Under siege, a Syrian town struggles to keep going
Syrian troops have blockaded the town of Qusair for about six months. The conflict between local fighters and Assad's forces surrounding the town is taking a growing toll.
When the fighting stops, Qusair feels empty. An odd motorbike rumbles to life and buzzes away. Men sit by shuttered storefronts, talking in hushed voices. A child laughs and ducks into an alley, gravel crackling under her feet.Skip to next paragraph
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But when the artillery and rifle fire begins, the din of war consumes the town. The men pack up their chairs. The children disappear indoors. Black smoke rises on the horizon.
For nearly six months, Syrian troops and tanks have blockaded this town of about 40,000 people, cutting its normal supplies of food and fuel. Medicine is smuggled in from neighbouring Lebanon, about seven miles to the south.
Bread, a Syrian staple, is becoming ever scarcer in Qusair. Heating oil, needed to ward off the winter cold, is even harder to come by. Government offices are shut, paralyzing life in a town where many used to work for the state bureaucracy.
"You can say in Qusair now, a rich man and a poor man are the same. They eat the same food and wear the same clothes," said a well-known businessman who gave his name as Doctor Abbas.
"There's no banking, no salaries. No hospital, no schools. Everything is stopped," he said, sitting on the low brown cushions of a traditional mafraj sitting room.
The center of Qusair is largely off-limits to residents. Hundreds of troops have occupied the main hospital. Snipers are perched on nearby schools, shooting at anyone who wanders too close. Checkpoints manned by soldiers and tanks ring the town.
Each morning, men line up outside the only bakery still open, huddling under a concrete overhang to escape winter sleet.
"We can't live in these jackets. What are these children going to do?" a 25-year-old car mechanic who gave his name as Wael said, pointing to children in thick wool caps, hands thrust into their coats. "Bashar al-Assad took the petrol and diesel and put in the tanks. None of it comes to the people."
An older man interrupted him. "I had to burn my old boots in the stove to keep my children warm!" he shouted.
Down the street, most shops were closed. There was nothing much to sell and few people had money to spend.
Abu Ali, a shopkeeper, said the Army blockade had cut him off from local suppliers, sending sent his costs soaring. Rice now costs 75 Syrian pounds a kilo, up from 50. Prices of goods from lentils to baby diapers have risen at a similar rate.
"Everything used to be made around here," he said, gesturing around his dark store stocked with biscuits, canned tuna, and packets of noodles.
Outside, an elderly carpenter smiled sadly when asked about his work. "There's no work," he said, pouring a cup of thick coffee for his visitor. "We're living from hour to hour."
Efforts to keep the town running
In the absence of police, hospitals, schools or any other sign of formal government, Qusair is depending more and more on people like Abbas, the businessman, who often chairs community meetings to discuss how to keep the town running.
Abbas also works on sectarian relations in a town which, like the rest of Syria, has minority Alawites and Christians among a Sunni Muslim majority. Many Sunnis reckon those minorities have benefited more from Assad's Baath Party rule.
So far, residents say, Sunni-Christian ties have held steady, while Qusair's few hundred Alawites - members of Assad's Shiite-rooted sect - keep mostly to themselves.
But tension soared last month when Christians of the Hanna family, known as Assad loyalists, captured half a dozen Sunnis, apparently in reprisal for the killing of one of their own by rebels who suspected him of firing on protesters. Sunnis then abducted several Christians, prompting town elders to intervene.
Accounts vary, but Abbas insists it was a misunderstanding, compounded by rumours. Activists like him portray such problems as personal, not sectarian, and accuse the government of exploiting communal differences to split the opposition.