The divided town of Deir Ezzour is a microcosm of Syria’s bitter conflict

As the threat of military intervention continues to loom over Syria, in a far-flung corner of the country, the town of Deir Ezzour offers an insight into the suffering of ordinary Syrians.

Once a thriving hub of Syria’s oil industry, today Deir Ezzour has become a bleak microcosm of Syria’s conflict. The town, on the banks of the Euphrates River, some 280 miles north-east of the capital, is divided. Half is under the control of Syrian government forces. The other half is in the hands of armed opposition fighters, who also control much of the surrounding areas all the way to the Iraqi border.

Few outsiders make it to this isolated region. No human rights organisations and only a handful of journalists have visited the town. The opposition-controlled section of Deir Ezzour is the only area I can access, as the Syrian government has banned Amnesty and other human rights organisations from areas of the country it controls. The streets are eerily quiet and much of the town is in ruins. Many of the residents have fled. The empty shells of burned and bombed-out buildings line the streets - a testament to the unrelenting air strikes, artillery, mortar and tank shelling by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

The only way in or out of Deir Ezzour is across a bridge which regularly comes under sniper fire from government forces. There is, unsurprisingly, little traffic. A few taxis ferry residents back and forth, driving at breakneck speed to dodge the bullets. Those who dare to cross - civilians and fighters alike - are often killed or injured in the process. Within two hours of my arrival in the town, I am at a local hospital, where the reality of that risk strikes home. A young man has been shot while crossing the bridge. He is pronounced dead almost immediately. He never stood a chance; a large-calibre bullet had left a gaping wound in his head. Everyone I meet has lost relatives and friends, many in the constant indiscriminate bombardments, while others have been summarily executed.

Abd al-Wahed Hantush, a 38-year-old firefighter, tells me how he lost six members of his family last October. His mother, wife and two children were killed when their car came under fire as they tried to cross from a government-controlled area back to the other side of town. His brother and sister-in-law were also killed in the incident, along with dozens of other civilians. “They had gone to visit my sister in the al-Jura district of the city, which is under the control of government forces,” Abd al-Wahed says. “There was no way back except through the hills on the outskirts of the city. There are often government soldiers in that area, but it was the only way.”

They never made it back. Their bodies - slaughtered and half-burned - were discovered the following day. Abd al-Wahed’s eyes well up with tears as he shows me photographs of his five-year-old daughter, Sham, and his three-year-old son, Abderrahman, on his mobile phone. “They were all I had; I’ve lost everything,” he said.

Abd al-Wahed has cuts and burns on his face, neck, chest and arms. Four days earlier he had gone to put out a fire in a house which was hit by a rocket. “When I got there another rocket fell and exploded very near where I was,” he says. He’s lucky to be alive. Two more rockets struck the area soon afterwards.

Rockets and shells pound Deir Ezzour day and night, smashing into residential buildings or landing in the streets. For the civilians left in town there’s little they can do to keep safe. The nights are punctuated by the thumping sound of incoming artillery, and occasionally the sound of outgoing mortars fired by the armed opposition groups reverberates across the town. Everywhere, fragments of the Grad rockets fired by government forces from a hill overlooking the town litter the ground.

I visit a family with two small children who are now living in their shop in the basement of a building. “There is shelling all the time but sometimes it is unbearable. During the week of 23 May it was relentless. Batteries of 12 rockets would land in quick succession. It went on at that pace for two weeks; it was impossible to go out even to get bread,” the children’s father explained. “We avoid going out as far as we can; here we are a bit protected.” Few families have a basement in which to shelter.

Meanwhile, a children’s playground in one corner of the town has been converted into a cemetery. Tombstones surround the colourful slides, no longer in use as children are now kept indoors. Some of the graves belong to children who used to play there. In one corner of the deserted playground is a particularly well-tended grave. It belongs to 11-year-old Ahmad Karjusli, who was killed on 19 October last year. Local residents tell me that the child’s mother spends every afternoon by his grave. Later that day, I find her there - alone and crying. Her mobile phone lay on the grave mound playing religious music.

“I only had two children and Ahmad was my youngest, my darling,” she tells me. “He was such a good boy. My life is empty without him. Why was he taken from me? I cannot bear the pain.” She shows me photographs of him on her mobile phone; he looks very much like his mum. Ahmad was standing by his own front door along with a four-year-old neighbour, Abderrahman Rayyash, when a shell landed in the street and killed them both.

As has happened all too often in the Syrian conflict, it is civilians who have borne the brunt of the spiralling violence. In Deir Ezzour, as elsewhere, the suffering is also hardening feeling among a civilian population who feel increasingly abandoned by the rest of the world.  When I mentioned to townspeople that I wanted to investigate sectarian violence allegedly carried out by armed opposition groups in the nearby town of Hatla (like Deir Ezzour, Hatla is predominantly Sunni Muslim) some expressed disapproval and others discouraged me from going. Many were distinctly unsympathetic to the plight of their Shi’a neighbours and others worried that what I would discover could tarnish the image of the Syrian uprising.

Pain, loss and anger can make people blind or indifferent to the suffering of others. This is something I have come across all too often in the many conflicts and wars I’ve worked on over the years and Syria is no different. The longer this increasingly brutal conflict goes on, the greater the damage will be to the very fabric of Syrian society - and the harder it will be for the wounds of this conflict to heal.

Syrian rebels fighting pro-regime forces gather along a road in Deir Ezzour. Image: Getty
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt