As UN predicts worst winter yet, besieged Syrians turn to furniture, plastic, clothes for kindling

AMMAN: Thick smoke and the smell of burnt plastic hang over Madaya. On the streets, traders stack what little firewood is left for sale. Local residents gather splintered bits of wood from smashed doors, tables, and chairs, tying the shards into bundles for the winter ahead.

Over the weekend, temperatures dropped below the freezing point in Madaya for first time this year. Its 40,000 residents, like many of the one million Syrians in encircled rebel areas, rely on fuel and firewood for heating.

Besieged communities across the country are bracing themselves for what the United Nations has predicted to be “by far the worst [winter] for the civilian population in Syria.”

Prolonged sieges by the Syrian regime and its allies have led to prohibitively high prices and shortages of fuel and firewood. Over the past year alone, the cost of firewood has doubled or tripled in encircled opposition areas due to lack of supply, local activists and residents tell Syria Direct.

Residents are resorting to smashing furniture for firewood and burning plastic for fuel as temperatures drop across the country.

This month, residents of four regime-blockaded areas told Syria Direct that, facing fuel and firewood shortages, people are turning to desperate measures for warmth; that means burning plastic, drying animal feces and breaking apart the furnishings of their homes.

This is what winter looks like in a siege.

East Aleppo

In east Aleppo, encircled since September and home to an estimated 250,000 people, winter is coming amidst a violent military escalation by the regime.

Since the regime’s Russian-backed air campaign resumed in mid-November, 2,000 airstrikes and 7,000 artillery rounds have rained down on east Aleppo, according to a statement released by the Syrian Civil Defense on Monday.

For residents of besieged east Aleppo, the latest military campaign has pushed winter heating down the list of priorities, Aamer Arab, a local activist, tells Syria Direct.

“There aren’t any supplies left to purchase in this city, nothing that hasn’t been targeted,” said Arab.

With diesel fuel and firewood beyond the means of most east Aleppo residents, local civilians rely on burning old clothes or dried animal feces for heating. 

Residents are dismantling their wooden furniture for firewood in anticipation of “cruel winter days,” said Arab.

Last winter, rebel factions in Aleppo controlled the northern Castello Road, connecting the opposition-held half of the city with the west Aleppo countryside, thereby providing access to firewood.

Now, one year and two regime campaigns later, the price of firewood has nearly quadrupled from SP40 [$0.07] per kilogram to SP125 [$0.25]. Fuel prices have increased tenfold, said the activist Arab.

“We’re terrified of the cold.”

Madaya

Since Hezbollah and regime forces encircled Madaya in July 2015, local council member Hossam Madaya has already cut down all the fruit trees on his property for firewood to stay warm in past winter months.

He is not the only one to do so. In Madaya, residents are burning “anything they can get their hands on” to stay warm in the Outer Damascus town, the activist told Syria Direct.

No trees left for firewood. Madaya after and before the siege. Photo courtesy of United Relief Organization in Madaya & Zabadani.

Located in a mountainous region 25km northwest of Damascus, Madaya often experiences harsh winters with heavy snowfall, a local council member who asked to be referred to as Abu Ali told Syria Direct.

"If we don’t have any firewood this year, we’ll just be waiting for more people to die,” said Madaya.

On Monday, a UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy arrived in Madaya for the first time since late September. The same day, Madaya’s children protested in the streets, calling for fuel to enter the besieged town for the winter, among other demands.

In the past year, firewood prices have nearly tripled from SP300 [$0.55] per kilogram to SP800 [$1.50], according to Hossam Madaya, explaining that costs have spiked due to the monopoly that traders maintain on the town’s siege economy.

To stave off the cold, Madaya residents are smashing and burning the wooden doors inside their homes, patching up doorways with cloth.

“People have smashed and burned their plastic water tanks and chairs,” said Madaya. “When I pass through town, I breathe in the burnt plastic smell and suffocate from the smoke.”

East Ghouta

Residents of the encircled East Ghouta suburbs just outside Damascus are struggling to prepare for winter after regime gains in the past six months cut the area’s 400,000 residents from their farmland.

In May, regime and Hezbollah forces capitalized on rebel infighting and captured the Marj region, East Ghouta’s breadbasket and the primary reason residents have survived encirclement since 2013, Syria Direct previously reported.

The loss of the Marj farmland means that “there will be a lot more families without heating this winter,” Abu Bashir, an East Ghouta resident, tells Syria Direct, explaining that farms are not only a source of income, but also “a source of heating.”  

The price for a kilogram of firewood in the east Damascus suburbs has risen by 50 percent in the past year; from SP75 [$0.14] to SP110 [$0.20], according to Abu Bashir.

Firewood salesmen in East Ghouta. Photo courtesy of al-Hal a-Souri.

Fuel prices in East Ghouta are volatile and rapidly rise as winter approaches.

With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, the price of a gas cylinder rose from SP10,500 [$19.50] to SP13,000 [$24] over the course of the past few days.

For Abu Bashir, the approaching winter means the difficult choice of staving off hunger or the cold.

“For my part, I’m spending what I can earn on food for my family to keep us from starving,” said Abu Bashir. “Heating is my last priority.”

North Homs countryside

In the north Homs countryside, the agricultural land that supplied firewood for winter heating can no longer meet the demand of 250,000 besieged residents, Abu Mohammad al-Homsi, a member of the local council, tells Syria Direct.

“Over the past four years, there’s been a huge reliance on firewood for heating and now the area’s forest cannot meet the need of the north Homs countryside,” al-Homsi said.

Diesel fuel prices have risen to SP600 [$1.10] per liter in the three besieged towns of the north Homs countryside, up from SP50 [$0.10] before the siege began.

Though encircled opposition towns in north Homs have access to agricultural land, water shortages have rendered more than half of its arable land barren, reported the Syrian Voice in August.

Firewood is in short supply, said al-Homsi, leading most of the local population to “burn animal feces and old clothes for heating.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammed al-Aseel

Mohammad was a law student at Damascus University when the revolution began. Originally from Daraa, he moved to Jordan in 2013.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.