for the dead because of security fears.
“My neighbours and I have asked our doorman to buy flowers and go place them on the tombs on our behalf because we are afraid of the security forces,” said Khaled, a merchant, who declined to give his surname.
Six children, one as young as five and including four from the same extended family, were killed when regime shells struck near their home in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in the northwestern province of Idlib.
In all, 14 people died in violence on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the festival celebrated by Muslims across the world to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On Facebook, the Syrian Revolution 2011 page, a platform for anti-regime activists, carried the slogan “Eid of the Martyrs.”
While President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance with top officials for Eid prayers at a Damascus mosque, demonstrators took to the streets of the capital and other cities to vent their rage at the regime.
“Eid is here, Eid is here, God curse you, O Bashar al-Assad” protesters in the town of Qudsaya in Damascus province sang to the tune of Jingle Bells, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
Ruba, a 38-year-old engineer, wrote on her Facebook page that she would not be giving out sweets or greetings for the holiday and instead would say prayers for “all the martyrs of the country.”
According to the Observatory, the conflict has killed more than 23,000 people, including 1,300 children, while the UN puts the death toll at over 17,000 and says about 2.5 million are in need of help, with many facing destitution.
“Today I went to pray in the only mosque still standing in the neighbourhood,” Abu Bilal told AFP via Skype from Homs. “We put sandbags on the windows before we started praying, in case the army shelled the mosque.”
The rebel-held Old City district of Homs has been under siege by regime forces for more than two months, and rights watchdogs have warned that hundreds of families are trapped there.
In Damascus itself, Assad joined several top government and ruling Baath party officials at Eid prayers in Al-Hamad mosque.
“Syria will triumph against the Western-American plot being supported by the Wahhabis and takfiris (Sunni Muslim religious hardliners),” said imam Sheikh Mohammed Kheir Ghantus, echoing the regime’s long-standing rhetoric.
“With hardship, there is relief,” he told worshippers, citing a verse from the Koran.
People also took to the streets in the northeastern Damascus district of Barzeh and several towns in Idlib, near the Turkish border, much of which is sympathetic to the 17-month-old revolt, according to the Observatory.
“This is how we celebrate Eid!” chanted a crowd of protesters who took to the streets of Kafr Zeita in the central province of Hama, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
Another video from Kafr Zeita showed a black-clad woman who has lost her children to violence standing before a silenced crowd as she wept: “May Assad’s heart burn just like he burnt ours.”
But the violence has failed to dent the humour of some Syrians who sent Eid greetings dripping with sarcasm. “Happy Eid without checkpoints,” quipped one.