Merchants of an Unprofitable Crisis
(Barzeh, Damascus) Since 2014, some parts of al-Qabun area and the whole neighborhood of Barzeh, both located in northern Damascus, are subject to a truce between the regime and armed opposition factions, with the latter in charge of managing the region. With the exception of those instances of military escalation, when the roads are occasionally shut down, the residents of al-Qabun and Barzeh live as though they are trapped in a limbo, at the mercy of checkpoints. The ʻmoodʼ of these checkpoints is measured in the distance between the guards’ pockets – as they are hungry and poor – and their strict application of the law within the presence of superior officers, punishing those who try to smuggle past them simple materials for survival.
These simple materials for survival follow an almost unknown economy that is plagued by siege and bribery, with a market size that is hard to determine. “Crisis traders” here differ from the traditional merchants of crisis because they are living under siege and outside the siege at the same time, and they are not reaping significant profits from the situation.
Checkpoints and Profiteers: Negotiations and Maneuvering
A woman pushes a stroller, one of the four wheels broken, with not a child inside the cart but sugar, vegetables, and bags of bread. A guard shoots her look and upon fear that she will not be able to make it through the Barzeh checkpoint, she fabricates a story: “I have nobody; my mother is sick and elderly, and my children are at home…” In normal conditions, people do not need an excuse to lie if they trade food. However, not only is there scarce food in Barzeh, but there is a need for many items so one must generate compassion in order to pass the checkpoint.
As is the nature of the situation, the soldier pays no heed and in a stroke of bad luck, there is a strong reprimand and the command to go back and wait. Making a split-second decision, the woman runs past a crowd of jogging children. While the soldier is busy, everybody run away with their “booty”, waiting to start their day. It is in these moments that people are able to be happy, albeit briefly, for successfully completing their mission before passing through another checkpoint next to a sign that reads “We are here to serve you”.The daily lives of the residents of al-Qabun and Barzeh resemble a time of the past, when people had to walk distances to get food and water. By virtue of the truce, locals are allowed to cross into regime-held neighborhoods, but some parts of al-Qabun are not included in the agreement, thus being occasionally exposed to regime shelling and snipers. Here, medicines and food are also banned. However, unlike in fully besieged neighborhoods, the road between these areas and those under truce is completely open, so the regime had to find a way to maintain the siege while respecting the agreement: the solution was to prevent trade and welcome limited portions of ready-made food.
The ban on food trade was necessary to tighten the siege; the ʻstarve and kneelʼ policy proved successful, with many women who now push their strollers through the Barzeh checkpoint to maintain their small trade, calling for a return of the “golden days” [literally, in Arabic, the “pearl days” (ayyam al-luʼluʼ)] that preceded the uprising.
One, the wife of a greengrocer, calls out for mercy on the vegetable bins, saying that before she didn’t need to shop to fill them as her husband used to bring them home from work. Another remembers the gold jewelry that once adorned her wrists, a symbol that she did not have to work. She has since sold everything she can in order to pay for food. Today, she is forced to work and her husband remains at home for fear of a run-in with the security forces, who would call him up for reserve duty. This upturning of patriarchal gender roles has become a reality in order to hide at home the few men left outside the regime’s dungeons.Limbo
Hamed (40) and his wife, like many others here, first fled the siege in Ghuta which did not enjoy the ʻluxuryʼ of a truce similar to the one in al-Qabun. As he could not enter Damascus without fear of arrest or forced conscription, Hamed and his wife got stuck in this hybrid place that hosts people fleeing from both regime and opposition-held territories.
One of al-Qabun’s old residents, Nur, compares the neighborhood to “limbo after death, where people just wait.” These places are neither actively in war, such as the places people fled from, nor are they in genuine peace. Since Barzeh and al-Qabun are not totally under siege, there are no organizations trying to help the population, neither are people allowed to find a means of living. Al-Qabun and Barzeh are just outside of the regime’s control and far away from its prisons, and displaced families come to live here because the rents are cheaper than in the rest of Damascus.
Thou Shalt Not Pass
Lighters, batteries, light bulbs and any other electrical devices are forbidden. Salt and citric acid, which may be used in the manufacture of explosives, are also forbidden. Gas, milk bottles, and diapers are allowed through if the family carries around the proper documentation in which checkpoint transits are recorded by date, to prove they are not smugglers. However, all these regulations frequently fell silent by paying a bribe at the Barzeh checkpoint.
Salim, a 13-year-old young merchant of sugar says: “They beat us and chase us when the main officer is present.” He went on to explain how his sales decisions are driven by what he can or cannot afford to pay at the checkpoint. His profit per kilogram of sugar is 100 Syrian pounds (SYP), or $0.20 on the black market. He can carry eight kilograms of sugar, and he dips into his profits to purchase a pack of cigarettes for the security officers to allow him through their inspection. The cigarette pack costs 300 SYP, or $0.60. That means he ends the day with less than 500 SYP of profit, which amounts to one US dollar. The same security officers that he bribes have hit him in the past when their superiors were around. When that happens, he just waits until the superior officer leaves before trying his luck again, knowing that it’s all a show to pretend that the law is being applied properly.
Children are often exposed to violence by the military forces in the country, who oftentimes beat them and harass them. During the school year, many children hide bread and sugar in their bags though the security forces know where to look. One guard tore up the belongings of nine-year-old Rama and threw them to the ground simply to force her to lose her capital. Her dream to earn something and benefit her family was thus shattered. Despite her tears and screams, she was unable to retrieve her items and other students simply walked past her, afraid the guards would seize the opportunity to harass them as well. “Everybody mind their own business,” is the wisdom Rama has learned since she began this work.
A Market for the Poor
Some children share in the profits and losses. The youngest are less experienced, so sometimes they work for others. Some kids kick their footballs at checkpoints hoping to distract the guard, while others simply purchase the goods from other traders to sell at the same prices, because they already burned their chances in a scuffle at the checkpoint.
These ʻbaby merchantsʼ charge differently according to the type of goods. Most understand the need of those who approach them, thus they take the bread which is sold at the bakery for 50 SYP ($0.10) in regime-held neighborhoods to sell for 150 SYP ($0.30) for the destitute buyer in al-Qabun or Barzeh. Contraband fetches particularly higher prices in the case of certain banned goods, with some medicines being sold for twice as much as their cost. Most women and children have to make multiple trips to ensure they have enough to meet their minimum profit, which will help them navigate their expensive lives.
The local traders often face difficulty when it comes to capital: they are forced to borrow small sums and return them at the end of the day. This, however, is challenged by the potential change in the checkpoint’s policies, if they hold up women and children, rendering them unable to repay their debts. The solution to this dilemma is a sad, but simple one: for the people to leave the country. Locals see pictures of their friends and relatives who have claimed asylum, who no longer have to fight tough battles for their basic needs on a daily basis; they can educate their children outside of this selfish, bribe-filled and exploitative mayhem. “May God take us and relieve us, either with Him or to Germany,” comments Hamed’s wife sarcastically, as she thinks of her life’s hardships.
[Main image: “Starvation Massacres”, an artwork by a Syrian artist who is known by the pseudonym ʻFaresʼ (Faresʼ Facebook page)].