Middle East

Violence leaves Syrians in desperate economic straits

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Media captionPeople in Damascus are finding life financially challenging

Tales of horror and loss of life have become a daily occurrence in the conflict in Syria, but there are many other layers to Syrians' suffering, not least the impact on the economy.

Eighteen months since the start of the uprising, life has come to a halt, especially when it comes to the economy.

Visitors to Damascus may get the impression that life is carrying on at a normal pace. But it is not.

In the city centre, traffic is busy and people are running their businesses. But if you scratch away at the surface, many stories of devastation will emerge.

The old city of Damascus is one part of the capital that has so far remained peaceful and immune from the fighting.

The historic bazaar of Damascus, Souk al-Hamidiyeh, used to be packed full of people, tourists and ordinary customers.

But today, the people you find here are either passers-by or those who are trying to meet their basic needs. Everyone seems to be looking, not buying.

Many shops are open, but shopkeepers are sitting and waiting for someone to buy.

Image caption Most of those in Damascus's historic Souk al-Hamidiyeh market these days are browsing, not buying

In one shop selling traditional Damascene tablecloths known as aghabani, embroidered with silk, gold or silver lines, the shopkeeper says he has had 10 customers, but it has been a lucky day.

"We used to have lots of tourists coming and buying, but no more of that," he says.

Right below the Roman arch at the other end of the souk, just facing the city's famous Umayyad mosque, stands a pomegranate juice seller.

That has been his spot for years. He sells a glass of juice for a little under $1, but even this has become a luxury, he says.

"Families are hardly managing to buy enough to feed themselves, they can't even afford this juice, it's not a necessity."

Thousands stranded

Sanctions imposed on the country in an attempt to put pressure on the regime are mostly affecting small businesses.

Most of the boutique hotels have closed. Luxury hotels in Damascus are operating on minimum capacity, with perhaps two floors occupied.

Many factories have closed down, either because they can't operate any more due to security concerns and roadblocks, or because the factories have come under shellfire.

This has made prices double even for basic food supplies, let alone the price of fuel, which has jumped threefold.

All levels of society are feeling the strain.

Karim Malas is a young businessman and has been out of work for more than a year now. A father of two, he has run out of savings and has lost hope that things might change.

"We are considering moving, leaving the country. When you are not generating any income, when you have depleted your savings, what else is there to do?" he asks.

Many people of Karim's age have left the country. There is hardly any work.

"I don't know of anyone who is hiring in these circumstances. The only option left is to leave."

But Karim is lucky. He has the choice of leaving and finding a job somewhere else. Thousands of others are stranded at the border in refugee camps or displaced inside the country.

'We had to flee'

Those who have lost their homes across the country are now living either at government schools or in sometimes cramped conditions with relatives.

There are cases of flats designed for a family of five and now housing up to 20 people.

Image caption Many displaced Syrians have taken refuge with relatives or in government buildings

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is the only body authorised to distribute food supplies. They are working in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other UN agencies.

In one of the distribution centres, families are sitting in a hall along with their children, waiting for their share of aid. Boxes of food supplies are piled up in the warehouse.

Each box contains the minimum to feed a family of five for a month.

Sabah Talbiseh is in her 60s and lives in Qaboun, a suburb of Damascus. She has come here to seek aid.

She comes from Ifreen in Aleppo province, but the violence there forced her to leave with her family.

She tells me her husband is ill, she has six children and no breadwinner.

Another woman spoke to me but was too scared to give her name. She comes from the Tadamoun area of Damascus.

"The army has been shelling our neighbourhood and security forces were burning our houses. We had to flee," she says.

Her whole family of six are living in one room now, and this centre is their only source of help.

Khaled Ireksousi, who heads the operation, complains of a lack of aid.

"The quantities of food we are getting is only enough for one million," he says. The United Nations estimates there are 2.5m internally displaced people in Syria.

"It hurts that the world keeps talking about the humanitarian crisis and doesn't do more," adds Mr Ireksousi.

Away from this centre, there are hundreds of families who are not getting government aid.

I visit a house in Barzeh, a suburb of Damascus, where 20 people are living on mattresses and plastic rugs.

A woman there tells me they fled the army shelling in Homs eight months ago and are relying on donations from other Syrians.

For more than a year now, people have shown a great spirit of solidarity to help those in need, but as the crisis goes on, everyone is running out of resources.

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