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Ramadan grim in Damascus as prices skyrocket

War and inflation have tripled prices of food; power and fuel shortages make cooking increasingly difficult

Image Credit: Reuters
Middle class families in Damascus are finding it hard to make their ends meet due to increase in food prices during Ramadan.
Gulf News

Damascus: Syrians from all walks of life are struggling to make ends meet this Ramadan as food prices typically skyrocket.

At the local butcher in Al Midan, outside the walls of the Old City in Damascus, people are buying by ounce.

“We cannot afford to buy by kilo anymore,” Umm Mohammad, a widow, tells Gulf News.

“On our first day of Ramadan, my daughters and I broke our fast with soup and potato salad.”

The meal cost Umm Mohammad 4,000 Syrian Pounds (SP) or $7 which is a huge sum for the widow who survives on the retirement pension of her late husband, which is SP25,000 or $50 dollars a month — less than the monthly salary of a janitor.

“This is how the state rewards my husband after 35 years of loyal and hard work in the government sector. We are hungry and the state is responsible. They just blame everything on the war. If they really cared about us, they would force merchants to reduce their prices in Ramadan. The price of every commodity has increased by at least 25 per cent!”

Merchants boost their prices because of checkpoints and electricity shortages which make the transfer of goods and produce more costly.

Days before Ramadan, the Ministry of Electricity promised Syrians “less rationing” in Ramadan.

Indeed during the first week, power cuts dropped from 12 to 9 hours per day, with authorities insisting that this will last until right after the Eid holidays.

“We actually believed them and filled our refrigerators” said Ramez Miski, who works at a supermarket in Shaalan, near the Franciscan High School.

“The improvement lasted for one week only, and now not only are we back to 12 to 15 hours of power cuts daily, we don’t know when the electricity will shut off.

There is no timetable. The fluctuation of power turning on and off damages appliances like televisions, air conditioners, and fridges.”

Miski adds: “We now all having to buy electricity regulators — in addition to the generators we already have. Regulators cost around $400 USD — because they are in high demand.”

The price of a 50 kVA generator used to cost SP425,000($8,500).

It now sells for SP12 million. This is becoming essential for supermarkets, galleries, offices and similar commercial establishments. Smaller ones that cannot afford generators and electricity regulators are faring along with LED lights and rechargeable batteries, which ought to be changed annually and cost around $100 each.

“Who pays the price? The ordinary people,” says Najwa Abdul Wahed, a housewife who lives in Damascus’ Al Qaboun district.

“The big shots don’t care if the prices are raised tenfold as they are pocketing millions from the war.”

The price of Qamar Al Deen, an apricot paste popular during Ramadan, has doubled from SP600 for 400 grams to SP1,000.

A kilo of meat has also doubled in price from SP 4,000 to SP 8,000 making it completely unaffordable for Damascus’ middle class.

During the month of Ramadan back in 2011, an average home meal comprising salad, chicken, a main course, and dessert would cost SP500-600 ($10-12).

The same items cost SP3,000-4,000 today and if eating out, can reach up to SP10,000 per person.

“We never eat out anymore, we simply cannot afford it, ” said Anwar Shawwa, a former tour guide turned bus driver.

The price of fuel for home cooking — a must in every Syrian household — has also witnessed a dramatic increase.

Before the war it used to cost SP100-150 ($2-3) in ordinary neighbourhoods and up to SP300 ($6) in upscale Damascus.

“It now sells for SP3,500 ($7)” says Mazhar Serouji, a nurse at Al Rashid Hospital.

The price of cooking fat has increased by 300 per cent in just six years, mainly because of high demand.

“Since mazoot or heating fuel is unavailable — when we do find it is always too expensive for us — people are reverting to gas heaters to stay warm.”

Seventy-five per cent of the Syrian economy has been destroyed by the ongoing war since early 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)

The brutal war has claimed the lives of more than 465,000 Syrians and transformed nearly 6 million into refugees. An additional 9 million are internally displaced, with many households run by women. Most men have either fled the country to avoid death or forced military conscription into the Syrian Army, or are either in the armed forces, in jail, or have already died, forcing women to take up jobs traditionally reserved for men, such as taxi drivers, soldiers, and shishas attendants.

Most of Syria’s industrial complexes and factories, based in the northern city of Aleppo, have been dismantled and shipped off to Turkey, while Daesh hijacked nearly all of Syria’s oilfields.

Oil used to account for 30 per cent of the Syrian economy, but it has now been crossed off the income chart, and so have other money generating schemes such as public sector industry and tourism, both of which are dead since 2011.

The government has been teetering on bankruptcy, unable to manage its economy, provide services, and still bankroll the war effort.

“Taxes, taxes, taxes! That is the only source of income that the government has today. They cannot impose new taxes but are opening their old records, taxing people for transactions made and income earned 30-40 years ago. They are also charging astronomical fees for services, such as $800 to get a new passport.”

Laughing, Mohammad, an industrialist who did not want to be named, added; “This makes it the most expensive passport in the world and yet, one of the weakest because it can get you only into a tiny handful of countries, like Sudan, Venezuela, Russia and Iran.”