“This will be a very special Ramadan in Syria,” 28-year-old Waleed al-Homsi* nods pensively. “By the end of this month, everything will be fine. No more revolution, no more Assad. A new Syria will be born.”
Speak to any anti-regime activist like Waleed, and he or she will tell you the same thing. Riding a wave of euphoria following the death of Defence Minister Assef Shawkat, the rebels are convinced that they will emerge from this Islamic holy month free from the Assad regime.
The regime, no doubt, is expecting a victory of its own. Ramadan 2011 saw the armed forces intensify their campaign against dissidents, resulting in a nationwide offensive that the opposition dubbed the “Ramadan Massacre”. But this year, an even bloodier holiday is expected, 16 months into the increasingly violent conflict.
“Last year, we spent Ramadan under fire,” Waleed, part of the FRANCE 24 Observers network, told us via Skype. “This year, we’ll spend it under bombs.” Waleed is from the central city of Homs, an anti-regime hotbed that has become one of the conflict's major battlegrounds. A few months ago, Waleed’s wife and baby were forced to flee the city after their building was hit by shells.
In addition to missing his wife and child, Waleed has been separated from the rest of his family this year. “I’ve never spent Ramadan without my family before,” he says. Muslims travel from around the world to spend the holiday with loved ones. Those observing Ramadan fast from sunrise to sunset and then gather in the evenings for a lavish feast. Syria's national roads are usually jam-packed in the run-up to the festivities.
Today, travelling between cities is unthinkable. In Damascus, getting from one part of town to another is hard enough after violent clashes broke out in several districts earlier this week. Taxis refuse to travel to Al-Midan, a market district in the capital that would normally be teeming with shoppers stocking up on treats for the evening iftar (when Muslims break their fast). This year, the shops are shuttered up and the streets are empty, except for sporadic fighting.
“It’s been five days since I can get through a meal without hearing a clash, an explosion or a bang,” explains Omar, a translator from the old town in Damascus who spoke to FRANCE 24 by phone. Omar says he will stay at home and not “even try” to celebrate Ramadan. “If you go out, you never know what’s around the corner,” he says. “There are clashes all over the city. Besides, there’s no transportation, the streets are barricaded, and we have no money to buy anything. We have to think about our daily needs above all else.”
In Homs, activists are using the holiday as a way of gathering and encouraging anti-regime protesters. Waleed says that locals have organised evening plays, storytelling sessions, discussions and singalongs – all with a revolutionary theme of course, and all indoors. “It will be strange not to spend Ramadan outdoors,” Waleed says. “Last year we protested in the streets every day. This year we will only go outside to fight. And we will fight, every day.”
They won’t be the only ones. “Generally, Ramadan is a particularly violent time for this kind of conflict,” Nur Choudhury of Human Aid, which distributes medical kits and food aid to war zones, told FRANCE 24. “Regimes or armies tend to step up their attacks because they know that opposition fighters are weaker due to fasting.”
For the rebel fighters, Ramadan is their strength, not their weakness. But while Waleed thinks that the festival will give him and his friends the strength to “finish off” the revolution, it’s also a painful reminder of the deadly consequences that the conflict has wrought. “The strangest thing about this Ramadan will be not having sohour [pre-dawn breakfast] with some of my best friends,” he sighs. “I’ve lost so many to this war.”
*Names have been changed.