A bread cart amid the rubble following an airstrike in Aleppo's Maadi neighborhood in December 2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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The war on bread: how the Syrian regime is using starvation as a weapon

For Syrians, the war on bread began a long time ago. Long before the siege of Yarmouk, before last week’s abortive evacuation of Homs, before the war even began, the regime’s neoliberal economic “reforms” left thousands of Syrians living on nothing but bread and tea.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

On 16 June, 2012, a collection of videos from Syria were posted to YouTube. In them, a shaky cell phone camera pans across the inside of a bakery in Farhaniyeh, a village in the province of Homs. Plump white rolls of risen dough seem to glow in the dim interior. More dough sits in a mixer. Birds chirp outside.

The camera moves out the door and into the sunlit street. Burned and mangled bodies lay on the ground. The villagers have covered some of them with pine boughs, but they cannot hide the missing arms, legs, and heads. “Look at the bakery, look at the bakery!” cries a man in the next video. The words tumble out high and sharp, in the hysterical falsetto of shock. “They were at the bakery getting bread for their families.”

For Syrians, the war on bread began a long time ago. Long before the siege of Yarmouk, before last week’s abortive evacuation of Homs, before the war even began, the regime’s neoliberal economic “reforms” left thousands of Syrians living on nothing but bread and tea. But if you want to pinpoint the moment when President Bashar al-Assad began to use food to kill people, the summer of 2012 is as good a place to start as any.

Bakeries are the centre of city and village life in the Arab Mediterranean; they symbolize cooperation, the social contract. Bread is synonymous with food, as in the Biblical daily bread, and even with life itself. Because of these dual roles – of symbol and sustenance, body and spirit – bread is also an excellent tool for controlling a hungry and impoverished population.

The airstrike on the Farhaniyeh bakery was only the bloodiest part of Assad’s war on bread. For over two years now, the Syrian regime has been laying siege to a number of neighborhoods and towns, cutting off food and medical care from fighters and civilians alike. And now we have evidence, thanks to the Syrian military police photographer code-named Caesar, who defected with a cache of his photographs of corpses, that the regime has been using starvation as a gruesome and no doubt cost-effective method of torturing prisoners.

Starving people to death seems barbaric, medieval, the kind of baroque theater you might see on "Game of Thrones." It’s also a war crime: in 1977, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions prohibited the starvation of civilian populations as a method of warfare. Yet when Assad’s regime uses food as a weapon, no world leaders talk of “credibility.” No government threatens to send cruise missiles (nor should they, but that’s another story). The entire world has been studiously ignoring this war crime for over two years. Why?

 

One possible answer is that Assad’s brutal siege tactics have not killed as many people – yet – as his use of chemical weapons. But Assad used chemical weapons quietly at first too. And that argument fails to account for the snowballing nature of famines, or the long-term effects of siege warfare. If you include the bakery bombings, and the starved prisoners, the body count from Assad’s food policy begins to look rather high.

Another reason we’ve ignored this war crime could be that it’s difficult to prove. Starvation thrives on the confusion and social disruption of war; famines and food shortages tend to have multiple factors. This makes it easy to portray them as unfortunate but inevitable, the outcome of tragic circumstance (potato blight in Ireland) rather than deliberate manipulation (British exports of Irish grain). The hunger in Syria is creating a new class of warlords among rebel commanders – a perfect excuse for the regime to employ its usual passive-aggressive politics of shifting the blame, by promoting the fiction that “both sides” are using siege tactics (a claim that sources inside Syria call ridiculous).

 
 

We think of war, especially in the Middle East, in terms of combat: soldiers, insurgents, Kalashnikovs, bombs. Despite a long tradition of famines created by war and politics – Stalin’s holodomor, Churchill’s Bengal famine, Mao’s Great Chinese famine, Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, to name just a few of the 20th century’s greatest hits – historians tell the story of war through battles and back-room negotiations, while relegating food, hunger, and disease to the supposedly secondary realm of domestic life. The mass media frames food as something that brings the Middle East together during conflict, not something that tears it apart. Which is why, when leaders use food as a weapon, we often fail to recognize this hideous war crime until it’s too late.

But food has always been one of war’s deadliest weapons, especially in the Middle East. For Syrians, the fear that their children will starve, and the world will do nothing, is very much alive: It already happened to them once, at the birth of the so-called “modern” age.

