Aid worker speaks of "general sense of desperation and hunger all around”.
Silent and subdued, Um Qassem stands in a long queue in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor waiting to receive a package of food aid.
Um Qassem, who once stood strong and proud, who was steadfast and tearless even when she buried her son, is now broken and humiliated. All her hopes are invested on a cardboard box stamped with the logo of the Bureau of Alms of Islamic State.
The food packages are the first to be delivered under an aid initiative by Islamic State (IS).
Like many other people here, Um Qassem is suffering fresh indignities that only add to the problems created since November, when IS decided to shut down aid organisations and end their relief work in the area of Deir al-Zor it controls.
Asked why she thought IS had done this, Um Qassem had a simple answer.
“Islamic State wants to keep us hungry,” she said. “It wants to break us by depriving us of our daily bread so that we don’t even think of rebelling. It’s exactly the same tactic used by the Assad regime.”
However, her neighbour Ahmad Yunus, a grocer from the same part of town, disagrees.
“Islamic State is doing its utmost to secure our basic needs,” he said. “But it doesn’t want to receive help from foreign donors, from unbelievers who have their own private agendas.”
About 40,000 people live in the IS-controlled sector of Deir al-Zor, according to a rough count carried out in June 2014 by the local council’s planning office.
Until IS seized control in mid-July, relief organisations in the city shared out responsibility for the different neighbourhoods. Each was assigned a specific area where it provided the basic essentials. Active organisations included Rawafid, Nimaa, Ihsan, Deir al-Zor Coordinators, Bunyan, Deirna, and the Sons of the Great Euphrates.
They competed to provide better services, and this helped their activities expand from distributing relief packages and cash subsidies into service and development projects like opening schools, refurbishing drinking wells, cleaning up the streets and supporting immunisation campaigns.
Abu Thurr, a senior official with a relief organisation, explained how everything changed when IS entered the city.
“The relief landscape was turned upside down when the Caliphate’s militants took over,” he said. “They created their so-called Bureau of Alms, which became the body responsible for coordinating all relief in the city. The ‘Emir of Alms’ gathered all the representatives of relief organisations for a meeting at the beginning of August 2014.”
Ahmad, who works for another aid organisation and took part in that meeting, continued the story, “The aim was to inform us of Islamic State’s terms and conditions under which relief organisations could continue operating. This included getting written authorisation from the Alms Bureau, submitting full financial reports, and each organisation pledging half of its administrative overheads and revenues to the Alms Bureau.”
These strict conditions meant that most organisations could not carry on working. That in turn led to a general deterioration in the city’s aid services, and the few remaining organisations struggled to fill the void.
“We had to increase our efforts to pick up the slack and reduce what we were putting in each relief package in order to provide more packages and deliver them to the largest possible number of families,” Abu Thurr said. “We also had to halt a lot of our development services and use those budgets to support basic relief operations.”
IS’s stringent rules made it much more difficult for aid organisations to operate, making life harder for local residents.
The official IS view is completely different.
“The aid offered by foreign organisations seeks to sow division among us, because money corrupts the soul,” Abu Aziz, the emir (commander) in Deir al-Zor, said. “It is people’s duty to bear their miserable conditions for the greater goal of establishing the Islamic State.”
Another key reason why relief assistance has deteriorated in Deir al-Zor is that aid coordinators are reluctant to enter IS-controlled areas and work there. Mazen, a doctor and the executive director of an aid groups whose funding was cut, explained why.
“Most donor organisations have intermediaries who are dispatched to coordinate between the donors and those who work on the ground,” he said. “As such, the decision to carry on is out of our hands, because there is a great fear of prosecution on charges of terrorism. That makes it impossible to continue working in areas controlled by IS.”
Some organisations like Medical Relief for Syria and Syria Relief have managed to continue operating in IS-held areas.
But the United Nations Security Council’s decision to shut off all financial support to IS – although it continues to allow humanitarian aid – combined with the militants’s shutdown of relief organisations, has made it all but impossible for the few remaining agencies to continue.
“Our very lives are at risk,” Abu Thurr said. “We work like secret societies who know nothing about one another, dividing up our work around the clock so that no one around us notices of any increased activity. We don’t use any electronic devices for our work so as not to attract anyone’s attention.
“There are those who are desperate to deliver aid to us, those who are desperate to receive that aid, and a general sense of desperation and hunger all around.”
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.