Syrians flock to pop-up Ghouta markets after years under siege

Douma (Syria) (AFP) –


Ahead of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, a market in Syria's ravaged Douma is drawing hundreds who can finally afford food, cleaning supplies, and toys after years of siege.

Sponsored by Syria's ministry of trade, the four-day market opened on Sunday in a vast courtyard in Douma, the main town in the onetime opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta near the capital.

Regime forces recaptured Ghouta last month after a ferocious offensive that displaced tens of thousands, both to government-controlled zones around Damascus and to opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

Those who stayed are trying to piece their lives together, and many from Douma and the surrounding towns headed to the market on Sunday to buy goods for their damaged homes.

Crowds of men, women, and children streamed into the maze of stalls offering detergent, strained yoghurt, and instant coffee, among other goods.

Umm Mohammad, a 50-year-old shopper, peered at the price tag on a can of processed meat before putting it back on the shelf.

"My kitchen in Douma was empty, but several days ago I started fixing it up and preparing it to be full of all kinds of things," she told AFP.

She sported a full-body black robe and face veil and was already carrying bags weighed down with food.

"I'm going to rush home to my children after buying them butter and halawa," she said, referring to a crumbly, sesame-based sweet.

The goods at the market cost just a fraction of what they did months ago, when a five-year siege made food, medicine, and other basic goods either hard to find or too expensive.

- 'Impossible to pay' -

As the stocks at storefronts dwindled over the years, Ghouta's 400,000 residents were left relying on rare deliveries of humanitarian aid or products smuggled in through tunnels.

"I haven't seen this in years," said Hassan Saryoul, a 42-year-old resident, holding up a box of paper napkins.

"Napkins were like drugs -- virtually banned. A kilo of sugar cost 22,000 Syrian pounds (around $50) but now it's around 500 pounds," he told AFP.

He was already carrying bags in both hands and struggling to manoeuvre around the masses of shoppers: "If I could carry even more things, I would have."

Nearly 40 companies are displaying their wares at the "Goodness in Ghouta" market. It is the second such government-backed effort in Ghouta in recent weeks, after a similar market in the nearby town of Kafr Batna.

Syria's minister of trade and consumer protection Abdullah al-Gharabi told reporters a total of six such markets would be organised throughout Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting which begins late Tuesday.

Ghouta fell to rebels in 2012 and was placed under a crippling siege the following year.

With help from its ally Russia, Syria's government recaptured Ghouta one month ago through a blend of military pressure and population transfer deals.

Raed Zabadina pulled bottles of laundry detergent, bleach, and shampoo from the shelves behind him and packed them into bags for impatient customers.

"It's natural there'd be so many customers in the cleaning section. A big box of detergent costs 500 Syrian pounds here, while a small box in the past would cost 3,000 pounds," he told AFP.

"This amount was just impossible for people to pay."

Mohammad al-Hafi, 31, was also barely able to catch his breath behind a booth selling City Cafe, the ubiquitous brand of Syrian instant coffee.

"I had to shut the door because of the crowds. People here are buying much more because of how desperately they need food and other goods," Hafi told AFP as he jotted down sales numbers.

Just outside the market, Douma remains devastated, with mangled cars rusting outside crumbling buildings and rubble still littering the dusty streets.

Syrian flags, portraits of a beaming President Bashar al-Assad, and brightly coloured posters advertising the pop-up flea market were plastered all over the gutted concrete residences.