Syrians sounding alarm over growing food shortages

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2012 

Syrian government forces on Oct. 31 shelled a bakery in Al Atarib outside Aleppo, which had provided 30 tons of bread a day, serving 200,000 people. Sixteen civilians were killed and more than 50 injured

MOHAMMAD SAYYED HASSAN — McClatchy

— With bread scarce in major cities and towns, infant formula in extremely short supply and fuel costs skyrocketing, civilians in war-ravaged Syria face an acute food crisis that might end in starvation for many, according to activists from around the country of 22 million.

In the eastern city of Deir el Zour, eight infants have starved for want of powdered milk since a major military assault there began in July, Syrians from the city told McClatchy at a conference in Ankara, Turkey. Severe food shortages were reported in nearly every province.

The activists also renewed charges that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have targeted the food chain by bombing bakeries throughout rebel-controlled areas. The activists, who represented municipal councils in most parts of Syria, had been summoned to Turkey as part of an attempt by the former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, Mohammad Bassam Imadi, to set up a new aid effort.

The attendees said pro-Assad forces had destroyed 38 bakeries since August, when Human Rights Watch first noted attacks on 10 bakeries in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The latest bakery to be targeted was Thursday in al Hajr al Aswad, on the southern edge of Damascus, according to reports from the scene and a video posted Friday on YouTube. Reports said four people were killed and dozens wounded in the artillery assault.

“When the regime first attacked Deir el Zour in July, they bombed all the bakeries – maybe 10 of them. There is now not a single bakery working in the city,” said Omar al Adday, a Syrian businessman now living in Saudi Arabia who’d recently been in Deir el Zour. Others echoed his claim.

Adday and others said the regime also had targeted bakery delivery vans and farmers.

Even in Latakia province, the heartland of the Alawite religious sect to which Assad belongs, food is in very short supply.

“We’ve got to the point now where we’ve seen people who don’t have any food,” said Abu Hadi, an activist from the coastal town of Jablah who identified himself by a nickname out of concern for security. “For around three months now, we have had hardly any grain. Our problem is delivery.”

Bread is central to the Syrian diet, and most of those questioned cited it is as the most essential need in the country.

The statements by those at the conference, called to set up an organization to be known as the Civil Administration Councils, squared with the reporting of major U.N. agencies.

In Aleppo, bread “is no longer available at any price,” a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, a U.N. agency, said Wednesday. Elsewhere, the price of bread has jumped to 250 Syrian pounds – $3.50 – for a 2.2-pound loaf, 15 times its previous price, the spokeswoman, Abeer Etefa, told McClatchy in an email.

International aid agencies are reeling from the size of the problem. Earlier this month, the U.N. food program, which has been providing food aid to 1.5 million people, announced that it had been forced to reduce the amount of food it could give to individuals because it was running short of money. The international community is failing to reach least 1 million people in need of food, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development said last month.

A dozen activists from 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces spoke to McClatchy during the four-day conference, which ended Monday. Others filled out surveys that asked for details of the humanitarian crisis in their home areas. Some highlights of the survey:

– The government has bombed at least 25 hospitals and clinics, and has killed or arrested dozens of doctors.

– Medicines are in short supply, with field hospitals in many areas critically lacking staff, basic drugs, bandages and equipment

– There are mass graves in at least eight locations, and suspicions of others that can’t be checked out.

But the food shortage was the biggest concern of the 30 respondents who took part in the survey.

The Sahel al Ghab plain, in Hama province, used to be one of Syria’s richest agricultural regions, producing grain, olives, rice, cotton and sugar. But this year has been disastrous because of the war. Several people from the area said their land wasn’t being farmed because of shellfire from regime-loyal villages.

Sahel al Ghab has a mix of Alawite villages, which are mostly loyal to Assad, and Sunni villages that were among the first to rise up against him. Tamam Salloum, from the Sunni village of al Huwaiz, said farmers were prime targets for regime-loyal shabiha militia.

“We have found bodies in the river Orontes, in plastic sacks,” he told McClatchy. “The regime arrested farmers, tortured them, tied them with rope, cut them with machetes, shot them – mostly in the head or the chest – then put them in sacks and dumped them in the river. We took them out and buried them.”

Mohammad al Turki, a fighter with the Tahrir Brigade in Hama, said a severe shortage of diesel fuel was another reason for the collapse in agriculture.

“Also there is a lack of fertilizer,” he said. “Regime tanks have destroyed irrigation canals. Army units are present in agricultural areas, and the army is stopping workers from getting to the land.”

Deir el Zour, in the east of the country near the Iraqi border, has lost most of its population of 280,000, with many residents moving north to the provinces of Hasaka and Raqqa. Those who remain rely on a trickle of bread brought in from Hasaka, 170 miles away.

“Some cars carrying just bread have been shelled,” said Adday, the businessman who’s living in Saudi Arabia. “There are some organizations bringing food to Deir el Zour from other cities, but the people delivering it have been killed by snipers at the same numbers as people who are actually fighting.”

He said one elderly man had died of hunger because he was trapped in an area that was under bombardment and nobody could reach him.

In Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, crucial supplies of grain from other provinces have slowed to a trickle, according to Abu Hadi, the Jablah activist, who now organizes aid deliveries from across the Turkish border. He accused the regime of systematically cutting off food even to its own supporters, then blaming the rebels for the shortages.

Abbas Muhabiddin, a businessman from the besieged town of Qusayr in Homs province, arrived in Ankara after a perilous four-day journey, zigzagging across Syria to avoid regime checkpoints. He said the biggest need in his town was bread.

“To make bread we need an oven, we need flour and we need fuel,” he said. “Seventy percent of our need (for bread) is not being met.”

Flour and fuel once were supported by heavy government subsidies, but these have stopped. The price bakeries pay for a quart of diesel fuel has shot up to more than a dollar from just under 10 cents. The town has been under heavy bombardment for weeks, and its economy is at a standstill.

Muhabiddin said some people had been going to other areas to buy bread, such as the city of Homs, but that three had been killed. With the rapid devaluation of the Syrian pound and a surge in fuel prices, the price of the journey has shot to 1,000 pounds – $14 – from 7 pounds – about 10 cents.

“Right now, it is about food and diesel fuel,” said Omar Shawaf, an expatriate Syrian engineer who helped organize the conference.

“We are at the very abyss now regarding a very severe shortage of food. We don’t have enough money to deliver flour, and if we do, we don’t have the fuel to operate the bakeries. Most of what we know is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s becoming clearer that this is a catastrophe.”

Raymond is a McClatchy special correspondent. Gutman reported from Washington.

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