ALEPPO, Syria — Jamila Hijali initially shied away when I approached her in one of the many lines outside Aleppo's bread factories and bakeries. But after a moment she motioned me over to vent her frustrations. "We are tired of the revolution because before women never stood in line for bread like this," the 39-year-old widow with six children complained. "But now it is my primary occupation in life. Bread line. Sleep. Bread line. Sleep."
The 21-month long Syrian revolution is taking its toll on residents of the country's largest city. With everything from medicine to firewood in scarce supply, and with winter bringing temperatures down to near freezing, people here are struggling to cope with a war they just hope will end. But with fighting on urban fronts deadlocked, they admit their wishes are unlikely to be filled any time soon. Instead, the civilians of Aleppo are trapped in a violent stalemate, left to endure a war whose suffering and hardships grow larger with every passing day. Though NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently boasted "it's only a question of time" before the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad collapses, people in Aleppo fear they are stage players in a war with no end in sight.
At the Military Bread Factory, once owned and run by the government, Muhi al-Din Saka, 37, is busy overseeing the conveyor line as a dozen pita loaves trickle over the belt and fall into a large receptacle. Ever since fighting in Aleppo broke out in July, the factory's manager of operations spends almost all his time at the plant, mostly to troubleshoot problems.
Chief among them is the slowdown in bread production. The factory has two machines that can produce about 20 tons of bread a day. But a shortage in filtered diesel has forced the plant to rely on poorer quality diesel to fuel the machines, which results in one machine shutting down every day as built-up sediment clogs the pipes. "It's a hassle to start and stop all the time," says Saka.
Before the revolution, the factory sold a kilogram of bread for nine Syrian pounds, roughly 20 cents. Today that same kilogram costs 15 pounds. But while the cost of bread has increased by 67 percent, it has lagged far behind the cost of fuel -- which has skyrocketed from seven pounds a liter to 180 pounds. To keep bread affordable, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have covered the shortfall, essentially replacing the government as the subsidizer of the basic staple in Syrians' diet.
Outside the factory, civilians are less concerned with the economics of bread production and more focused on why they have to wait for up to seven hours for a three-kilogram bag of pita loaves. "Why do we have to stand here for almost half the day?" asks Faras Sido, 33, as squirts of rain pelt his beige jacket. "Haven't they learned how to make bread after all these years?"
Though they have tried to make the best of a distribution system they are ill-equipped to deal with, the FSA is still blamed for its failures. "I am here to protect these people," says Muhammad Nasr, a fighter from Mara, a small town some 20 miles east of Aleppo. "But when the machines shut down, they accuse us of stealing the bread."
At 10:45 p.m., FSA fighters begin handing out numbers -- much like at a Brooklyn deli -- to the 700 or so people waiting in line. An hour later, a small window opens and the slow process of bread distribution begins. Around dawn, the lines thin out as the people disappear to their houses with their bag of precious pita.
At the Military Bread Factory, the process functions fairly smoothly. But at the hundreds of bakeries throughout the city where bread is still made by hand, the lines are anything but calm. People shove and jockey for better position as FSA fighters argue with customers. A fighter occasionally fires a shot to call the crowd to order, but no one pays attention. "We are people not cattle," notes Firas Bibsi, 48, as he watches the jostling from his makeshift fruit stand in the neighborhood of Fardus. "But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us."
Increasingly, however, shots are fired at customers. The regime has frequently bombed crowded bread lines staffed by rebels because they are easy targets -- even for the most inexperienced fighter pilots. On Sunday, Dec. 23, dozens of civilians were killed when a fighter jet made several bombing runs over a bread line in the city of Halfaya, in the central province of Hama.