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In Syria, Ramadan is also a battleground

July 21, 2012 |  4:30 am

In embattled Syria, even Ramadan is a matter of dispute, with the government and the rebels disagreeing over when the holy month starts.

Syrian state television reportedly announced Ramadan would start Saturday, as it would in Iran and Iraq. The opposition Syrian National Council said it began Friday, in line with most other Arab countries and “the legitimate lunar vision.”

“The state said tomorrow. But we’re all fasting -- there is no state,” one Damascus resident and opposition supporter said when reached by Skype on Friday.

Violence and chaos are coloring Ramadan this year. As fighting continued to rage between government troops and rebels around Damascus, streets remained eerily quiet on Friday.

“It's not like any other Ramadan atmosphere,” said activist Abu Hadi, speaking via Skype from southern Damascus on Friday. “Cars are not moving like before. Shops are closed. Friday is one of the busy days around Damascus but now everybody is at home.”

Cities often grow quiet during Ramadan as fasting starts during daylight hours, but Friday was strangely silent even for Ramadan, especially in a usually bustling Middle Eastern capital like Damascus. Abu Hadi estimated almost all shops were closed in his neighborhood and only half were open in much of the city.

As dusk fell on Damascus and families gathered to break the day-long fast, shelling in the Mezze neighborhood forced some families to flee their homes, activist Lena Shami said.

Shami herself was at home with her family breaking their fast amidst the sound of shelling nearby. The month is both a festive and pious time for Muslims, where nights are dedicated to eating and gathering at a mosque for prayers.

"Now it's become sad, tense and somewhat scary," she said. "You know that those who live only 10 minutes away from you are in horrible circumstances with no food or shelter. Some of them may lose their homes, a loved one or a family member, just because Bashar [Assad, Syria's president] refuses to step down in a peaceful civilized manner."

 Elsewhere in the country, in Hama, residents were recalling the previous Ramadan, when the Assad government began an offensive to retake the city, which had become partly under opposition control. The festive time put the harsh crackdown into sharp focus.

This year the city, while still under control of the government, is in some ways better off.

"Ramadan raises the spirits," said Saleh Hamwi, a leader of the General Commission for the Syrian Revolution in the city of Hama. Their spirits were further raised by the rebel takeover of crossings along the Turkish and Iraqi borders and the continued fighting in Damascus.

But many people are without work and little humanitarian aid has trickled in, he said.

"Breaking our fast today was a tragedy. There were families who can’t find anything to break their fasts with after all these long hours of fasting,” Hamwi said.


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-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Times staff

Photo: A street in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus on Friday after days of clashes in the area. Credit: EPA/STR