No bread, no fuel, no gas: economic crisis hits impoverished north Lebanon harder

People queue for hours for bread as fuel crisis in the country worsens

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In a small village in the isolated rural region of Akkar, north Lebanon, Rweida Mohammed, 36, cooks for her family on an open fire outside and heats water to wash their clothes by hand.

Sales of gas cylinders stopped last month and bread disappeared off supermarket shelves five days ago, she said.

The small amount of bread on the kitchen table was salvaged from relatives. The fridge is turned off and empty, save for a few tomatoes.

The mother of young triplets is close to despair. She regularly walks to a nearby town to ask the Ministry of Social Affairs for help, but has received no response. “I must have been 100 times by now,” she said.

Akkar resident Rweida Mohammed uses a makeshift outdoor grill to cook food for her family because she cannot obtain gas for the stove. Elizabeth Fitt for The National

Lebanon’s protracted financial crisis, which started in 2019, took a turn for the worse this week. The country’s electricity is produced by burning fuel that it can barely afford to import any more. Without electricity, companies, including bakeries, cannot operate normally.

North Lebanon, where poverty is most prevalent, has been hit especially hard.

Look at the people outside, they’re like hungry dogs
Mohammed Danaj, bakery worker in Tripoli

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, customers waited for hours in the sun on Thursday to buy a maximum of four packs of bread outside Tarek Al Ridani bakery.

Four packs of bread will last two days for Mohammed Melhem’s family of eight. They cost Mr Melhem, 55, a Syrian refugee, a fifth of the monthly allowance he receives from the UN.

In his neighbourhood, El Qobbeh, bakeries do not sell more than one pack of bread to each client, he said.

Boys carry packs of bread past people queuing at a bakery in Tripoli as shortages continue to worsen. Elizabeth Fitt for The National

The price of bread, which is fixed by the government, has more than tripled since the beginning of the financial crisis, as the value of the local currency tumbled. Each bag weighs close to a kilogram and is stacked with round, white traditional Arabic flatbread.

The shortage of bread is acutely felt in a country where it is ritually served with each meal.

“Bread is a medium – if you don’t have a spoon, you eat with bread. It is part of people’s lives,” said Mohammad Hazim, a retired mechanical engineer and former mayor of the town of Hrar in Akkar. “If there is no bread, there is no life."

Hrar, nestled in the mountains above Tripoli, relies on bread produced along the coast and brought by lorry, Mr Hazim said. But with little or no fuel, deliveries stopped.

Mr Hazim calls this “the fuel war”.

Ogero, Lebanon's state-run telecoms provider, has a mast in Hrar, but connection speeds mean the service is often unusable. Elizabeth Fitt for The National

It has spread across the country. In the town of Sawfar, about 140 kilometres south, residents recently broke into a bakery to steal bread.

“They were afraid it would close because it didn’t have enough fuel to operate 24/7 like before,” said Sawfar’s Mayor Kamal Shaya.

In Akkar, vigilante groups have been stopping vehicles carrying fuel they suspect is being smuggled to neighbouring Syria.

Imad Kreidieh, chairman of state telecoms company Ogero, said people attacked tankers bringing fuel to run its private generators, causing cuts to the internet in the region.

"I have been forced to cut services due to a lack of fuel," he told The National.

But he hopes the situation is temporary. "It’s inconceivable [to think] that we are heading towards a total blackout. Considering a Lebanon without power is surreal," he said.

In Tripoli, bakers do not know when they will be able to work again.

Mohammed Danaj, an employee at Tarek Al Ridani bakery, said on Thursday they bought flour on the black market at nearly four times the official price.

Several bags weighing close to two tonnes were stacked in a back room. That was all that was left at the time, just enough to make bread until 4pm that day. Then they would close indefinitely.

“Look at the people outside, they’re like hungry dogs,” Mr Danaj said.

“People line up at the petrol station to be humiliated. Here they are humiliated too. They want more bread for their families.”

The bakery is opposite a closed petrol station. A queue of cars snaked around the block as motorists waited for it to open again. Drivers can wait an entire day for fuel, causing traffic jams.

Freshly baked bread cools on a conveyor belt at Tarik Al Ridani bakery, which was expected to close on Thursday afternoon owing to a lack of supplies. Elizabeth Fitt for The National

Although Lebanon is at the peak of its summer season, many already worry about next winter. Every year, snow falls on Lebanese mountains and locals rely on fuel for heat.

“See those oak trees?” Mr Hazim asked, pointing at a cluster of trees close to his house on top of a hill near a shrine. “Nobody cuts them because they’re afraid of God. But they will if their survival depends on it.”

Updated: August 18, 2021, 1:56 PM