Syria’s 22-month war, despite its dehumanising effects, is teaching ordinary people to pull together and come up with innovative ways to survive without electricity or their daily bread.
“Buying bread or stepping out to collect water can be deadly,” said Abu Hisham, a young resident of Aleppo, the strife-torn country’s main northern city and one-time economic capital.
“People used to panic (last summer) when warplanes started to bomb Aleppo, but now they’re so used to it that almost nobody reacts,” he told AFP via Skype.
A student in Damascus before the conflict against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted in March 2011, Abu Hisham fled to his hometown when he found out he was wanted by the intelligence services.
Abu Hisham became a citizen journalist, filming and uploading on the Internet from the city which has been devastated by six months of guerrilla warfare between rebel fighters and government forces.
“Before, during power cuts, everything would come to a halt. Now we celebrate if we have electricity even for just two hours,” he said, as residents come up with new ways to cope.
“The winter’s cold and there’s no fuel. Families are having to chop up their furniture for firewood,” Abu Hisham said.
The family of Umm Alaa, who is raising seven children in Aleppo, is among those suffering the most.
“Before, I could buy large quantities of food to last us for months, but now with no electricity, our fridge is of no use,” she said.
Umm Rami’s life is also hard, having had to survive with no electricity for the past six weeks. “I can’t use the iron or the fridge and I can’t use the television to see what’s happening,” said the 50-year-old mother.
In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Abu Kinan said solidarity was the key to survival for those left behind in a district which used to be home to 200,000 before the conflict broke out.
Abu Kinan’s only dream used to be to find love and get married. But the war crushed such hopes.
“I only sleep when I’m really exhausted, and sometimes the explosions wake me up. I don’t feel like a human being any more,” he said, also via the Internet.
Everyday survival has become a team effort, such as taking turns to do the communal laundry. “This crisis has taught us young people to do things for ourselves,” he said.
One friend has become an expert cook in Daraya, coming up with hearty dishes from the scant resources available, mainly dry, canned food in the absence of fresh meat.
Abu Kinan said people “joke all the time” about the harsh realities of a war which the United Nations says has killed more than 60,000 people.
“It’s a way to cope” with everyday life, he said. “But one day, when we have time in take in all that we’ve seen and had to endure, we will cry rivers of tears.”
Several members of his family joined the hundreds of thousands who have fled Syria to escape the daily bloodshed, although his father has also opted to stay put in Daraya.
When he can’t provide for his father, the neighbours chip in. “It’s an extraordinary feeling, violence has brought people together,” he said.
The hardships are even worse in the central city of Homs where more than six months of siege by the regime have turned entire neighbourhoods into open prisons for hundreds of people, including women and children.
“There are daily fights even for cigarettes,” said Abu Bilal, a rebel fighter in its flashpoint Old City. “Normally the fights stop when a commander arrives and distributes cigarettes. But we’re under siege, so of course people are tense.”
Despite the inhuman conditions, Abu Bilal can enjoy at least a semblance of normal life from time to time.
“I have friends here and we have had some good times. A few weeks ago, we managed to get our hands on a hookah (water pipe). We had a long evening together and shared a good laugh.”