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The War on Bread

How the Syrian regime is using starvation as a weapon


On June 16, 2012, a collection of videos from Syria were posted to YouTube. In them, a shaky cell phone camera pans across the inside of a bakery in Farhaniyeh, a village in the province of Homs. Plump white rolls of risen dough seem to glow in the dim interior. More dough sits in a mixer. Birds chirp outside.

The camera moves out the door and into the sunlit street. Burned and mangled bodies lay on the ground. The villagers have covered some of them with pine boughs, but they cannot hide the missing arms, legs, and heads. “Look at the bakery, look at the bakery!” cries a man in the next video. The words tumble out high and sharp, in the hysterical falsetto of shock. “They were at the bakery getting bread for their families.”

For Syrians, the war on bread began a long time ago. Long before the siege of Yarmouk, before last week’s abortive evacuation of Homs, before the war even began, the regime’s neoliberal economic “reforms” left thousands of Syrians living on nothing but bread and tea. But if you want to pinpoint the moment when President Bashar al-Assad began to use food to kill people, the summer of 2012 is as good a place to start as any.

Bakeries are the center of city and village life in the Arab Mediterranean; they symbolize cooperation, the social contract. Bread is synonymous with food, as in the Biblical daily bread, and even with life itself. Because of these dual roles—of symbol and sustenance, body and spirit—bread is also an excellent tool for controlling a hungry and impoverished population.

The airstrike on the Farhaniyeh bakery was only the bloodiest part of Assad’s war on bread. For over two years now, the Syrian regime has been laying siege to a number of neighborhoods and towns, cutting off food and medical care from fighters and civilians alike. And now we have evidence, thanks to the Syrian military police photographer code-named Caesar, who defected with a cache of his photographs of corpses, that the regime has been using starvation as a gruesome and no doubt cost-effective method of torturing prisoners.

Starving people to death seems barbaric, medieval, the kind of baroque theater you might see on "Game of Thrones." It’s also a war crime: in 1977, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions prohibited the starvation of civilian populations as a method of warfare. Yet when Assad’s regime uses food as a weapon, no world leaders talk of “credibility.” No government threatens to send cruise missiles (nor should they, but that’s another story). The entire world has been studiously ignoring this war crime for over two years. Why?

One possible answer is that Assad’s brutal siege tactics have not killed as many people—yet—as his use of chemical weapons. But Assad used chemical weapons quietly at first too. And that argument fails to account for the snowballing nature of famines, or the long-term effects of siege warfare. If you include the bakery bombings, and the starved prisoners, the body count from Assad’s food policy begins to look rather high.

People line up to buy bread outside a bakery in the al-Fardos neighbourhood of Aleppo on December 9, 2012.

Another reason we’ve ignored this war crime could be that it’s difficult to prove. Starvation thrives on the confusion and social disruption of war; famines and food shortages tend to have multiple factors. This makes it easy to portray them as unfortunate but inevitable, the outcome of tragic circumstance (potato blight in Ireland) rather than deliberate manipulation (British exports of Irish grain). The hunger in Syria is creating a new class of warlords among rebel commanders—a perfect excuse for the regime to employ its usual passive-aggressive politics of shifting the blame, by promoting the fiction that “both sides” are using siege tactics (a claim that sources inside Syria call ridiculous).

We think of war, especially in the Middle East, in terms of combat: soldiers, insurgents, Kalashnikovs, bombs. Despite a long tradition of famines created by war and politics—Stalin’s holodomor, Churchill’s Bengal famine, Mao’s Great Chinese famine, Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, to name just a few of the 20th century’s greatest hits—historians tell the story of war through battles and back-room negotiations, while relegating food, hunger, and disease to the supposedly secondary realm of domestic life. The mass media frames food as something that brings the Middle East together during conflict, not something that tears it apart. Which is why, when leaders use food as a weapon, we often fail to recognize this hideous war crime until it’s too late.

But food has always been one of war’s deadliest weapons, especially in the Middle East. For Syrians, the fear that their children will starve, and the world will do nothing, is very much alive: It already happened to them once, at the birth of the so-called “modern” age.

“Did you ever see a starving person? I hope you never may,” wrote an American college professor, almost a hundred years ago, in the country then known as Greater Syria. “No matter how emaciated a person may be from disease he never looks exactly like the person suffering from pangs of hunger. It is indefinable but when you have once seen it you can never mistake it, nor ever forget it.”

