Syrians Facing Coldest Winter Yet

Gunman in Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 12, 2013 (Photo by Ayman Zhrani)


By Salam al-Saadi

DAMASCUS, Syria, January 13, 2014 (ENS) – Fuel shortages are adding to the hardships caused by conflict and freezing temperatures across Syria. Forty-five-year-old Abu Khaled’s three sons stand in a long line on a cold December day in front of a petrol station in Qudsaya outside Damascus, hoping their combined efforts might get them enough diesel for heating.

“The petrol station won’t sell more than 20 litres per person because of the extreme shortage,” explained Khaled, 20, the eldest son. This is why all of us came together so we could get as much fuel as possible, in anticipation of it becoming completely inaccessible during this harsh winter.”

Gunman in Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 12, 2013 (Photo by Ayman Zhrani)

According to Khaled, petrol stations are selling diesel at prices that “change from day to day, ranging between 75 and 100 Syrian liras [53-70 U.S. cents] per litre, despite the fact that the government has fixed the price at 60 liras [42 cents] per litre.”

Khaled says that the family has no choice but to give in to this “blackmail,” given the extreme cold and the fact that the electricity is cut off for hours on end, meaning they have to rely on diesel for heating.

The challenges faced by Abu Khaled’s family are not unique. Rather, they represent the hardship facing the majority of Syrian families. Both in areas under regime rule and in those controlled by the opposition, millions of Syrians are suffering from a lack of adequate heating as they face waves of frost and snowstorms during this harsh winter.

The difficulties faced by people in areas under regime control is mainly due to the shortage of diesel fuel and the absurd inflation in its price, which has reached 150 liras per litre on the black market, according to Omar, 38. Omar is the head of a family of three now living in Sehnaya after being displaced about a year ago from the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus.

“We registered our family early in the summer in order to be able to get the allotment of 400 litres of diesel that the Syrian government promised to every family at the subsidised price of 60 liras per litre,” said Omar. “But here we are, in the middle of winter, and we still haven’t seen a single litre of the promised fuel.”

Syrian hands
Syrian refugee family huddles around a tiny fire (Photo by Save the Children Italia)

Omar is a government employee in an electricity company, but was forced to take on another job in the evenings because of his low income.

“I repair and install electricity cables in homes and businesses,” he said. “But despite that, my salary is still barely enough to buy diesel on the black market.”

As a result, Omar explains, his family relies solely on electricity for heating. “When the power is cut, we wrap ourselves up in extra clothes and blankets.”

In an interview with the Al-Iqtisadi website, Ali Merhi, the representative for the union of oil workers in Damascus, accused private fuel stations of “smuggling diesel to the black market.” He also indicated that petrol stations in the public sector are under tight government control, but the authorities “turn a blind eye to private-sector plants and their trade.”

The government has provided diesel to many Syrian families, some of whom have refused to accept it. Abu Qusay, who lives in the Jaramana suburb, feels “deep regret” after the government offered him 200 litres of diesel in September and he refused to accept it because he did not have enough money.

“When I registered my name to be able to get the diesel in May, the price of one litre was set at 35 liras, but the government then raised it to 60 liras, and that was a very high amount given my income,” he said.

At the outbreak of the protests in Syria in 2011, the price of a litre of diesel fuel was just 20 lira, before the government began gradually raising the price in increments.

A report by the government-owned news agency SANA in January 2013 claimed that “the low local fuel prices in comparison to neighbouring countries encourages an increase in smuggling fuel to the outside, which in turn means great losses for the national economy.”

Syrian aid distribution
A man whose family has been displaced collects blankets during a UN aid distribution in Al Hassakeh, Syria, Dec. 22, 2013 (Photo courtesy UNHCR)

Most Syrians do not have access to diesel fuel, often because of the decline in their purchasing power. In another interview in November, the head of the Damascus fuel workers’ union said that more than 10 percent of the residents of the capital and surrounding areas who had signed up to receive subsidised fuel had been unable to pay for it.

The director of the government-owned Damascus Fuel Company, Suheil Nakhla, indicated in an interview with Al-Iqtisadi in October that 15 percent of those registered for fuel “asked to be able to postpone receipt of the allotted fuel because they couldn’t pay the required amount during the period coinciding with the beginning of the school year – the time to stockpile goods for winter and the holiday season.”

In opposition-controlled areas, where there are no government services and where rockets and shells fall almost daily, the situation is even worse.

“The destruction has affected most the houses, opening them up to the elements, either partially or totally,” said Sami, 25, a media activist in Eastern Ghouta.

For about a year now, Sami has been sharing the suffering of other residents of Eastern Ghouta, where he fled after the Syrian security forces issued a warrant for his arrest for participating in protests and evading military service. Formerly an employee of a food company in Adra in the Damascus countryside, he decided to move to an area outside the regime’s control.

“Syrians living in these areas will use any available method for heating,” he said. “That includes burning destroyed wooden foundations or cutting down any available trees for firewood, as well as burning tires or other flammable material.”

As for diesel fuel, Sami claims that it is available in most towns in Ghouta, but “in very limited amounts and at incredibly high prices ranging between 500 and 900 liras per litre.”

“This isn’t the case for all the liberated areas,” he added, explaining that the price of fuel in Ghouta is particularly high because of the siege imposed by government forces.

The National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has called on “humanitarian relief organisations around the world, both governmental and non-governmental, international and regional, to provide rapid, fundamental emergency assistance to Syrians, to prevent children, women and elderly people dying of cold.”

This appeal came in the wake of the severe snowstorms that have hit the Middle East, and that have already caused the deaths of several children in opposition-controlled areas, according a report issued by the Syrian Network of Human Rights.

{This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, the news platform of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) for Syrian journalists.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2014. All rights reserved.


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