“Eye of newt and toe of frog” are well-known ingredients of an imaginary witches’ broth, concocted by Shakespeare back in the 17th century. Now 400 years on, those ingredients are the nightmarish reality of everyday survival in Syria, with improvised sources of food providing a lifeline to starving families in many parts of the country.
As President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent campaign of deliberately starving out rebel-controlled territories of Syria takes its toll, thousands of civilians unable to access emergency United Nations food distribution points are living on homegrown mushrooms, leaves and vegetables from roof gardens, boiled frogs and worse.
Leading Facebook pages affiliated with the Syrian resistance show how locals are producing their own food, providing a peek into the ordinary lives of those locked in an ongoing conflict. Some pages demonstrate methods for growing mushrooms—on sacks suspended from the ceilings inside dwellings, with long posts detailing how they are often easier to grow and conceal than regular vegetable gardens.
Elsewhere, online discussion forums provide advice on how to catch frogs and cook them, and how to grow food at home, often directing users to YouTube instruction videos. In one video, two young men are shown picking leaves for a salad in a green patch as gunfire shots continue to ring out over their heads.
Popular Facebook pages affiliated with the Syrian resistance also demonstrate how small outdoor gardens—sometimes perched on rooftops—can be cultivated to grow basic leaves and vegetables.
The social media findings come amidst a desperate humanitarian crisis in the country. The situation in Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus is “beyond desperate,” according to Chris Gunness, spokesperson of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to Gunness, “Mothers [are] feeding their children with grass and spices picked up from the street,” and many others simply die from starvation. The people in the Yarmouk have been enduring these conditions for months. A much-discussed graphic video surfaced last October, showing residents skinning and preparing cats to be cooked and eaten.
U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) is operating at record capacity, and is today responsible for feeding 5.8 million people in Syria alone. It’s still not enough. By the end of 2014, it is estimated that the demand will grow to 7 million, says Muhannad Hadi, the organization’s emergency coordinator for Syria. But the agency is running out of money. Earlier this month, the WFP cut the size of its food parcels distributed to Syrians by one fifth because of lack of funds.
As if things were not bad enough, a predicted drought threatens a catastrophic, record-low wheat harvest in the coming months, endangering the lives of millions dependent on agriculture. Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in March 2011, more than 150,000 people have been killed, over a third of whom were civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.