Emergency Relief Bakery in Al-Bouleil, Deir al-Zor, Tries to Solve the Bread Crisis Amid Accusations of Corruption

Ahmad al-Bouleily *

(Al-Bouleil, Syria) – Every morning, dozens of people line up in front of a bread distribution centre in the town of Bouleil in Deir al-Zor province. Conversations move from military developments and opposition victories to complaints about how long they have to wait for their rations.

A number of men between the ages of 20 and 40 run the only bakery in Bouleil, a town of 25,000 residents and 10,000 internally displaced people. The town has been under the control of the Free Syrian Army and Nusra Front for around a year and a half. Volunteers dubbed themselves the Organization for Youth Work (OYW) and began running the bakery, which had been supervised by the government until its forces withdrew from the town. Previous individual efforts to manage the bakery led to failure, adding to the suffering of the residents and the displaced people.

A large crater left by an air raid in the town of Bouleil in 2012 - YouTube/alfurat2freedom
A large crater left by an air raid in the town of Bouleil in 2012 – YouTube/alfurat2freedom

The OYW is funded by the Nusra Front and the Local Council, whose members are appointed by town notables. The money enables them to overcome long and frequent power cuts, fuel and flour shortages, and price increases.

After a long wait, volunteers began setting up the bakery with a large generator. They were able to secure diesel oil, which is extracted using makeshift refineries and sold widely in Deir al-Zor province. Nusra Front fighters pledged to supply the bakery with flour, since they control the grain silos in the province, such as those in Al-Mayadeen around 20 kilometres from Bouleil, and Al-Sour, 50 kilometres away. The bakery became operational on December 15, 2013.

A bag of eight loaves of bread costs 50 Syrian liras in Bouleil (1 US dollar is approximately 150 Syrian liras). On the other hand, government subsidized bread sold in regime-controlled areas costs 15 liras for eight loaves.

“We began by selling the bread at production cost, but ran into problems with our old ovens. We did minimum repairs, and we secured flour cheaply from the fighters,” said Abu Omar, 35, a member of the OYW. He said that the Nusra Front sells them flour for 20 liras per kilogram.

The executive director of the Local Council who introduced himself as Abu Hazem stressed the importance of the local council working with all sides in order to avoid conflict in what he referred to as “the current transition period.”

“In this critical time, many residents and especially the displaced are experiencing harsh living conditions in light of price increases of commodities such as bread and flour,” he said. “We must all work together, because one hand cannot clap by itself. For example, the Organization for Youth Work would not have been able to run the bakery without the help of the Local Council and the Nusra Front.”

The battles taking place 15 kilometers away around Deir al-Zor’s military airport forced the OYW to come up with new ways to distribute bread in order to avoid crowds. In September and December 2012, fighter jets bombed the vicinity of two crowded bakeries, which left many wounded and killed. The organization therefore decided to appoint a representative to distribute the bread in each neighbourhood.

A person in the organization’s administration who wished to remain anonymous spoke of the huge number of internally displaced in the town and the method of distributing bread.

“The town is divided into three sections. Bread is distributed every day in one section, which has several representatives. Each representative distributes bread to 150 houses, around 1000 people. Representatives select a location where neighborhood residents go to receive their share. This way we can guarantee that bread is distributed easily to all neighborhoods,” he explained.

Qaysar, 22, is one such representative who addressed residents’ accusations of corruption.

“I face a lot of difficulties. Residents demand that we distribute bread every day in all the sections, but the limited supply of flour forced us to work in this way. They are unable to understand this reality, and so accuse us falsely of corruption. Some of them think we are selling flour in shops and in nearby markets,” he said.

Indeed there are those who do believe the OYW is corrupt. Hajja Um Ahmad, 70, fled the town of Al-Mray’iyeh next to the Deir al-Zor military airport and 14 kilometres from Bouleil.

“The bakery managers live off our backs. They distribute bread to us every two or three days and say that there is no flour, while they are selling it in Al-Mayadeen,” she said.

“You can get the bread you need daily if you know one of the bakery’s administrators. You can even have your bread delivered to your home,” said Nour, 40, a Bouleil resident.

Nevertheless, some regard this situation, as bad as it may be, as still better than leaving the country. Sara, 25, is married with two daughters.

“Yes, we wait for a long time in front of the centre for our bread, but at least we have our dignity and we are living securely. Our camps are not flooded with rain like the Bab al-Salama camp [in Aleppo province], and our eyes are not filled with dust when the winds start like the Zaatari camp,” she said.

*A pseudonym for a journalist living in Syria.