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The Seige of Deir Ez-Zor

Adb Hlal

Adb gives a personal account of the hardships and hopes of daily life growing up in Filippiada refugee camp, Greece.

Mandatory curfew, optional forgetfulness.

My mom, she’s starving, I forgot about her when I saw that shawerma place on the other side of the city. My friends, they’re dying of thirst, I dropped them in front of the refrigerator. Not long until I threw everything behind my back as if I have never starved before.

I opened the internet after months of disconnection, and I saw no one talking about my hunger, or my friends, or my mother. Like a fool I did the same, I only changed my profile picture to “Aleppo is burning." I forgot the hours of sleep below the bakery, the bakery that refused to give me even a tiny piece of bread. I forgot the pain of life without electricity when I turned the lights on and light came pouring down on me; I even did that twenty times until the bulb exploded while I was laughing hysterically. I forgot the explosive barrels when I was amazed by the glittering hygiene I saw. I forgot the chaos before I took a bath when I saw the clean water boiling along with the clean shampoos. I forgot everyone still in my country and I know for sure they are starving, tired, waiting for a piece of bread to be served. I tell my friends about my father who is probably dying now.

I forgot about the times I had to relight my cigarette seventy times a day because I thought it was the only thing keeping me alive. I opened the internet again and found my European friends picturing all kinds of food inside fancy restaurants, and I concluded, life is beautiful and a aweful at the same time. No one cares what happens there. Nothing there is worth mentioning anymore, no one knows what is happening except for the people who are living in that misery.

The Siege of Deir ez-Zor

I had to wake up at 7 am everyday, not from the sound of my alarm but from the sound of the daily airstrikes; but if that didn’t wake you up, then the sound of the sniper’s bullet definitely did.

I slept two or three hours a day because of that. And after I woke up, I found my mom preparing what we used to call “breakfast”. Our daily breakfast was one of the worst kinds of tea, which we prepared using firewood, it had no sugar but was served with some two or three day old bread.

Water and Za’atar

Water replaced oil and we would mix it with the zaatar and put it on the leftovers of bread. After I finished breakfast I still felt hungry, so I decided to go out and meet my friends in the streets. We are all poor, because the rich managed to leave the town. We sat together and asked each other if any of us still have a cigarette so we could smoke it together. My father took his motorbike to the market, even though we knew it was empty. But if we waited for him for so long, we would think he is carrying really heavy bags and that he is on his way home.

I could finally get some food after I worked for four hours. But on my way home I tried to hide it from my miserably hungry friends, so that they don’t ask me for the gold I have.

Journey to the Bakery

Before you left you had to pack. Anything you could get: water, a blanket and even food if you had some because it was a long journey, not in the distance but in the time we had to wait. You had to be the first to arrive, so you could get a number on your hand and with that number you would be eligible to stay the night below the bakery. Most of the times you would still not get any bread even though you had the golden number written on your hand.

On my way back home, I can’t describe the way I felt because I knew that some people were waiting for me and were thinking that I will come with the bread they’ve been waiting for. Once I returned I remained silent and allowed myself six hours to rest before beginning my journey again.

One day, on my way back home, still no bread, I sat down thinking with myself, without having made an appointment. Silently we smoked a cigarette with each other and poured some coffee, alas, on the carpet. We got some newpapers and a blue pen. We started writing an ugly poem. We tore it apart. Tried to write a novel, still, we tore it apart. We turned the beautiful pieces of paper into an ugly pile of curled papers. We spat on it and broke the pen. We got really mad and started breaking everything surrounding us. Suddenly we stopped because of our exhaustion and went back to chatting with ourselves:

"What do you want, stupid?"

"I want to see my life without war."

I slapped myself and said: "Do you see the stars now?"

Then I woke up now from my dream. A dream as if everything that happened to my homeland was only in my sleep. But it wasn’t.

Yes it’s war.

The war we drew on the pieces of paper when we were in primary schools and often we would get full marks after our teacher saw what we drew.

Most kids would draw tanks or missiles and collapsed buildings. Yes, we drew the war before it turned into a reality.

City of Tawabir

“Wait for your turn.” I got used to hearing this statement, I even started to miss hearing it, if I hadn’t in awhile. I kept staring at my palms that were labelled with two or three numbers; numbers that were often bigger than the money I carried in my pockets.

As usual, I drank what remained from yesterday’s cup of tea without even exhausting myself trying to heat it up. With this I had the leftovers of bread that were as hard as stones. I then prepared myself for my daily dose of sport in the fresh air.

I sprint fast to the bakery to sign myself up on the waiting list. My turn came after 962 other people. I kept looking carefully at my watch, and began to think: “Oh crap I missed my turn in the meat queue." Then I started running there, where the whole city is, and poor me, I’m late, I try, I can’t find any place… I slowly begin to accept my fate as I tear up a bit.

