Syria's Deir Ezzor slowly comes to life after ISIS siege

A Syrian woman takes a selfie in front of a damaged Syrian army vehicle in Deir Ezzor, Sept 21, 2017.
A Syrian woman takes a selfie in front of a damaged Syrian army vehicle in Deir Ezzor, Sept 21, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

DEIR EZZOR, Syria (AFP) - Traffic is still rare in Syria's Deir Ezzor due to a fuel shortage, but life has slowly returned to its markets since regime forces broke a militant siege of the city.

Russian-backed government forces on Sept 5 ended the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's three-year siege of a government enclave in the city in eastern Syria.

They are now pressing their battle to retake all of the provincial capital, trying to corner the extremists in its eastern sector.

In western government-held areas, the wide avenues are deserted.

In one square, two uniformed traffic policemen monitor the rare cars that do pass by.

Only a few drivers have been able to find fuel since the end of the siege, after years of shortages.

Most private vehicles remain parked by the side of the road, covered in dust or protected by torn car covers.

A few men sit together drinking tea at the entrance of an apartment bloc, surrounded by abandoned buildings whose windows have been shattered.

In 2014, Deir Ezzor was the scene of fierce clashes between government forces and ISIS, who took control of much of the wider oil-rich province of the same name.

During the siege, some 100,000 residents in regime-held areas relied on UN or regime aid brought in by helicopter.

ITALIAN-STYLE ICE-CREAM

But today, markets in western districts have slowly begun to refill as food and other aid enters the city more regularly.

At night, the lights of those few shops equipped with generators spill onto streets filled with shoppers.

Young women in jeans and colourful headscarves, men in traditional dress and children in shorts walk in front of the stalls.

During the siege, "I lived on bulghur wheat and cereals," says Ahmed, a thin-faced man in his 50s, who says he lost 40kg.

But better times have come for many residents of Deir Ezzor.

In the market, chicken kebabs are prepared before they sizzle on the grill, and piping hot loaves of bread come out of the ovens.

Not far away, a snack shop employee prepares a sandwich from the hard-boiled eggs, fried potatoes, fried slices of aubergine and falafel lined up in front of him.

"Before we had to use wood to light the fire. Food tasted like wood," he says, adding that since the end of the siege cooking gas has become more readily available.

Outside one shop, near a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad, children push to get close to a dispenser of Italian-style ice-cream.

Besieged regime-held areas were constantly targeted by jihadist artillery fire during the siege.

CLEARING AWAY DEBRIS

Deir Ezzor governor Mohammed Ibrahim Samra says 20 per cent of buildings were destroyed in the regime-controlled areas of Deir Ezzor.

But the damage was not as severe as in some areas outside the city, he said.

"There wasn't a single building left untouched" in the previously ISIS-held Al-Baghiliya suburb or Ayyash village to the north of the city when troops arrived, Samra said.

In Al-Baghiliya, an AFP reporter saw a mechanical digger clearing away debris and municipal workers in green uniforms sweeping the streets.

To the south of the city, a military airport is back in service after a militant siege ended there too.

According to its deputy head, who did not give his name, the airport's damaged waiting room and control tower are being renovated.

But its runways remain intact, and two aircraft loaded with provisions for regime troops landed there on Monday for the first time in months.

"The airport is ready to welcome not just military airplanes but also civilians," the official says, adding that the surrounding area has been secured for a 20km radius.