SARMADA, Syria — Plenty of food lines the shelves in Abd al-Razzak’s warehouse, but only for those who can afford the sky-high prices needed to cover the bribes it took to transport it there.
“There’s a powdered-milk factory in Latakia, but there are 13 security checkpoints to go through,” Razzak said, sitting in the darkened warehouse in this forlorn northwestern town, which has no electricity, no running water and trash pickup only when gas can be found for the trucks. “We have to pay a bribe at each checkpoint.”
The United Nations’ World Food Program warned this week that the escalating violence in Syria is causing food shortages throughout the country. Factories have been bombed. Roads and farm fields are pockmarked with deep craters left by missiles. Thieves have held up trucks carrying food, as demand has swelled in towns housing at least 1.2 million Syrians displaced from their homes by the fighting, according to official estimates cited by the WFP.
“The food security situation for many Syrians is rapidly deteriorating with the intensification of the conflict and its expansion to more areas,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “Bread shortages are becoming more common with long queues in front of bakeries, a shortage of fuel, damage sustained by bakeries, and an increased demand from fresh waves of internally displaced people.”
Some of the most acute food shortages are in northern Syria, where fighting has been intense since the summer.
The situation in Sarmada, which is controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army, has been alleviated somewhat by its proximity to Turkey, barely a mile away. At the border between the two countries, trucks filled with food purchased by Sarmada’s merchants line up to cross into Syria. Just 10 miles south of Sarmada, according to Razzak, grocery shelves are bare, but few people have the gasoline to drive that far, even for food.
And Turkish foodstuffs often taste different. Razzak mixes flour from Turkey with Syrian flour to make bread that has a taste and texture that Syrians might recognize. He said he can still get food from other parts of Syria, often from factories that are continuing production in the owners’ homes. His shelves hold marmalade from the city of Idlib, mayonnaise from Aleppo, canned meat from Damascus, the capital.
Because his transportation costs have gone up 16-fold, he charges $1 for a sack of flour he used to sell for 15 cents.
Many Syrians can’t afford his wares at any price. Sarmada’s pre-uprising population of 17,000 has almost doubled because of an influx of internally displaced Syrians. About 850 families are destitute, said Abdallah Abu Khaled, manager of a small warehouse where the town distributes rare shipments of donated food. The families are being sheltered in the town’s nine schoolhouses.
Khaled brought 10 food bags to one school as night fell, calling out the names of each family waiting patiently in a courtyard where a hopscotch grid was faintly visible on the concrete. The food was donated by Rania Kisar, a Syrian American woman who quit her job in university admissions in Dallas and moved this spring to Syria, providing assistance in territory held by rebels. She pays for the food with money she raises from friends and acquaintances, and by selling jewelry and headbands in patriotic colors made by Syrian girls.
A woman named Jamila took one of the sacks of food provided by Kisar, each the size of a garbage bag, back to the classroom where she and her five children have found shelter. As she stepped inside, the children were playing in a fort they had fashioned by folding the thin mattresses they sleep on. A table held the only food she had left — a box of tea, a can of meat, two cans of tuna fish and two cans of beans. A faint, yellowish light came from a kerosene lamp atop the table.
“We got these 20 days ago,” Jamila said of her sparse, dwindling supply. The sack of food from Kisar was enough to feed the family for a week or more.
Near the village of Qah, about five miles from Sarmada down a road dotted with stones and barrels denoting rebel checkpoints, the sound of women talking and children playing arose from more than 500 small tents staked on a hilltop overlooking Turkey. The lights twinkling in the Turkish valley below make Qah look all the more dreary. The only light emanated from candles stuck in tin bowls, flickering inside a few tents.
One day this week, guns were fired into the air while rebel fighters argued with a local man who some residents suspected was stealing donated food. Next day, one of the camp’s residents shouted into a cellphone while complaining to a local official about the situation.
“Nobody knows we’re here,” he said. “Nobody brings us any food.”