When the Great War began, the Entente Powers—England, France, and Russia—imposed a naval blockade on Greater Syria (then a huge territory that spanned present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel) that cut off the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast from food shipments. Ottoman conscription, grain requisitions, and a plague of locusts made food even scarcer. By the winter of 1917, people all over Greater Syria were starving to death. Grain was more precious than gold. In Damascus, bakeries had to post armed guards. In Mount Lebanon, villagers accused two women of kidnapping children to butcher and eat.

In New York City, a poet named Kahlil Gibran, who was not yet famous, founded the Syrian-Mount Lebanon Relief Committee with a handful of other émigrés. But the funds they raised were useless: Britain and France were blocking all ships from entering the Eastern Mediterranean, even those carrying humanitarian aid. The rationale was a viciously efficient wager that starvation would turn the Syrian people against their Ottoman rulers.

By the time the war ended, one in eight Syrians would be dead—an equal toll, proportionally, to that of Ireland’s Great Hunger. In some parts of Greater Syria, a third of the population died. (England and France, by comparison, lost less than five percent.) “They died while their hands stretched toward the East and West,” Gibran wrote in “Dead Are My People,” a furious requiem for the half million people who starved as the world sat on its hands. “They died silently, for humanity had closed its ears to their cry.”

During World War I, the starving Syrians were mostly invisible to the outside world. But we do not have that excuse today: Assad’s war on bread has been documented, from the beginning, in videos that are as excruciating to watch as they are easy to find. They paint a graphic portrait of how Assad manipulated the fear of hunger in order to kill hundreds of civilians.

The Farhaniyeh bakery attack followed the same logic as the Entente blockade: to erode support for the enemy by attacking civilians. It was part of a larger offensive by the Syrian military to push fighters out of rebel-held areas. But the bakery-bombing strategy worked so well that the military made it standard operating procedure, even in places where no fighting was taking place. It exploits the basic principle of starvation warfare: People will do anything to feed their children—even stand in line at a bakery, knowing they could be bombed.

In August 2012, Human Rights Watch documented the scale and frequency of the bakery bombings over the course of one three-week period. Ten attacks in Aleppo province alone killed at least 95 people (107, if you count the shelling on a street next to one of the bakeries, and probably meant for it). “I remember a little boy, maybe five years old, killed, his head split open,” said one of the eyewitnesses, “and there was still a piece of bread in his mouth.”

But bread does not bleed, or give soundbites, or hold rifles in photographs. A headline or two sank into the news graveyard of late August. And then the world moved on.

The regime, however, did not. By December 2012, bread was so scarce that the price had risen to almost 20 times what it cost before the uprising. The World Food Program had cut its daily rations of food from 1,300 calories a day, per person, to 1,000. When the Free Syrian Army took over Halfaya, in western Syria, people had not had bread for a week. The bakery reopened the day after aid groups delivered supplies—two days before Christmas, as it happens. When people began lining up for bread, government warplanes bombed it. The air strike killed scores of people, perhaps even close to a hundred.

After the Halfaya massacre, McClatchy’s Roy Gutman did an investigation into the regime’s attacks on bakeries. Gutman, who won a Pulitzer prize for his exposé of Serb-run death camps in Bosnia, found independent confirmation for at least 80 out of 100 bakery bombings that Syrian opposition groups had described. His careful, prophetic analysis concluded that at least 200 civilians had been killed, probably more, and suggested the regime was systematically using food to target civilians. But it fell into the same memory hole as the Human Rights Watch report.

I called Gutman to ask if he had seen any response to his report. The International Committee of the Red Cross, he said, confronted the regime about the bakery bombings. But that was it.

In 1992, the infamous breadline massacre of Sarajevo, in which a mortar attack by Serbian forces killed 22 people, galvanized worldwide public support for economic sanctions against Serbia. “I thought, in reporting a story where there’s basically a hundred breadline massacres, that it might arouse a certain amount of concern, let’s say—anger, and statements, maybe even a response,” said Gutman. “And the silence was pretty deafening.”

