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article imageJihadist siege chokes Syria's Deir Ezzor

By Ayham al-Mohammad (AFP)     Nov 25, 2016 in World

In the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, a two-year siege by the Islamic State group has forced taxi driver Mohammed al-Obeid to find a new job and turned its park into a cemetery.

Instead of ferrying customers around the eastern city with its fuel shortages, he now buys old furniture and breaks it up for resale as firewood for cooking and heating.

"People sell me household furniture -- beds and wardrobes -- and other wooden objects so they can use the money to buy food," Obeid said in the Jura district where he sells the wood outside his house.

IS jihadists seized parts of Deir Ezzor in 2014 after a lightning advance across large areas of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

In January 2015, they imposed a choking siege on the regime-held west of the city, which the UN says is home to around a third of the city's pre-war population of 300,000.

Nearly one million people in Syria are living under siege, according to the United Nations, mostly in areas surrounded by government forces.

Deir Ezzor is the only place where IS has imposed a siege on a pocket of regime-held territory.

With no way in or out except by military helicopter, civilians in the city are trapped and have scarce supplies of food and fuel.

The World Food Programme has air-dropped aid to the city -- the only besieged part of the country to receive such assistance.

The regime's key ally Russia has also delivered aid by air.

- Queueing for rations -

With no way in or out of except by military helicopter  civilians in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor a...
With no way in or out of except by military helicopter, civilians in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor are trapped and have scarce supplies of food and fuel
Ayham al-Mohammad, AFP

But in the market on Al-Wadi street, there's still little on offer to weary, hungry residents.

Rocket and spinach aside, few vegetables are available among the cigarettes, chickens and canned foods.

And what is available is often beyond the means of local residents, with a kilo (two pounds) of fly-ridden meat on sale for 15,000 Syrian pounds ($30, 28 euros).

"In two years I haven't eaten meat, fruit or biscuits because of the siege," said 12-year-old Mustafa al-Musa.

"I miss all those foods."

The government now provides free bread to needy residents, distributing it through the Syrian Red Crescent society which expects to hand out 17,000 batches by the end of November.

Outside a nearby public bakery, dozens of locals gathered to wait for rations.

"We stand here for hours waiting for a bag of bread to keep us alive," said Um Khaled, a retired government employee in her sixties.

"The siege means we never have enough, and we suffer for hours in the cold and the heat to get a few loaves."

Residents have also been forced to dig wells for water, because fuel shortages make it virtually impossible to power pumps.

- Park turned into cemetery -

Without fuel, residents can also no longer make the long drive to the outskirts of the city to bury their dead at the official cemetery.

So instead, the only park in Jura district has become a sun-baked burial ground, where children play among dozens of makeshift headstones.

"The park used to be full of trees and green grass, and was a relaxing place for locals," said Khalaf al-Saleh, a local in his forties.

"But the blockade and the main cemetery's distance from the city meant it had to be turned into a cemetery for the dead from the besieged neighbourhoods."

IS jihadists have also cut the city's electricity supply and Internet access, leaving residents with little in the way of either light or entertainment.

Deir Ezzor is the only city in Syria where the government forces are under siege
Deir Ezzor is the only city in Syria where the government forces are under siege
Ayham al-Mohammad, AFP/File

Deprived of television, residents say they feel cut off from the outside world.

Cafe owners who can afford generators have capitalised though, setting up TV sets for customers willing to pay inflated prices for a hot drink and a water pipe while they catch up on news.

The government has hired Chinese companies to link the town via satellite to the mobile phone network, but it only operates a few hours a day for lack of fuel.

Resident Um Bassel, a housewife in her fifties, says she is tired of the siege.

"We have nothing left but the clothes we are wearing, which barely cover us enough because they have been washed so many times.

"We want to break the blockade and go back to feeling like we are humans who deserve to live."

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