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Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 4:38pm

Life In Damascus: Plenty Of Food, Not Enough Electricity

The author is a Syrian citizen who is not being identified for security reasons.

When I have taken breaks from the conflict in Syria and gone to neighboring Lebanon, I have usually returned with all the things that were in short supply in Damascus: bread, yogurt and tissue paper, to name just a few items.

This time, all I had to bring back was cat food, the high-quality type, because the regular stuff was available at grocers around Damascus, albeit for twice the usual price.

This is not to say that all is well in the Syrian capital.

But many food shortages have eased lately, thanks to years of food self-sufficiency in Syria and some recent help with fuel from Iran and Iraq.

For years, Syria has focused on growing its own food. Wheat and produce were among the country's main exports in 2010, the year before the beginning of the uprising turned civil war.

Produce Stores Are Well-Stocked

Today, as the conflict approaches the two-year mark, this food policy seems to be paying off.

On a recent stroll through the fruit and vegetable market in downtown Damascus, locally grown apples and oranges sat along the more exotic but also local ashta fruit and kharma, which looks like a tomato but tastes very sweet.

Just a few weeks ago, such abundance would have been unusual. Major food shortages had left middle-class Damascenes stranded in the bread lines for hours.

That was mainly because of a shortage of fuel, not flour.

Now, after fuel exchanges with Iran and Iraq, the bread ovens in Damascus churn out enough pita bread to meet local demand.

Recent media reports have documented monthly supplies of fuel oil coming from Baghdad. Also, reports suggest that Iran and Syria have arranged a gasoline-for-diesel swap to help mitigate the international sanctions against them.

Many merchants credit this fuel injection for helping transport and deliver food to the capital.

But there is an electricity shortage.

A typical household in Damascus now suffers six hours or more of electricity cuts every day. Damaged power stations throughout the city no longer provide for commercial districts. Many shops in the city now have a small generator in front of their door to produce electricity.

Meanwhile, a pharmacist explained how Syria's ongoing conflict continues to produce shortages of prescription drugs.

"Especially if they used to come from a factory in Aleppo," he said.
"Then chances are we don't have them anymore, because most of the factories there have burnt down."

Damascus Better Off Than Most Cities

Damascenes know that their city is the final frontier in the civil war, which has ravaged many parts of the country.

In Homs, rebel-held pockets have been under siege for many months. People inside these areas have had little access to food or medicine, and they sustain themselves on handouts of staple foods from rebels.

In Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, the city is now divided into government-held and rebel-held areas and the front lines have changed little in recent months.

Rebels control a few small areas inside Damascus and a growing number of suburbs. Regime forces continuously shell these restive areas, using fighter jets and missile batteries placed on surrounding hilltops, producing booms and blasts heard throughout Damascus.

Civilians have largely fled these embattled areas, and many ended up with family in relatively calm central Damascus, which is under government control.

But even here, numerous roadblocks, menacing checkpoints and the constant threat of kidnapping prevents many from doing even basic things, like going to work. Many households have had a major loss of income, with inflation squeezing their budget even tighter.

As the winter settles in, a shortage of heating oil persists. When found, it sells for more than $2,000 to fill up a large household tank of a little more than 500 gallons a price prohibitively expensive for most people.

Many Damascenes continue to flee this hardship, joining hundreds of thousands who have already left Syria. With the Damascus airport closed, the main way out is by road to Lebanon.

On my recent return back from Lebanon, I saw cars standing bumper to bumper at the border, waiting their turn to depart Syria. Some had mattresses on their roofs and had packed so many nonperishable foods in their trunks that they would not close.

For those unable or unwilling to leave their home in Damascus, they try to go about life as usual. Families go out for a fast meal, and children play in public parks.

But there is no escaping the brutal reality that unfolds every day. Death notices, plastered as fliers on city walls, are more numerous than ever before.

One such notice went up on Tuesday, shortly after I arrived home. It mourned the loss of a husband and wife, along with their two young daughters and son. They had perished in clashes just outside the city.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit