From the outside, it’s almost impossible to imagine what everyday life must be like in Syria, whose brutal civil war enters its fifth year this month and shows little sign of stopping anytime soon. The multisided battle has drawn in countries ranging from Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors to Russia and the United States, and has provided fertile ground for the Islamist group ISIS. Meanwhile, the Syrian civilians caught in the middle endure hardship on a scale that dwarfs recent conflicts.
A United Nations-backed report released last week said the war had killed around 200,000 people, cut life expectancy by 20 years, and forced more than half of the country’s prewar population of 21 million people to flee their homes. Syria is now the world’s biggest source of refugees, even though the bulk of those who fled remain displaced within the country, The Economist reported in January.
But for the outside world, these huge numbers can be hard to digest, and Syrians’ individual voices are hard to come by. Cell phone connections are patchy, millions of displaced people are constantly on the move, and journalists have largely stopped going to what has become the world's deadliest country for reporters.
So, what does everyday life look and feel like in Syria? How much do people go outside, how do they charge their cell phones, do they find small reasons to laugh? BuzzFeed News interviewed three Syrians who live in, regularly visit, or document different towns or cities to try to understand the human life that lies behind the big and shocking statistics.
Many Syrians have stayed put in their home towns and tried to carry on, our interviewees said, because they fear the dire living conditions in the refugee camps at home and abroad. Many can't afford to emigrate comfortably.
“If you flee from Aleppo, you will never live a normal life,” said Rami Zien, a 23-year-old freelance photographer in the city, which is mostly controlled by a loose coalition of armed rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. “You will be in a camp or living an expensive life in Turkey.”
Those who stay usually take up one of the few lowly jobs available in a war zone — driving taxis, fixing cars, running tiny internet cafes, or simply selling on whatever smuggled scraps they can get hold of. They are trying to avoid becoming one of the 7.6 million people displaced internally within Syria, or the 3.8 million who have fled overseas as refugees.
“Lots of people have lost their original jobs ... They are starting whatever they can start,” Zien said, in a Skype interview. “My neighbor used to run textiles factories and now he is selling bedshawls and diesel at the market.”
Three photographs show Zien in Aleppo over the last twelve months. Zien took the top-right photograph of a friend in Aleppo in March 2014 after what he says was an aerial bomb attack.
In Raqqa, a city controlled by ISIS, some locals make ends meet by renting houses to the militants or working in their religious schools. “The only good jobs are ISIS jobs … but my friends don’t want to work with them,” said Abdalaziz Alhamza, the 24-year-old founder of the anti-ISIS and anti-Assad activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. Alhamza fled Syria last year and now lives in Berlin, from where he runs a team of 12 activists in Raqqa who document life in the Syrian city.
Around 60% of Syrians are jobless and around the same proportion live in extreme poverty, meaning that they cannot afford the basics they need to stay alive, according to the UN-backed report.
Day to day, much of people’s activity concerns getting hold of two basics: food and electricity.
“Last year, almost every food market was closed. You had to run all over Aleppo even just to find a little bit of what you wanted — even for a tomato. You may find it, you may not,” Zien said. “Some NGOs [non-governmental organizations] were bringing food but it was just things like rice and oil. Just the things you need to keep alive.”
Many markets have reopened over the last two months, Zien said, and fresh vegetables and chicken are currently available. The U.N. has been trying to negotiate a “freeze” — a six-week halt in attacks but not a full cease-fire — in Aleppo, and Assad has agreed to temporarily halt aerial attacks there.
In many areas, food isn't actually scarce, but is prohibitively expensive. Ingredients increasingly have to be smuggled in from abroad. A bag of Syrian flatbreads costs $1 in the small border town of Sarmada, up from 30 cents before the war started, according to Mohammed, a Syrian who fled to neighboring Turkey in 2011 but still goes to Sarmada at least once a month. He asked that his full name not be used.
“In rural parts I’ve been to, lots of people are relying on the food bags from the NGOs," said Mohammed, who partly goes to Syria as part of his work for a UK-based diaspora-led aid group called Hand in Hand for Syria. "I’ve seen some places where 80% of people are relying on that.”
When it comes to electricity, satellite images show that Syria is 83% darker during nighttime than when the war began, partly because people are fleeing and partly because infrastructure has been destroyed.
In the three cities and towns BuzzFeed News looked at, electricity availability ranged from 12 hours a day during a good period in Sarmada to power cuts lasting 4–5 days during a bad period in Aleppo, according to the three Syrians interviewed.
In Sarmada, Mohammed said, some people use solar panels to charge their car batteries. They then use the battery to power a few lightbulbs, their cell phones, and maybe laptops. In some neighborhoods, one person will buy a generator and rent out portions of the electricity it provides.
In Aleppo, Zien uses a solar panel worth $250, but said this wasn't an option for the average family. “The minimum price is $100. For a normal family, that’s a big number. Some families here live on $150 for a whole month.”
Once you've charged your phone, though, you probably won't have any signal. Zien said there was no signal in half of Aleppo because cell phone towers have been destroyed. The main means of communication in all three places is getting the internet via a satellite and then using popular text messaging service WhatsApp.
Syria’s war began in March 2011, when Assad, whose family has governed for over four decades, began a crackdown on street protests against his regime.
Today the conflict is a mess of porous armed groups and foreign backers, Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told BuzzFeed News.
In one corner there’s Assad’s regime, which can mobilize both Syria’s army and informal militias. Assad has received both political support and military equipment from Russia and Iran. In another corner there’s the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group that has at times received some Western support. And then there is a host of other militias, including Islamists such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and also Kurdish forces.
“No one [goes out] for fun or pleasure, only if it’s necessary,” Mohammed said of Sarmada, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Alhamza said people in Raqqa likewise rarely go out after sunset, and Zien said people in Aleppo constantly stare at the sky as they walk around, in order to spot aerial attacks.
ISIS has risen to prominence over the last year by taking over swathes of Syria and Iraq, releasing brutal execution videos, and recruiting followers from both Middle Eastern and Western countries. A group of ISIS supporters in January put out a guide to life for Muslim women that described Raqqa as a peaceful haven. The Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank that translated the guide from Arabic to English, dismissed it as pure propaganda.
Syria in so many ways seems unlivable — and yet people continue to find ways to live. The three Syrians we spoke to described an amazing resilience, and even snatches of happiness.
“You have to get used to the sound of cannons and bombs,” said Zien. “You have to hear the planes and bombs, and yet you have to continue. People go out even if there is a plane above. If you care, you will never go out of your home.”
Alhamza said his team of activists in Raqqa have in many ways become used to hearing that someone they know has been killed — even though they mourn, they have little choice but to force themselves to move on. And, in the bleakest of times, they even sometimes find things to cheer about.
“My friends tell me, when the electricity comes back after a cut, when the water comes back, people cheer,” he said. “They shout: 'Yeah! Yeah!’ ”