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How Syrian Bakers Are Making Bread Against All Odds

Even in a time of war, Syrians' high standards for bread are uncompromising. Bakers have implemented unique techniques to provide the daily bread under conflict.

Editor's Note: Welcome to part two of our three-part series on the critical role that seeds, wheat, and bread play in the current Syrian crisis, as reported by journalist Emma Beals. In the second installment, Beals reports on how bakers have implemented unique techniques to provide the daily bread under conflict. Click here to read the first installment.

"The bread is so important in our food culture. The Syrian bread is so simple, and tasty," says Abu Saleh, the nom de guerre of a baker. Because bread is at the heart of Syrian cuisine, it, along with the bakeries that make it, are hugely important in Syrian society.

"The best thing about it is that it has the perfect combination between cheap wheat flour and awesome taste," said Raoul Halabi, a Syrian living in Turkey who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, remembering life in northern Syria before the war. "We used to go and buy bread for 100 SYP (US$2 at the time) and it'd last us for a week. This would usually happen alongside buying foul—stewed fava beans—"on Fridays."

Syrians' high standards for their bread, even in this time of war, are uncompromising. When the Turkish NGO IHH began providing bread for Syrian refugees on the war-torn Turkish-Syrian border early in the conflict, most Syrians wouldn't eat it. The light, white flour and fluffy bread that Turks eat with most meals wouldn't cut it. The wheat was also different than the kind used in Syria. Ideally, the special whole wheat flour has a higher protein content: 16.5 percent compared to the usual 11.5 to 12 percent found in white bread. So IHH began producing its own flour, ordering it specially from a mill in the country and baking it in a huge, custom-built bakery in the border town of Reyhanli.

Recently in besieged areas, the flour has become special because it's not all wheat. Abu Saleh has been a baker for over 30 years, beginning as an apprentice who weighed and packaged the bread but has now moved up through the ranks. He resides in Douma, in rural Damascus, an area that has been under siege by the government since November, 2012. "Now it is wheat flour mixed with cornmeal or barley flour, so the test changed and the quality of the bread as well," he says.

IHH is not the only NGO to have found that this preference for a specific type of flour and bread presents challenges when delivering aid. Another international NGO that provides wheat and bread support inside the country said the unique flour presents production problems.

The baking process involves a specific technique, for which Abu Saleh explains his tried and tested approach: "To make it, we mix the flour with salt, yeast, and water in specific amounts. Then we make it into balls and we leave it for couple hours to rest and to leaven. We use some machines to size out the bread and make the pieces the same shape and size before we bake it at 500 degrees [Celsius]." The bread only needs a very short blast at this incredibly high temperature before it's ready to eat.

"The amount of flour and the quality of it used to be supported by the government, but now the flour is private."

The bread he makes is round and flat and eaten with almost every meal. This makes the price of bread one of the best ways to track the impact of the crisis on the lives of Syrians, such as the residents of Douma, who rely on Abu Saleh's bakery. On average, in regime-held areas, bread costs three to four times more per bag today than it did before the war, according to data gathered by the WFP. In besieged areas, the average figure increases to ten times the pre-war pricing, with the highest increase seen in the divided city of Deir Ezzor. Although bread prices were, in real terms, increasing before the war (due to the nationwide drought), nothing prepared people for the disaster that has followed.

The change in price is also due to the source of the flour used to make the bread: "Everything has changed now," says Abu Saleh. "The amount of flour, and the quality of it used to be supported by the government, but now the flour is private." Husks and bran, the latter mainly used for animal feed before the conflict, are increasingly being used to stretch the supply out. Due—among other things—to the importance of bread in the Syrian diet, wheat production has always been heavily centralized by the government. After buying wheat crops off of farmers, officials would then also subsidize the milling of the flour and the baking of the bread. This meant that the real price of bread was artificially suppressed for years, with the government making up the difference in the cost of production. Within government-held areas, wheat and flour are increasingly supplied by Iran and Russia due to the loss of arable land and the inability of the government to make purchases on the international market.

