Syria has always been known for the quality of its bread, the thick, chewy pita from bakeries that seemed to pop up on every major corner. Now, bread has become something else here, another victim of the "black market" that has exploded as inflation soars and prices of basic store-bought food have put items like lavash and pita out of most civilians' reach.
Thousands of bakeries across the country have ceased operating since the conflict began; wheat deliveries failed, or storefronts and ovens were damaged by fighting. The result has been a national bread shortage, concentrated in major city centers.
Those who chose to wait in massive lines (often targets for snipers or bombers looking for crowds) in front of the bakeries that do remain open now pay an exorbitant amount for whatever bread is sold. (Bread prices are standardized and set by the Syrian government, though in wartime many bakeries, unpoliced, set their own prices.)
From this has emerged the phenomenon of the "bread broker," middlemen who buy bread in bulk, then station themselves outside the bakeries and offer the loaves at inflated prices. Shoppers say that sometimes dozens of brokers gather in front of a bakery, buying up the supply at the beginning of the day and forcing people to buy from them at double the price.
The Ministry of Internal Trade and Customer Protection, which oversees bread prices, says that it is cracking down on this fledgling black market, policing the selling of large amounts of bread. But the government's resources are spread thin, and it's easy for the sellers, both at the bakeries and on the street outside, to go unchecked.
"I'm forced to pay 50 Syrian pounds ($0.33) for each bag of bread in order to avoid long queues for hours to wait for my turn," says Samer, an employee with the Ministry of Industry in rural Damascus. "I have to go to the bakery almost every day and spend hours waiting to get the bread I need.
"If the ministry stipulates for the selling of bread to exceed no more than 5 kilograms per day, then how could these brokers get such huge amounts of bread? Corruption has spread into the baking industry," he says.
Mahmoud, who works for the Ministry of Industry in rural Damascus, agrees. "I saw with my own eyes how a man managed to buy more than 20 kilos of bread from inside the bakery," he says. "I was thinking to ask for 10 kilos, so as to spare myself the trouble of returning the next day [and waiting in line], but the worker said that he cannot sell more than 5 kilos to each person."
Mahmoud says he later saw the same man who bought the 20 kilos selling that bread in front of the bakery at triple the standard price.
"Sometimes I wait for two hours and more to buy bread at the set price of 15 Syrian pounds," says Oum Hameed, a civil servant from Damascus. "I have no choice, because I can't afford to buy from the brokers."
Jamal Shu'aib, Deputy Minister of Interior Commerce in Syria, maintains that the responsibility of the ministry is limited to the physical production and sale of bread, and that policing the bread market is the responsibility of provincial governments.
"We have taken all measures to sell bread at its pre-set prices, and we have also set the maximum amount of bread to be sold to each individual. We are ready to receive and immediately resolve any complaint in this regard," he says. "Bread is available and citizens do not have to buy it from brokers."
Meanwhile, the high prices of a once-ubiquitous dietary staple are taking their toll. Many residents say that the price of bread, once the cheapest, most filling item on their dinner tables, is draining what remains of their income.