In November 2012, the regime began to encircle Mouadhamiyet-al-Sham, a town in the vast ring of suburbs around Damascus, some of them semi-rural, collectively known as the Ghouta. The military had been trying to recapture Mouadhamiyah for months, and failing; the Free Syrian Army had control of the town, but most of the people there were civilians. The area’s strategic location—close to the Mazzeh military air base, the Republican Guard headquarters, and the regime’s elite 4th Armoured Division, made it a perfect target for Assad’s “kneel or starve” campaign.

The military has been restricting food and medical access to the town, according to sources inside Syria, since January of 2012. But in November, the government sealed off the town completely. Those who tried to leave risked getting shot by snipers, or captured, killed, and dumped in the street with a note about the inadvisability of trying to escape.

By this time last year, roughly three months after the siege became total, the town ran out of flour. “I started to realize what they were doing the minute we started to run out of bread,” said Qusai Zakarya, the nom de guerre of an opposition activist from Mouadhamiyah who launched a hunger strike last November in order to bring attention to the regime’s siege tactics. “Not just in the Arab world, all across the world, any meal in the day—especially when it comes to breakfast—there should be some bread in it.”

Three months after that, the rice and bulgur wheat ran out. People lived on whatever they could forage, including “a weird, disgusting kind of soup” made from grape leaves boiled with salt and spices—stuffed grape leaves minus the stuffing. “All of us started to realize that what’s going on is really dangerous, that sooner or later we will run out of everything, and pretty soon we will be starving,” said Zakarya. “That’s why we tried to tell the world what’s going on.”

In early October, my Syrian friends began to post disturbing pictures and videos from Mouadhamiyah. In one of them, a doctor examines a dying little girl named Rana Obaid, just a year and a half old, showing the unmistakable signs of severe malnutrition. She died shortly after the video was taken.

In late January, a team of forensics experts and war crimes prosecutors released a report on Caesar's cache of 55,000 photographs. His job, as a Syrian military police photographer, was to document the dead bodies of people who had been detained by the regime. He smuggled thousands of photographs out on a flash drive, and later defected.

The team, which was hired by a law firm funded by the Qatari government, examined 26,948 of the photographs. They found that “a very significant percentage” of the bodies—62 percent of the pictures they examined in depth—showed emaciation severe enough to meet the medical definition of cachexia, the kind of wasted flesh and razor-sharp ribs we associate with pictures of World War II. According to the investigators, this emaciation was something that Caesar “regularly encountered” while photographing dead prisoners. The photos suggest very strongly that the regime is routinely using starvation as a method of torturing detainees.

The photos are horrifying for many reasons, but most notable is their lack of ambiguity. There are no Jabhat al-Nusra fighters here. No rebels to shift blame onto. They were not taken by opposition activists, but by an employee of the regime itself. They are photographic evidence of the same cold calculation Gutman’s analysis found in the bakery bombings—the kind of planned, systematic brutality we would not hesitate to condemn if it involved chemicals instead of food.

Ninety-six years ago, torpedoes were the feared engines of death. But for Syrian civilians on the wrong side of the Entente blockade, starvation was by far the deadlier weapon. “One method of destroying life is more spectacular and sensational than another,” wrote the college professor, Edward Nickoley, during the dark winter of 1917. “It seems more horrifying to send several hundred persons to the bottom of the sea than to subject a community to starvation. It seems so, until you have seen actual starvation. Were I to take my choice between being speedily despatched by a torpedo and being starved—give me the torpedo every time and give it quickly.”

Assad is using starvation the same way he used chemical weapons—not just to kill, but also to spread fear, a psychological weapon that Assad is using to get people to surrender. The tactic is working: This week, as the peace talks in Geneva resumed, the regime began quietly using hunger to force civilians to exchange opposition activists like Zakarya for promises—often unfulfilled—of food deliveries.

On February 2, nine days after I spoke with him over Skype, Zakarya gave himself up to the regime, which demanded that the people of Moadhamiyah surrender him and other activists as a condition for a truce that would allow food shipments. According to friends posting on Zakarya's Facebook page, the regime guaranteed their safety; but he is now, technically, in government custody.

“Believe me, take it from a man who has seen all the weapons the Assad regime has,” said Zakarya, when I spoke to him in late January. “Nothing can be compared with starving to death. Because starvation can eat your soul before it can destroy your body.”