Frost destroys crops for 250,000 blockaded northern Homs residents

Frost brought on by freezing January temperatures in the rebel-held northern Homs countryside has damaged crops in recent days, endangering the primary food source for an estimated quarter of a million people living under a two-year regime blockade.

Unable to import food from surrounding areas, northern Homs residents depend on locally grown produce. These days, that mostly means potatoes, cabbages, onions and some tomatoes. Other local crops include eggplants, fruits and nuts.

Local farmers are scrambling to protect that vital food source from frost, says Akram al-Awad. Previously a government employee in the provincial agricultural directorate, al-Awad turned to farming because of the blockade.

“The countryside depends totally on the crops,” al-Awad says. “We have been unable to harvest for the past three days because of the severe cold.”

With less produce available, the cost has jumped 70 to 80 percent over the past week, says Ahmad al-Dik, a resident of the northern Homs city of Rastan and a father of two.

Food uncertainty takes a particularly heavy toll in a place lacking the electricity to power refrigerators: “Most people depend on day-to-day food without storing for another day,” al-Dik says.

Below, the full interviews with Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid.

Akram al-Awad, farmer and former government employee

Q: What is the extent of frost damage to crops in the countryside?

The countryside depends totally on the crops and vegetables, whereas other foods like rice and bulgur are virtually nonexistent in the area. Here, we farm to secure our food.

The price of vegetables in the countryside has doubled and a real disaster could occur.

Meanwhile the amount of the vegetables has decreased because of the damage and we have been unable to harvest crops for the past three days because of the severe cold. That is on top of the large quantities of crops that we usually lose because of Russian and regime bombings.

Q: Is there any way to avoid this “disaster” and save the crops?

There are a number of ways, such as building greenhouses to provide a suitable climate for crops, and using certain materials to help to avoid frost, but we haven’t had mazot [diesel fuel], to heat them or assistance to build greenhouses or bring those materials.

We put straw and dirt on some of the crops to limit the severity of the frost.

Q: Have you requested aid?

We have asked a number of aid organizations for support projects like these that could be useful in avoiding large problems including a starvation crisis because of the blockade, but we haven’t received it.

[Editor’s note: Other aid has, albeit rarely, previously entered the northern Homs countryside, including a Red Crescent aid convoy allowed in by the regime this past May.

Ahmad al-Dik, Rastan resident

Q: How has the frost damage affected food prices?

Prices have spiked in recent days. A week ago, a kilo of tomatoes cost SP250 ($1.32) and is now sold for SP400 ($2.12). Potatoes sold for SP175 ($0.93) and are being sold for SP250 ($1.32).

The price of mazot is SP500 ($2.65) per liter and a canister of gas costs SP10,000 ($53). [Ed.: Both are used for heating and cooking.]

Q: Describe the quality and availability of vegetables in markets. Are other foods available?

Although their quality is good, the amount of vegetables is far less than before, and there are fewer people selling them. We find some of them, such as tomatoes, frozen on the inside.

There are some other goods that are smuggled in from regime areas by some traders.

Q: Who are those traders?

As a civilian, I don’t know them personally, but they sell to the few remaining shops through representatives.

I believe those traders are originally in regime areas, but the tightening of the regime blockade on the [Homs] countryside these days and the adjoining Hama countryside has made matters worse.

Q: Can people store or stockpile food?

There are refrigerators, but they are rarely used as there is a shortage of electricity except for through generators, which are not strong enough to power refrigerators.

Most people depend on day-to-day food without storing for another day.

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.