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Hours In Bread Lines: People Across Syria Struggle To Get Food

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Syria, in the government-held areas far from the frontlines of the civil war, there are still shortages of everything from fuel to medicine to bread. The U.N. food agency says food shortages are worse than at any time since the war began in 2011. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut talked with Syrians about what life is like.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Abu Alaa lives in Damascus, and we get in touch with him moments after he's finally managed to buy bread. To do this, he woke up at dawn and headed out of the house.

ABU ALAA: (Through interpreter) I arrived at the bakery at exactly 6 a.m., and I was surprised to find 60 or 70 people already there. I thought I'd be the only one this early.

SHERLOCK: He waited for five hours to get two packets of round flatbread that the government allows for a family of his size. Abu Alaa speaks with us using his nickname, fearing that the government wouldn't want him talking to foreign journalists. After he gets bread, he joins a line at a gas station to buy diesel for the minivan he drives people in for money.

ALAA: (Through interpreter) I wait six or seven hours in line every day to fill up so that I can work six or seven hours. Half of my day is spent waiting for bread. God, it's so laughable. And the other half is spent waiting in line to fill up diesel.

SHERLOCK: And even though it's winter, there's no subsidized heating fuel available yet.

ALAA: (Through interpreter) At night, we dress our kids very warmly and put heavy blankets over them. I can't explain to them.

SHERLOCK: Abu Alaa is not an exception in Syria. The U.N.'s World Food Program says that in this once-middle-income country, more than 9 million people have trouble getting food. That's more than half the population, and it's more than at any point during the war. There are many causes. There are international sanctions, and Lebanese banks have frozen Syrian assets because of their own crisis. Businesses have closed in the pandemic, and the civil war has interrupted wheat production.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow with the Center for Global Policy, has been speaking with residents across Syria. She says wheat shortages mean the regime has imposed controls on how much bread a person can buy from these subsidized bakeries. And even then, there isn't enough.

ELIZABETH TSURKOV: In many areas, you can basically stand in line for hours. And then - and this is particularly an issue in Damascus and in Daraa - you will just stand there, and you will not get anything.

SHERLOCK: There is a black market.

TSURKOV: Food is absolutely available. iPhones are available.

SHERLOCK: But the costs are many times what most can afford, and that's why you have even doctors, lawyers, architects waiting in bread lines. People are desperate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: This woman from Homs spoke without giving her name because she's afraid of Syria's repressive regime.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We're either fighting with the bakeries or the bread distribution centers, she says. People are killing each other over bread. In some places, militias or just people with guns use their weapons to jump the lines. And beyond bread, food gets expensive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The woman in Homs lists the prices of other foods. Two pounds of meat is 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 died in jail, arrested on the way to the hospital where his wife was in labor. She insists all he ever did was protest peacefully against the government. So now she cares for his family and hers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says the children sometimes go hungry, and it's been four months since they had eggs. And this is not just their situation. It's families across Syria.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LOOPED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.