In besieged Syrian areas, cost of living soars

Friday 28/08/2015
A man searches for food in a garbage truck in the north-western city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province.

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.