AL-SHADADY, SYRIA - By early afternoon brown dirt blocked the sunlight and a film of dust had settled on the counter. Abbass, 21, packed up a small window display of gold jewelry while his father tapped on a calculator.
The sandstorm in northeastern Syria was going nowhere. No sense staying open for the day.
The men lingered in the shop with a couple of neighbors, hoping the storm would pass before the walk home. They told us only their nicknames, joking that if the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad returns, they may be looking for rebels and leftover IS fighters. They didn’t want to risk saying too much to reporters.
“The point is, we don’t care about politics,” explained Mohammad Abdou, after closing down his vegetable stand outside. The dust was building up on the creases of the glass door. “We just want security, justice and services.”
In 2012, as Syria's civil war deepened, the Assad government still controlled al-Shadady. In 2013, rebel and Islamist groups took over. A year and a half later, IS swept in. Last year, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces took over.
“Since the crisis, they have all been bad,” added Abu Mohammad, a farmer who moved to al-Shadady four months ago after fleeing aerial bombardments in the Deir el-Zour countryside.
By “crisis” he meant 2011, when the government cracked down on Arab Spring protests and the war began. In this town, like much of the Syrian countryside, there are only two times: before the crisis, and after the crisis.
Abdou, the vegetable seller, says the town has never been safer than now with Kurdish authorities in charge. But there is no electricity, hospitals are closed, and what overpriced fuel there is, requires paperwork and permissions to purchase.
“The schools are open,” adds Abdou. “But they only recently got books. Now every ten children share one textbook. “They are not getting an education.”
IS: the best and worst
The dust storm continued to blow for hours, and people eventually emerged from their homes, despite the whirling desert in the air. Passersby trudged down the street with their heads down against the blowing dirt, and a few motorcyclists zipped by in masks.
Mirar, age 6, stared out of the glass door. The room had grown dim and the single generator-powered bulb glowing in the corner had little effect.
“We come from the desert,” said Abu Abbass, the father of Mirar and seven others, who owns the small currency exchange and jewelry shop. He wore light, traditional clothes and a crisp white and red-checkered scarf on his head. “For us, this is normal.”
The other men laughed and, to pass the time, told us about the pros and cons of Islamic State rule. In many parts of this region, IS is deeply hated for murdering civilians, mutilating bodies, holding families captive and other crimes.
But in Shadady, the militant group was strange but not barbaric, according to the men.
“In terms of security and services, Daesh was the best,” said Abdou, referring to Islamic State by another name. “If somebody did something bad, there was justice.”
Under IS, he said, the town functioned with electricity, trash pick-up, support for agriculture and other services. On the other hand, he added, their ideas were strange and sometimes frightening.
“Daesh was also the worst group that ruled this area,” Abdou continued. “Yes there was electricity and safety, but they would intimidate people. For example, if I took my daughter to the market they would demand to know who she was, and want proof. Who carries proof that their daughter is their daughter?”
Neither IS nor Assad would be welcomed back to Shadady, Abdou continued, arguing the current Kurdish leadership is not considered that great either. It keeps the town safe, the men told us, but provides almost no services.
Registering cars, buying fuel and even attending the school can be incredibly complicated and sometimes nearly impossible.
“We need a new authority,” said Abdou, adding that he was not sure where to start.
“This area is in chaos,” continued Abu Abass as Mirar moved behind the counter to join her father. After the ouster of the Syrian government, then Islamic State, it is unclear if the town will be contested again, or if Kurds will remain in charge.
One thing the current local government is doing that is working is the orderly re-settlement of families fleeing the war with IS. The influx people is bringing business to Shadady, according to Mohammad, the man who fled his farm near Deir el-Zour.
“The markets are usually full and the streets are busy,” he said. “So it is good.”
Mohammad got up and shook our hands, saying storm or not, he was late to get home.
“You are going to walk?” I asked, wondering what was important enough to venture out into this storm.
“It’s only a kilometer,” he said, laughing as he faded into the blowing dirt.