In Douma, bread is no longer subsidized by the state. Occasional humanitarian aid makes it into the area, allowing bakers to produce some bread, but they often buy it off of local business people who bring it into the area. "We get the other materials by smuggling them from the regime areas, and the salt," says Abu Saleh, talking of one of the systems that has allowed areas besieged for years now to sustain human life in some small way. Indeed, in 2013, the regime and rebels temporarily made a truce in Idlib Province, because the wheat fields and flour mills stood on either side of the frontline. The fighting was halted long enough for the rebels to send the grain they controlled to the government millers, and then both sides shared the finished product. This was an exception to the rule, though, as smuggling is the main means of transporting bread into besieged areas. But such smuggling is costly: fees and bribes must be paid out at checkpoints to ensure delivery. In the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, for instance, these payments account for a 300 percent price markup. Additional complications include the scarcity of fuel for baking and even of yeast, which is short supply due to the loss of the factories producing it.

"Ten bakery attacks is not random—they show no care for civilians and strongly indicate an attempt to target them." A year later, activists found that at least 80 bakeries had been systematically attacked.

These bakeries are big. "The capacity of this bakery can take up to five to six tons of flour per day," says Abu Saleh. "But now there is no flour all the time so when we have flour and the other materials, we make bread, and when we do not have them, people stay hungry." In Darayya, another besieged suburb in rural Damascus, the Local Council explained that all of the bakeries are now closed because of the siege. In June 2016, enough wheat flour for an estimated 2,500 people made it into the area on the first UN aid convoy containing food to enter the area since 2012. The flour had to be distributed under heavy barrel bomb attacks to residents to use privately, since no central bakery exists.

A picture taken on June 19, 2016 shows pita bread at a bakery in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of the Syrian capital Damascus, as a part of an initiative to distribute bread to impoverished families in the Eastern Ghouta area during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. The bakery is managed by the Douma Society which was created in 1960. / AFP / Sameer Al-Doumy (Photo credit should read SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on June 19, 2016 shows pita bread at a bakery in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of the Syrian capital Damascus, as a part of an initiative to distribute bread to impoverished families in the Eastern Ghouta area during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images.

It's not only the scarcity of flour that interrupts the baking, but the attacks on them, which have persisted since the beginning of the war. "Bakeries are usually the most crowded places in a bazaar," says Raoul. Control of them is vital to both the government and the rebels. This makes them the perfect target for attacks on civilians aimed at starving the population and breaking their morale. Such tactics are as old and varied as warfare itself, whether it be poisoning wells, or spraying crop-killing herbicides from the air and bioengineering livestock diseases.

Not since World War I, when the combination of wartime privation, natural disaster, and naval blockades led to the Great Famine of 1915-1918 have so many faced such hunger. Back then, hundreds of thousands of civilians may have died across greater Syria from disease and hunger. Since then, mass starvation has come to be regarded as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. But that has not stopped it from being used as a weapon in innumerable conflicts up to the present. Syrian government forces, and more recently, their Russian allies, have focused on destroying bakeries from as far back as 2012. Ole Solvang was an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch in Aleppo in August 2012 at the time, when ten bakeries were attacked in a two-week period. According to Solvang, "Ten bakery attacks is not random—they show no care for civilians and strongly indicate an attempt to target them." A year later, activists found that at least 80 bakeries had been systematically attacked.

IHH has also been unlucky with their bakeries. Their Reyhanli complex burned down in an accident last year before being rebuilt and reopened this year. And a large bakery in Idlib, on the Syrian side of the border funded by the NGO, was destroyed by a Russian airstrike on November 29, 2015. It had previously been bombed in October, but the November bombardment was so extensive that it put it out of commission and interrupted the bread supply to civilians in the area.

"At the end, I want everyone to know that the bread for us is much more important than any other kind of food, because it is cheaper and everyone uses it," says Abu Saleh. Forget the high protein biscuits and spread favored by aid organizations. For him and those who live in his area, this staple is the heart of any meal. With only a few years left in him before he retires, he hopes his bakery will be back to full capacity and burning at the heart of Douma again soon.

*Additional reporting by Paul Mutter