DEIR EZZOR, Syria (AFP) – Haitham al-Ahmad has been busy dusting down kitchen appliances ahead of the grand reopening of his pizza place, after government troops broke a crippling extremist siege of Syria’s Deir Ezzor.
He brought down the shutters on his restaurant nearly three years ago, when Islamic State (IS) group extremists cut off regime held parts of the eastern city.
Russian-backed Syrian forces broke through on Tuesday, and food supplies have now begun entering a western enclave of the city via the newly opened road.
In his “Prince of Pizza and Pies” restaurant in Al-Qusur district, Ahmad excitedly listed the dishes that will feature on his menu.
“I’ll serve meat pies, walnut and tomato paste, pizza, and mushahamiya” – a meatloaf especially made in Deir Ezzor.
“And all kinds of pastries,” he added.
“We’ll get back to work, and Deir Ezzor will go back to the way it was.”
The restaurateur sported a greying beard and a striped polo shirt, his arms covered in dust from cleaning out a long-disused oven.
Nearby, a young worker poured buckets of water into massive metal vats to rinse them out.
“I closed three years ago because I could no longer afford the oil, tomato paste or meat. What price would I charge customers?” said Ahmad.
Since 2014, IS has held swathes of Deir Ezzor province and about 60 per cent of the provincial capital of the same name.
The remaining parts of the city, where about 100,000 people lived, were put under crippling siege.
Syrian military aircraft used to fly in some aid, and the United Nations carried out dozens of air drops to provide assistance to desperate civilians.
But now that Syrian troops have broken through, reinforcements, food, medicine and other materials are able to enter overland.
On Saturday, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent began distributing supplies that had been trucked in the previous day.
Hundreds of civilians massed around huge green trucks, waiting to receive white cardboard boxes packed with bags of rice, bulgur wheat, olive oil and preserves, as well as hygiene products.
“Just looking at all this is making us full,” said 48-year-old Ghalia, standing near a wall featuring a painted Syrian flag.
“Insya Allah willing, no one will taste what we went through.”
Other residents headed for government warehouses where goods were being sold at reduced prices – hummus, sugar and animal fat used in Middle Eastern delicacies.
“We’re going to buy what we need because we were deprived of everything,” said resident Heba, who was waiting her turn in line.
The 24-year-old’s beaming face was framed by a bright fuchsia-coloured headscarf.
“There were children who didn’t even know what some fruits and vegetables looked like,” she said.
Bubbly Rama, just six years old, was ravenous.
“I’m going to eat chicken, fruit – we want to eat everything, we’re hungry!” she said. “As besieged people, we had nothing to eat. The army advanced to open up a road for us,” Rama exclaimed, before bursting into exhausted tears.
State media reported on Saturday that regime forces had broken the IS siege of Deir Ezzor military airport.
Also in line on Saturday, 58-year-old Umm Adel said she had long dreamt of whipping up an elaborate meal for her family. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years,” she said.
“I’ll be so glad to feed my children something filling for the first time in three years, without having to just eke something out.”