I then leave the “kerosine” queue, preparing myself mentally and physically for the “fuel” queue that usually ends up in fist fights and injuries and insults. As a result, the vendor would deprive us saying: “Y’all greedy and full of crap”. Then everyone would calm back down again, putting a fake smile on and cleaning the stains of blood off our faces so the vendor would be satisfied and start selling us gas again.

I endured a couple hours in that queue, alas, it only moved a couple of steps. I light a cigarette… Again and again… I feel resented… Bored… I want some excitement. I save my spot and go with confident steps. I look around and see nothing but countless queues for worthless things.

I arrived at the “establishment” to play one of my favourite sports: high jumping over people to catch my turn. There is no turn here… No numbers… Instead, the strongest survives.

I took a deep breath, jumped and I dropped my left shoe… God damn, I was literally swimming over people here. I got punched and kicked and humiliated, but I continued resisting. A heap of dirty words came pouring down on me after I mistakenly put my foot in someone’s mouth. He was crying of pain because someone else kicked him at the same time. I did not care and I endured till the point of no turning back. The window of luck. You give them money and take whatever comes back. No questions asked. My share was two radishes and cress. A beautiful victory.

I looked for my shoe between the crowd but I couldn’t find it. I didn’t really care because the euphoria of victory made me forget everything. Everything except for the queue of milk that I had to rush to quickly.

I arrived! But, they had run out. My frustration was unimaginable.

I picked up my things from here and there and walked back home on bare feet, swaying with happiness and frustration. Like a warrior, who only won half the battle.

Story of the Siege


After one year, we forgot about “electricity”. I walked on the streets at night, skillfully dodging all kinds of hollows and pavements, even though nothing was to be seen. I recognized everyone, without seeing them, from the way they walked… Or their voice… Or the sound of their empty stomach.


How beautiful were the stars and how clear they looked at night.

I lit my candle, adding a touch of romance to the crippling hunger that devoid my body of all its remaining energy, only to put the light out again and drift off to the orchestra of my stomach’s moaning, much like the sound of an untuned violin. Honestly, I didn’t fear the absence of electricity as much as I feared it all coming back to me suddenly, the bright lights causing me to lose my mind or vision.




The water bucket. As soon as the pumps started rotating and underground life returned back to them, everyone above started to celebrate… Children, women and elders. Everyone trying their best to lift their share of water. A child got a bottle, a woman got a stroller, attempting to fill it to the max, and poor men got as much as their strength could hold, but what is strength when it comes from hunger.


I grabbed my bucket and went outside to one of the nearby entrances. Three floors. The first for property owners, the second for arrivals like me, and the third for stakeholders. There were countless buckets in front of me, looking like a surrealist painting with multiple shapes and colours, but the purpose was: anything that can hold water.


Everyone moved fast, like a huge colony of ants fearing that they may be crushed by Soliman and his soldiers. Fill your bucket, go home, empty it, then return to the queue as fast as possible. You never knew if the amount you managed to collect would last long enough or not. I met the owner of the property, an ugly old man. His voice sounded like a truck carrying sheep and he smelt the just like it. I lit his cigarette. He was despised by everyone but I complimented him. I told him a joke and he laughed. That’s when I took my chance and grabbed my bucket, hoping to join the stakeholders’ floor. He shouted at me: “Wait for your turn! Who do you think you are?”. I returned to bucket number 100.


How beautiful were we when we talked to each other, exchanging our thoughts, everyone by his bucket. We planned and discussed the situation of our country, but when someone’s turn came up, they washed their head and left instantly, hoping to return. A bunch of women over there started shouting and insulting each other. They started to grab each other’s buckets and it got quite physical.


Finally, I filled my bucket! Then repeated the whole procedure another four times. One of these times I took advantage of a fight between two families and got my water without having to wait for my turn. I am only peaceful. I only want my water. Water for peace. And peace on us for what we are lacking.


After finishing, I sat down on the sidewalk, all my muscles sore. I lit my crusty cigarette. I saw women dragging strollers, men carrying heavy barrels on their backs and kids running happily with some bottles. People shouting. But everyone just wanted water. It was like a festival with all the shapes and colours of buckets. Suddenly, water stopped running through the pipes. One heard all kinds of curses and insults. Someone over there smashed his bucket on the property owner because he did not get enough water. Someone else was celebrating because he managed to fill everything he had. This is life, winners and losers. But there everyone was a loser no matter how much you won. People began moving back home, they were all shaky from exhaustion. The town became calm once again. The darkness settled. The cats started towards the garbage containers for dinner. Everything is over. As if there is no war.

Translated and edited with the help of Badr Soliman, Yara Hamad and Berenike Melchior

Keep updated on Adb's writings on his blog

Feature Image: Abhishek Srivastava