Once a thriving hub of Syria’s oil industry, Deir Ezzor is now a ghost town of only a few thousand people struggling tenaciously to hang on against the odds after most of its people fled.
Capital of a province with the same name, it is about 80 percent controlled by rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have relentlessly pummeled it with air strikes and shelling for nine months.
Not only are the city’s buildings and streets in ruins, so is its economy.
“Most of us in Deir Ezzor have lost our jobs and we have no source of income,” said Abu Hussein. “When my savings run out, I’ll have to leave the city and become another refugee.”
The bazaar in Bin Al-Walid Street has been closed for the past two months, almost completely devastated by air strikes and shelling.
“People are afraid to come out and buy for fear of the bombs, so there’s no point in opening our shops, speaking, of course, of the ones that haven’t been destroyed,” said Abu Mohammed, as he collected the last few remaining items in his food shop.
Ahmed al-Kafed, who used to have a kebab stall in the bazaar, said “nobody wants to risk opening their business just to be killed by a bomb the following day.”
And in Al-Mokhtar Street, Ricky Shemali lays out a few clothes and shoes on the sidewalk.
“I’ve reopened my ‘shop’ today after nine months,” he said. “I need money to feed my family, and I’ve had to do it.”
But the street is virtually deserted, except for a few rebel fighters.
“There’s hardly been anyone all morning. They come, they look and they leave, saying everything is too expensive and that they don’t have money to buy,” said Shemali, who used to buy his goods in Aleppo and Hama.
“But the factories in Aleppo have shut down because of the war, and I now have to buy from Turkey, where everything is more expensive. If the situation doesn’t improve in a few weeks, I’ll have to shut up my shop for good and take my family to Turkey or Iraq to start from zero.”
Mohammed al-Islam said “we try to help each other out however we can, since nobody cares about what is happening to us.
“Those who don’t have any money are resorting to barter. Me, for example, I’m an auto mechanic. So I go to the shop on the corner and fix the owner’s car in exchange for a kilo of tomatoes. That’s the only way we can survive.”
Despite all the hardship, it at least appears as if no one is starving.
Yawafed, a local charity, has set up a soup kitchen, and there is also a bakery run by volunteers, both of them serving people free of charge.
In the basement of one of Deir Ezzor’s tower blocks, Yawafed has set up two huge cauldrons for cooking — one for rice and one for a vegetable soup.
“Every day around 500 families come for food,” said Mustapha al-Haji, who runs the charity.
“We don’t have enough food,” he said, while stressing that no one is ever sent away empty handed.
Abu Salem, who once worked in the oil fields and now walks with a limp from a shrapnel wound, expresses bitterness as he and his son arrive with two containers to collect their ration.
“The international community has abandoned us,” he said. “We are paying for their indifference with our blood. That means Syrians are becoming radicalised and Al-Qaeda is getting a foothold in this country. When they finally catch on, it will be too late to regret.”
Meanwhile, other volunteers are running a huge bakery that provides bread free to residents.
But in order to avoid disasters such as occurred in two other Syrian cities, where dozens of people were killed by regime shelling as they queued up to buy bread, this one is not open to the public. Instead, its daily rations are distributed around town.
“Once the bread is baked, we take it to different distribution points in the city,” where each family must produce an ID card and receive the bread for free, said Abu Ahmed, who runs the bakery.
Every two days, it takes 3,000 tonnes of flour brought in from Turkey to make enough bread to feed 8,000 people, he said.
Abdul Razzak al-Haj Hazaa, who is collecting his ration, said “life is hard in these conditions, but it’s much better here than in areas controlled by the regime, where people are kidnapped and murdered every day.
“The cost of living has risen sharply, which is normal, and things are becoming scarce. But if we ever need anything we can ask the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army who are always happy to help us.”