Twelve million Syrians are now classed as ‘food insecure’ by the UN
The mother of four plans her nights as if they were days.
She makes sure she has sufficient sleep during the day, to stay alert at night, wanting to be among the first people in the queue at a Damascus bakery to get her hands on subsidised bread.
She has to wait every other day from midnight until 4:30am, until the window opens for distribution.
Sometimes she takes a short nap if she can, but is always anxious about missing her place or having to go all the way back to the end of a one-kilometre queue.
She gossips or cracks jokes with mothers in the queue to stay awake, trying to find levity in the bitterness of life after 10 years of a devastating war. A cup of coffee is now a luxury for her.
Despite a decade of brutality, killings and displacement, the mother is still astonishingly resilient.
“We have to adapt. Not even bread was spared the brunt of the war,” she said in an interview for The National conducted by a journalist in the Syrian capital.
The mother, Samah, cleans houses to make a living.
The severe shortage of bread added to the plight of people already worn down by the consequences of the conflict.
A family of four is entitled to two packets of bread a day (seven pieces of bread each) for 100 Syrian pounds a packet ($0.19) through a smart-card system first introduced in 2014 as a hopeful solution to the fuel shortage.
Ten years on, food prices have increased because of international sanctions, high fuel prices and the continuing depreciation of the Syrian pound on the informal market.
The overwhelming majority of families cannot afford the cost of basic food such as bread, rice, oil and sugar.
They are part of a population classed as “food insecure”. That means they cannot survive without food assistance. The total number of Syrians enduring this plight has reached 12.4 million, according to the latest report by the World Food Programme.
The UN agency issued a warning that 4.5 million more people became food insecure in the past year alone. Today, almost 60 per cent of Syrians are unable to afford even a basic meal.
The country also relies heavily on wheat imports.
The production of wheat is far below the pre-crisis average of 4.1 million tonnes a year owing to the war and recurrent massive fires that are sometimes started maliciously in areas where there is still fighting.
“Families are already reporting that they are making difficult decisions such as spending less on medicine, eating smaller portions and fewer meals while prices are high. In the past year alone, the price of basic food has increased by a staggering 222 per cent and this puts immense pressure on the most vulnerable families to buy the food they need,” the WFP’s Syria director Sean O’Brien told The National.
“There is currently not a famine in Syria, however families are at great risk should the economic deterioration continue and the WFP is closely monitoring this situation.”
Breadlines have become common in cities including Damascus. Syrians can wait in queues for up to six hours.
Despite this, government media outlets are still trumpeting successes in increased wheat production.
But disgruntled government employees, unemployed people, students and even children speak anonymously of unprecedented humiliation and hardship, which was absent before the war.
First come not necessarily first served
Inequality is also a key problem in breadlines.
“You might spend five hours waiting for your turn, only to be rudely dismissed by the service providers who have run out of bread. They profiteer from allocating a big chunk of bread packets to backdoor dealers,” said Samah.
Because of chronic unemployment, some Syrians eke out a living from selling bread at four or five times the subsidised price.
Black market sellers include students and schoolchildren as young as 11.
The National spoke to a boy in a Damascus neighbourhood who dropped out from school. He now sells bread on the road for his grandfather, a retired civil servant.
The boy was abandoned by his mother, a sex worker, and his father was jailed for drug trafficking.
His grandfather gives him 3,000 Syrian pounds to buy eight packets of bread, then he sells each one for between 500 and 700 pounds. His cut is 250 pounds and his grandfather takes the rest.
“It’s very competitive. I have to lower the price in the market sometimes,” says the boy, 11, who says he last ate meat or chicken two months ago.
Another seller is a 19-year-old Spanish literature student at Damascus University.
She attends lectures three afternoons a week, which allows her to wake up early in the morning to obtain bread and sell it in the morning.
She is a main source of income for a family of six younger brothers.
In Syria’s breadlines, some bored men can lose their temper as they grow restless. Others are quick to lose their temper if people jump the queue.
“This led sometimes to quarrels where angry men used sticks. They attack each other violently, but so far I am not aware of any deaths in my daily queue. But it could happen,” said a 46-year-old father of three.