Parallels
1:24 pm
Mon October 7, 2013

A Chemical Attack, And Now Food Shortages In Syrian Town

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 9:46 am

The author is a Syrian citizen in Damascus who is not being further identified for safety reasons.

The boy on the bicycle wasn't old enough to have facial hair. His feet barely reached the ground as he stopped and moved, circling the soldier manning the government checkpoint in east Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.

"Please, just one bag of bread," the boy, lips quivering, said to the soldier. "Just one."

"I told you, no. No means no, young man," the soldier replied. "No food is allowed inside." He seemed somewhat pained at having to deprive a child of food.

A chemical weapons attack in east Ghouta on Aug. 21 killed an estimated 1,400 people and led to an international agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Now, more than six weeks later, the area remains hotly contested with the rebels still in control but troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad besieging east Ghouta.

Thousands of civilians still live inside, but government soldiers man checkpoints at the only two entrances to the area to prevent bread, baby milk, medicine, fuel and foodstuff from entering. This has left residents dependent on local food and assistance from aid groups. The state has cut off electricity, as well as landline and cellphone services. Rocket attacks and air raids continue.

The Cost Of Bread

During a visit to a young lawyer's home, Ayman, the host, insisted on serving lunch. He offered eggs fried in olive oil, served with cheese and tomatoes — all local ingredients. But first he had to step outside to get some bread.

To get around the government siege, many residents acquire bags of flour from smugglers at exorbitant prices, and deposit them at their local bakery. Every day, they pick up freshly baked pitas.

To feed a family with eight large slices of bread, it costs about 400 Syrian pounds, which can be $2 to $3 depending on the exchange rate. That makes it more expensive than the going rate of about 300 Syrian pounds for a bullet for a Kalashnikov rifle. As a result, most people can only afford to eat bread a few times a month, if at all.

Ayman returns with his daily bread, but it's not the traditional pita. It's flat and round, and has no pocket. It's more like Indian nan, but softer.

It's delicious, but the host and his friend explain it's not as filling as the real stuff.

"We used to eat this type of bread only on occasion, with certain types of dishes," he said. "But now, it's all we have."

He's right. I eat plenty but don't feel full.

A Contrast With Damascus

Life in rebel-held territory is very different from life in government-controlled central Damascus, just a 30-minute drive away.

Even the poor in central Damascus manage to find bread and plenty of food from charity groups. In east Ghouta, many people have sold their refrigerators — they have no use for them without electricity — so they must buy their perishable food and eat it the same day.

All this is irrelevant for the soldiers who man the checkpoints that choke east Ghouta.

Residents have endless stories about what they or their families have endured at these checkpoints. They say that many soldiers, uneasy with what they are required to do, have defected in recent months.

But authorities recently placed an officer on site to ensure that soldiers enforce the ban on bringing in food and everything else. Perhaps this is what the soldier on duty was referring to while talking to the boy on the bicycle.

"I told you, no food allowed. I didn't make the rules," he shouted, somewhat exasperated. "There are people bigger than me and you who make these rules, and they're watching us right now. No food is allowed inside. Now go away."

The boy slid back onto his bicycle seat with resignation. He struggled for a few seconds with balance before he rode off into east Ghouta.

The soldier, who wore a beret and donned sunglasses, sighed deeply. He then turned his attention to those next in line: a large family waiting to be searched before entering Ghouta.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.