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Imagine Waiting 6 Hours To Buy A Couple Of Bags Of Bread

Abu Alaa leaves his home in Damascus at dawn to buy bread from his local bakery. There he stands in line for up to six hours to get the two packets of the round flat pita bread that government rations allow for a three-child family like his.

After this he goes to the gas station, where he usually waits a further six hours to buy the fuel he needs for his work as a minivan driver.

"Half of my day is spent waiting for bread — God, it's laughable," he says. "And the other half is spent waiting in line for diesel!"

Abu Alaa gives only the name he goes by in his neighborhood because he fears that Syria's repressive government does not want him to speak with foreign journalists.

Syrians across the country are facing shortages of subsidized bread at a time when, for many, it is one of the only foods they can still afford. The United Nations' World Food Program says that in this once middle-income country, some 9.3 million people, approximately the population, are food insecure.

The war in Syria is estimated to have killed more than half a million people and has left its cities in ruin. Millions have been forced to flee their homes.

Over the course of almost a decade, President Bashar al-Assad has won back control of approximately two-thirds of the country from opposition militias. But for citizens living in these areas, even if they are relieved about an end to the violence, there is little to celebrate. Already traumatized and impoverished by the conflict, they now suffer from an economic collapse that has shrunk the value of their salaries many times over while making goods more expensive.

In less than a year the Syrian pound lost over 70% of its value against the U.S. dollar. This sharp devaluation means the salary of a state employee is now worth as little as $20 per month (as opposed to around $400 before the war). The cost of a WFP food basket, which includes essentials like rice and oil, has increased some 247% since October last year.

And the United Nations says more people need food assistance now than they did even during the height of the conflict.

Earlier this month President Assad acknowledged the misery Syrians face, telling state television during a visit to the industrial hub city of Aleppo that these are "especially difficult and harsh times which Syria has not seen since its independence" in 1945.

Bread shortages increased sharply last September, along with a shortages of medicines and fuel. In October, the ministry of domestic trade and economy doubled the cost of a subsidized pack of bread to 100 Syrian pounds, while reducing the weight of each pack from about 2.8 pounds to 2.4 pounds and imposing limits on how much a family can buy. A two-person household is allowed one pack per day, while a family of three gets two packs.

Syria used to mostly produce enough wheat to feed its population but has had to import some of its supply since the conflict began in 2011. This year, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated Syria would produce up to 2.6 tons of wheat but need around 4.1 million tons for domestic consumption.

A combination of international sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and the freezing of Syrian assets in banks in Lebanon, which is suffering from its own economic crisis, has left the regime struggling to find the currency reserves it needs to pay for these imports.

The economic online journal The Syria Report says the government has struggled to get traders to fulfill its contracts. The Syrian regime's ally Russia has traditionally fulfilled most of Syria's wheat import needs but has provided significantly less this year.

This prompted some speculation that Moscow is trying to use the bread crisis as a lever of power over Damascus, while others say Russia is safeguarding its wheat to meet its own needs during the pandemic.

While sanctions do not target food purchases, the freezing of assets and banking restrictions by the West, have generally complicated trade with Syria. "As soon as they see the word Syria on a receipt banks don't want to touch it," a Damascus businessman recently told NPR last month, explaining the difficulties he has importing goods.

The economic crisis in Lebanon has proven a major blow. Syrian who had stashed their savings or business assets in Lebanese banks have seen their funds frozen as the country struggles with its own currency crisis. It's not known exactly the extent of Syrian funds are held in Lebanon. President Assad claims anywhere from $20 billion to $42 billion of Syrian deposits could be lost in Lebanon. "This figure for an economy like Syria is terrifying," he said.

The government's access to wheat is further complicated by the fact that a majority of Syria's own wheat fields remain outside of government control, held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria. Though the Kurdish administration has sold some wheat to the regime, analysts say they have kept much of the supply to meet the needs of their population.

The shortage of bread available in subsidized bakeries is compounded by a thriving black market. An activist in the Syrian town of Sweida, who asked not to be named for his own safety, tells NPR that profit margins are so small in government-subsidized bakeries that many of these bakeries sell some of their allocated wheat supply on the black market — where bread is available at more than ten times the subsidized price — so that they can pay their employees.

The war has fueled income inequality in Syria and spawned an elite of war lords and loyalists that been handsomely rewarded for their allegiance to the regime in difficult times. Goods are available for the small elite who can afford them.

"Food is absolutely available. Iphones are available! The PlayStation 5 is available in Syria right now," says Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy. "There is a segment of society, many of them individuals linked to war profiteers, who can afford this. And then there is over 90% of the population living in abject poverty."

The shortages are fueling desperation and anger. The activist in Sweida says people who own a gun regularly use their weapon to skip the line. The government has reportedly also given priority to its soldiers and militiamen, allowing them to jump lines and removing the ration restrictions.

For ordinary citizens, this all means they can sometimes wait in line for hours just to be told there is no bread left for the day. Arguments often break out, and local media reported men killed in Latakia and Hama during that fights that broke out in bread and fuel lines.

"We're either fighting with the bakeries or with distribution centers," a woman in Homs tells NPR, asking not to be identified fearing that speaking with a foreign journalist could get her arrested. "People are killing each other over just bread."

She says the rationed amount of bread they do get, after waiting in line, is not enough for her family of three children and that they all go hungry sometimes. She lists the prices of other foods, explaining how most are beyond what she can afford. She says two pounds of lamb is 18,000 Syrian pounds, almost half her husband's monthly salary as a state employee.

This new hardship comes on top of the family's suffering from the war. This woman's brother was arrested on the way to the hospital where his wife was in labor. He died in jail. The family insists all he ever did was protest peacefully against the government.

So she now helps care for his family as well as hers. They are in survival mode. Her children haven't even tasted eggs in four months. "This is not just us," she says. "This is all families in Syria."

Additional reporting by Nada Homsi

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Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.