 

“D

id you ever see a starving person? I hope you never may,” wrote an American college professor, almost a hundred years ago, in the country then known as Greater Syria. “No matter how emaciated a person may be from disease he never looks exactly like the person suffering from pangs of hunger. It is indefinable but when you have once seen it you can never mistake it, nor ever forget it.”

When the Great War began, the Entente Powers – England, France, and Russia – imposed a naval blockade on Greater Syria (then a huge territory that spanned present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel) that cut off the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast from food shipments. Ottoman conscription, grain requisitions, and a plague of locusts made food even scarcer. By the winter of 1917, people all over Greater Syria were starving to death. Grain was more precious than gold. In Damascus, bakeries had to post armed guards. In Mount Lebanon, villagers accused two women of kidnapping children to butcher and eat.

In New York City, a poet named Kahlil Gibran, who was not yet famous, founded the Syrian-Mount Lebanon Relief Committee with a handful of other émigrés. But the funds they raised were useless: Britain and France were blocking all ships from entering the Eastern Mediterranean, even those carrying humanitarian aid. The rationale was a viciously efficient wager that starvation would turn the Syrian people against their Ottoman rulers.

 
 

By the time the war ended, one in eight Syrians would be dead – an equal toll, proportionally, to that of Ireland’s Great Hunger. In some parts of Greater Syria, a third of the population died. (England and France, by comparison, lost less than five per cent.) “They died while their hands stretched toward the East and West,” Gibran wrote in “Dead Are My People,” a furious requiem for the half million people who starved as the world sat on its hands. “They died silently, for humanity had closed its ears to their cry.”

During World War I, the starving Syrians were mostly invisible to the outside world. But we do not have that excuse today: Assad’s war on bread has been documented, from the beginning, in videos that are as excruciating to watch as they are easy to find. They paint a graphic portrait of how Assad manipulated the fear of hunger in order to kill hundreds of civilians.

The Farhaniyeh bakery attack followed the same logic as the Entente blockade: to erode support for the enemy by attacking civilians. It was part of a larger offensive by the Syrian military to push fighters out of rebel-held areas. But the bakery-bombing strategy worked so well that the military made it standard operating procedure, even in places where no fighting was taking place. It exploits the basic principle of starvation warfare: People will do anything to feed their children – even stand in line at a bakery, knowing they could be bombed.

In August 2012, Human Rights Watch documented the scale and frequency of the bakery bombings over the course of one three-week period. Ten attacks in Aleppo province alone killed at least 95 people (107, if you count the shelling on a street next to one of the bakeries, and probably meant for it). “I remember a little boy, maybe five years old, killed, his head split open,” said one of the eyewitnesses, “and there was still a piece of bread in his mouth.”

But bread does not bleed, or give soundbites, or hold rifles in photographs. A headline or two sank into the news graveyard of late August. And then the world moved on.

 
 

The regime, however, did not. By December 2012, bread was so scarce that the price had risen to almost 20 times what it cost before the uprising. The World Food Program had cut its daily rations of food from 1,300 calories a day, per person, to 1,000. When the Free Syrian Army took over Halfaya, in western Syria, people had not had bread for a week. The bakery reopened the day after aid groups delivered supplies – two days before Christmas, as it happens. When people began lining up for bread, government warplanes bombed it. The air strike killed scores of people, perhaps even close to a hundred.

After the Halfaya massacre, McClatchy’s Roy Gutman did an investigation into the regime’s attacks on bakeries. Gutman, who won a Pulitzer prize for his exposé of Serb-run death camps in Bosnia, found independent confirmation for at least 80 out of 100 bakery bombings that Syrian opposition groups had described. His careful, prophetic analysis concluded that at least 200 civilians had been killed, probably more, and suggested the regime was systematically using food to target civilians. But it fell into the same memory hole as the Human Rights Watch report.

I called Gutman to ask if he had seen any response to his report. The International Committee of the Red Cross, he said, confronted the regime about the bakery bombings. But that was it.

In 1992, the infamous breadline massacre of Sarajevo, in which a mortar attack by Serbian forces killed 22 people, galvanized worldwide public support for economic sanctions against Serbia. “I thought, in reporting a story where there’s basically a hundred breadline massacres, that it might arouse a certain amount of concern, let’s say – anger, and statements, maybe even a response,” said Gutman. “And the silence was pretty deafening.”

