BEIRUT: As if life under shelling and air strikes, as well as power cuts, was not harsh enough, residents of several flashpoint towns and cities in Syria face a new misery: a shortage of bread and flour.
"We've been under siege for six months and we're having to use expired flour to make bread," said 30-year-old Abu Khaled, who is trapped with his wife and two young sons in the rebel-held Old City district of Homs in central Syria.
"We go and look in destroyed houses for wood to make a fire. Our bread is made from old flour, dirty water and a bit of salt. But we still say: 'Thank God, we are alive.'"
In nearby Rastan, also besieged by the army, "roads are blocked by army checkpoints," said anti-regime activist Abu Rawan.
"People are living off bulgur and other preserves. But in less than a month, there'll be nothing left."
Elsewhere in Syria, the price of bread has soared, and even in areas under regime control residents are feeling the pinch.
"I queue up for bread at night so as not to lose out on my working hours," said Mohammed, a taxi driver who lives in the capital's mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Jaramana.
"It usually takes me two or three hours to get to the front of the line outside the bakery," Mohammed added. For the few who can afford it, "there are people who resell bread near the bakery at four times the shop price."
In Daraya, southwest of Damascus, which has been subjected to a fierce army assault, securing flour is part of the rebels' fight.
"The army set up a checkpoint near a bakery in Daraya, making it impossible for residents to reach it," an activist in the flashpoint town said via the Internet.
"When the army pulled back, we took the flour before troops came to bombard or burn it down, as they have done so often," said the activist, who identified himself as Abu Kinan.
Rights groups have accused government forces of committing war crimes when dropping bombs and firing artillery on or near several bakeries in the northern province of Aleppo during the summer.
One of the bloodiest attacks was on a bread line in the Qadi Askar district of Aleppo city on August 16 that left 60 people dead, according to local hospital records.
The province of Raqa, which like Aleppo also neighbours Turkey, has also suffered bread shortages.
"The humanitarian situation here is very bad," said anti-regime activist Thaer al-Raqay. "When you can find bread, it costs $2."
Like the others, speaking to AFP via the Internet, Raqay said shortages in his province are compounded by the presence of tens of thousands of displaced who have fled violence in other regions.
Further west, in the province of Aleppo and for the first time since the outbreak of the almost 21-month conflict, there has been no bread at all for the past week, according to local residents.
On top of oil, gas and electricity shortages as winter sets in, "the (bread) crisis has reached unimaginable dimensions," one resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The neighbourhood bakery has been closed since Saturday because of flour and fuel shortages," said Daoud, who is in his 20s and lives in the Qadim district of the embattled provincial capital.
While Daoud and his mother live alone, and as a result have been less badly affected by the shortage, he worries for "families of 10 who lack this staple product."
"Even if there were an open state-run bakery near my home, it would be impossible to get there because of the fighting," said Mustafa, a father of five children.
"The closure of bakeries has pushed some traders to sell packages of bread that would usually cost 15 pounds (20 US cents) for 200 pounds ($2.8)," Mustafa added.
Abu Samer, who owns a bakery in Aleppo, says the price of bread has shot up because "the cost of fuel has gone up four-fold. The cost of flour, which is imported from Turkey and sold on the black market, has also risen."
The crisis is unlikely to end any time soon, Abu Samer said, because armed men have seized control of flour silos south and west of Aleppo.