Once blossoming Syrian town now scarred by war
QARA, Syria – In times of peace, residents of this remote mountain town in Syria lived from the productive cherry orchards that blossom on the outskirts.
Now, nearly six years into a devastating conflict, their access to their livelihood has been severed, and many of the residents who remain have burned through savings, sold jewelry and other valuables in a desperate bid to survive.
“I can provide nothing for my three children, not even a loaf of bread,” said Khaled,* a 43-year-old resident of the once self-reliant community, now in the grip of a chill winter. “Imagine what it is like when it comes to fuel or other basics.”
Since war broke out in Syria in March 2011, 4.9 million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, while a further 6.3 million people have been displaced internally. In all, around 13.5 million people like Khaled have become reliant on humanitarian aid.
Qara, which is perched 1,300 metres up in the Qalamoun Mountains some 95 kilometres north of Damascus, was once home to 23,000 people. But the streets of the ancient town now lie empty and shops are closed, giving it the feel of a ghost town.
“I can provide nothing for my three children, not even a loaf of bread.”
Centred around an old square, Qara was dragged into the war when clashes between government and rebel groups erupted there three years ago, driving residents to flee to nearby villages or over the border to Lebanon.
When some returned, they found that their cherry orchards had been seized, and trade across the border with Lebanon – another sources of income – had been cut.
“The cherry crop had a good economic return, but since extremists laid control over the cherry groves, people lost a major source of income that was contributing net benefits to other livelihoods,” said Zaki Srour, the head of the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which leads humanitarian efforts in the town.
“People have fallen into depression. They lost their capabilities, assets, and business activities,” added Srour, who is also a member of a local church charity in the community, the majority of whom are Muslim.
After an armed group captured the groves located to the south-west of Qara, the main water supplies were cut off. Residents now depend on the community’s only well, located to the north of the town.
The once thriving community had a hospital, a youth club, a school. Support for local charities was strong. Many residents now find it hard to accept their sharp reversal of fortune.
“The people of Qara, who were well-off, cannot find a place in their hearts to beg for help,” said Srour. “They used to give generously, never imagined they would ask charities for help.”
“The resilient people of Syria have hope and optimism. We need to invest in that. We need to give peace a chance.”
Winter has been particularly brutal for residents, as temperatures plunge to lows of -16 C. Many are forced to collect garbage and burn trash to keep warm. A once self-reliant society is now dependent on external aid.
In a drive to help them meet their needs, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been working since 2013 to provide the people of Qara with much-needed relief items, including thermal blankets and clothes, to help them survive the harsh winter.
In mid-2016, a UNHCR community centre was established in partnership with SARC. Since then, the centre has provided vocational training programmes and child protection activities, including recreation, education and psychosocial support. Further plans have been put forward to address the loss of work opportunities in 2017.
“We should not fail the people of Syria,” said Sajjad Malik, UNHCR’s representative in the country. “We have to do what we can to not let the appalling consequences of the war, now approaching its sixth year, deepen the wounds already opened by the fighting.”
The conflict in Syria broke out in March 2011. As the warring sides engage in continued rounds of peace talks, Syrians hold tentative hopes that these talks could put an end to the prolonged war.
“The resilient people of Syria have hope and optimism,” Malik said. “We need to invest in that. We need to give peace a chance.”
*Name changed for protection reasons.