 

In November 2012, the regime began to encircle Mouadhamiyet-al-Sham, a town in the vast ring of suburbs around Damascus, some of them semi-rural, collectively known as the Ghouta. The military had been trying to recapture Mouadhamiyah for months, and failing; the Free Syrian Army had control of the town, but most of the people there were civilians. The area’s strategic location – close to the Mazzeh military air base, the Republican Guard headquarters, and the regime’s elite 4th Armoured Division, made it a perfect target for Assad’s “kneel or starve” campaign.

 
 

The military has been restricting food and medical access to the town, according to sources inside Syria, since January of 2012. But in November, the government sealed off the town completely. Those who tried to leave risked getting shot by snipers, or captured, killed, and dumped in the street with a note about the inadvisability of trying to escape.

By this time last year, roughly three months after the siege became total, the town ran out of flour. “I started to realize what they were doing the minute we started to run out of bread,” said Qusai Zakarya, the nom de guerre of an opposition activist from Mouadhamiyah who launched a hunger strike last November in order to bring attention to the regime’s siege tactics. “Not just in the Arab world, all across the world, any meal in the day – especially when it comes to breakfast – there should be some bread in it.”

Three months after that, the rice and bulgur wheat ran out. People lived on whatever they could forage, including “a weird, disgusting kind of soup” made from grape leaves boiled with salt and spices – stuffed grape leaves minus the stuffing. “All of us started to realize that what’s going on is really dangerous, that sooner or later we will run out of everything, and pretty soon we will be starving,” said Zakarya. “That’s why we tried to tell the world what’s going on.”

In early October, my Syrian friends began to post disturbing pictures and videos from Mouadhamiyah. In one of them, a doctor examines a dying little girl named Rana Obaid, just a year and a half old, showing the unmistakable signs of severe malnutrition. She died shortly after the video was taken.

 

In late January, a team of forensics experts and war crimes prosecutors released a report on Caesar's cache of 55,000 photographs. His job, as a Syrian military police photographer, was to document the dead bodies of people who had been detained by the regime. He smuggled thousands of photographs out on a flash drive, and later defected.

The team, which was hired by a law firm funded by the Qatari government, examined 26,948 of the photographs. They found that “a very significant percentage” of the bodies – 62 per cent of the pictures they examined in depth – showed emaciation severe enough to meet the medical definition of cachexia, the kind of wasted flesh and razor-sharp ribs we associate with pictures of World War II. According to the investigators, this emaciation was something that Caesar “regularly encountered” while photographing dead prisoners. The photos suggest very strongly that the regime is routinely using starvation as a method of torturing detainees.

The photos are horrifying for many reasons, but most notable is their lack of ambiguity. There are no Jabhat al-Nusra fighters here. No rebels to shift blame onto. They were not taken by opposition activists, but by an employee of the regime itself. They are photographic evidence of the same cold calculation Gutman’s analysis found in the bakery bombings – the kind of planned, systematic brutality we would not hesitate to condemn if it involved chemicals instead of food.

Ninety-six years ago, torpedoes were the feared engines of death. But for Syrian civilians on the wrong side of the Entente blockade, starvation was by far the deadlier weapon. “One method of destroying life is more spectacular and sensational than another,” wrote the college professor, Edward Nickoley, during the dark winter of 1917. “It seems more horrifying to send several hundred persons to the bottom of the sea than to subject a community to starvation. It seems so, until you have seen actual starvation. Were I to take my choice between being speedily despatched by a torpedo and being starved – give me the torpedo every time and give it quickly.”

Assad is using starvation the same way he used chemical weapons – not just to kill, but also to spread fear, a psychological weapon that Assad is using to get people to surrender. The tactic is working: This week, as the peace talks in Geneva resumed, the regime began quietly using hunger to force civilians to exchange opposition activists like Zakarya for promises – often unfulfilled – of food deliveries.

On 2 February, nine days after I spoke with him over Skype, Zakarya gave himself up to the regime, which demanded that the people of Moadhamiyah surrender him and other activists as a condition for a truce that would allow food shipments. According to friends posting on Zakarya's Facebook page, the regime guaranteed their safety; but he is now, technically, in government custody.

“Believe me, take it from a man who has seen all the weapons the Assad regime has,” said Zakarya, when I spoke to him in late January. “Nothing can be compared with starving to death. Because starvation can eat your soul before it can destroy your body.”

Annia Ciezadlo is the author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War. She is currently writing a book about the famine of World War I in Greater Syria and tweets at @annia.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.