In besieged Syrian areas, cost of living soars
Damascus - “You can get whatever you need if you have the money, otherwise you can starve to death,” said Abu Layla, a resident of Ghouta Sharqiya near Damascus, summarising the food situation in rebel-controlled areas of Syria where commodities are available only to those who can afford sky-high prices.
Monopolies and bribes paid to transport goods into the besieged area have sent prices of basic commodities skyrocketing 30-fold, and even 100 times in certain instances.
“Civilians are always the victims of war while warlords make profit,” Abu Layla said, accusing Jaysh al- Islam, the rebel group controlling the area, of monopolising goods and seizing food assistance delivered by international humanitarian organisations and the Syrian Red Crescent.
Abu Layla, a pseudonym used for security reasons, said leaders of armed militias have turned into food mafias, striking deals with big merchants in Damascus. “We are suffering from hunger while they are accumulating wealth in complicity with the regime, otherwise, how could it be possible to bring in the goods through army checkpoints and in broad daylight?” he asked.
“People in areas under the control of Jaysh al-Islam are going hungry because they cannot afford to pay for their food. They survive on a single meal a day and on vegetables and herbs that they grow in their backyards,” Abu Layla added.
In Ghouta Sharqiya, vital goods, including bread and sugar, are beyond the reach of most people. According to Usus, a website that publishes daily bulletins of commodity prices, the cost of 1 kilogram of bread has soared to 500 Syrian pounds — $1.60 — compared to its original price of 35 pounds. A kilo of sugar, which costs 70 cents in Damascus, is sold for $7 in Ghouta Sharqiya.
The minimum wage in Syria is around $50 a month.
What applies to Ghouta Sharqiya, which has been under siege for three years by forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is true in other besieged areas.
In rebel-held Moadamiyet al- Sham in rural Damascus, life differs from one street to the next. A single road separates the besieged town, where only 20% of the pre-uprising population of 100,000 remains, from the neighbourhood of Mashrou’ controlled by regime forces.
“In that neighbourhood you can find all commodities at normal prices, whereas in Moadamiyet al- Sham the same commodities are 20 to 30 times more expensive,” said Mohamad Ibrahim, one of the few remaining residents of the town.
He said residents suffered sheer hunger in the first months of 2014 when prices skyrocketed 100 fold, raising the price of a kilo of sugar to $100, when it sold for half a dollar just next door in Mashrou’. Prices dropped when a so-called reconciliation agreement was reached between government forces and the armed groups, eventually easing the siege. “Nonetheless, the prices remained high, at least ten fold, compared to the prices in Mahsrou’s neighbourhood,” Ibrahim noted.
Some of the most acute food shortages are in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, where control is shared between several rebels groups and government forces.
Food prices in the embattled camp fluctuate depending on the delivery of supplies by the UN Works and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). But since mid-July, heavy fighting forced the suspension of food deliveries, resulting in a staggering increase in prices.
“Food supply is monopolised by the Brigade of Sham al-Rassoul, which controls the only humanitarian corridor used to channel the goods,” according to Omar Sadek, whose family lives in the camp.
“These people have their own warehouses filled with goods, which they place on the market as soon as food supply to the camp is blocked, selling them at exorbitant prices,” Sadek said. Rice and sugar are priced at 1,300 pounds ($4) and 2,500 pounds ($8) per kilo, respectively, compared to 50 US cents for both commodities in Damascus.
The Yarmouk camp, which hosted about 150,000 Palestinian refugees prior to the Syrian civil war, has been besieged since 2012. According to UNRWA, 18,000 people are trapped in the camp without adequate access to food, water and electricity.
In Islamic State-held Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, people are starving in al-Koussour and Joura, the only neighbourhoods in government hands. About 300,000 people are trapped in the besieged quarters, which are linked to the outside world through Deir ez-Zor airport and a crossing on the Euphrates river.
Islamist militants have tightened the siege since the beginning of the year, preventing the entry of any food supplies from rural areas. As a result, all commodities, in addition to fruit and vegetables, became unreasonably expensive. Even yogurt and tomatoes are unaffordable, selling at $3 and $2 for the kilo, respectively, compared to their normal price of 30 cents and 2 cents.
According to journalist Zuheir Mashaan, the high cost of transporting the goods in addition to the bribes demanded of merchants at checkpoints to secure their deliveries to besieged areas led to the outrageous hike in prices of basic commodities, including sugar, rice, tea and bread.
“Merchants are paying $3 per kilo to ship the goods by air to Deir ez-Zor, an additional cost which consumers have to bear… Not to mention the monopoly and black market manipulation by local traders,” Mashaan said.
More than eight months of Islamic State siege turned the fertile Deir ez-Zor, known as the “land of goodness”, into a place of hunger and starvation. “People are dying every day under siege, with no medication for the ill or milk for children… while the world is watching…,” Mashaan said.