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Syrians struggle with shortages as economy buckles

Tuesday - 1/22/2013, 9:38pm  ET

FILE - In this Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 file photo, Men make bread at a bakery in the old city of Aleppo, Syria. Syrians face extended blackouts amid severe fuel shortages in the middle of winter and now spend hours in line every day for a few loaves of bread or gasoline at soaring prices, highlighting the mounting difficulty President Bashar Assad faces in providing basic services to his people. (AP Photo/Andoni Lubaki, File)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Grappling with severe fuel shortages and winter temperatures that drop below freezing, Syrians are spending hours in line every day for gasoline or a few loaves of bread at soaring prices as President Bashar Assad's regime faces mounting difficulties in providing basic services to its people.

Syria's economy is buckling under the twin strains of violence and sanctions that have sapped the government's finances, devastated the nation's cities and left its industry and infrastructure in ruins. A power outage on Monday plunged Damascus and large swathes of the country's south into darkness, providing a stark reminder of how serious the regime's challenges are to keep the economy moving -- and its people fed and warm.

With the fighting settling into a bloody stalemate that looks likely to grind on for months, if not longer, the government's inability to provide basic services is likely to fuel frustration and anger with Assad, even from supporters who are deeply distrustful of the rebels fighting to topple him.

Monday's electricity blackout, which affected upscale areas in the heart of Damascus where rationing is normally less severe, was the latest in a series of infrastructural failures that the regime has blamed on the rebels. Late last year, the Internet and most telephone lines were cut for days as the regime and rebels traded blame. And over the year, the country's oil and gas pipelines, power stations and water pipes have all been attacked.

While Damascus's 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts, this week's outage was the first to darken the entire capital since the conflict began in March 2011.

The winter months have brought misery and suffering to new levels, as the scarcity of food and fuel have meant people queuing for hours in cold weather for the most basic essentials, and others freezing inside their homes. In the countryside, people have resorted to chopping down trees and burning furniture to make fires to keep warm.

On a recent day in the poor Damascus neighborhood of Rukneddine, more than a 100 people stood outside al-Ameed bakery waiting to get 1.35 kilograms (3 pounds) of subsidized bread for 15 pounds (16 cents). Nowadays, Syrians can choose between subsidized bread or standard bread known as "touristic," which is abundant but four times more expensive than the subsidized.

With the economy in tatters and work hard to come by as the war grinds on, many families don't have the deep pockets for anything other than the cheapest option. One woman said she waited for four hours to get a pack of subsidized bread.

"I can't afford to pay more than that. My children need every penny," she said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals. Wearing a Muslim scarf around her head, the woman said she recently starting working as a cleaning lady to help raise her kids after her husband was killed by a shell last year.

The economic crisis has meant many children are dropping out of school to help their family make ends meet.

Yaman, a 12-year-old boy, quit school after his father was killed and his mother wounded when their home in the Damascus suburb of Douma was hit by a shell. He now makes a living standing in line to get bread, then selling the flat, round loaves to people who don't want to queue.

"Those who don't want to pay the high prices can go and stand in line," said Yaman, dressed in blue jeans, a shirt and flip flops on a cold January day as he held five packs of bread.

"I am not greedy," Yaman said, adding that he was now the only working member in the family. "I only do this for my family."

The government has fixed gasoline prices at about 75 cents per liter, but shortages mean residents must wait up to six hours in lines to fill up.

"There is almost no diesel in the city," said a taxi driver named Wael, who gave only his first name for security reasons.

He gets to the gas station around 6 a.m. and often waits until noon to fill up. Even then, the gas is rationed by the government to no more than 20 liters (5.2 gallons) per person -- meaning he'll have to return the following morning around dawn to wait in line again.

"I hate my job," he said. "I've been trying to find a new one but I can't. How am I supposed to feed my kids?"

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