After a week without bread, people in the small central Syrian town of Halfaya got word two days before Christmas that a shipment of flour had arrived at the main bakery, prompting several hundred to queue up for the staple of life in the war-ravaged land.
For the Syrian air force, it was a moment of lethal opportunity. Soon, a Sukhoi-22 ground attack plane flew over the bakery and dropped eight bombs, each filled with cluster bomblets. The first struck 150 feet from the bakery, but the second was a direct hit on the bread line, killing at least 68 people, witnesses said.
“More than one bomb went off, and lots of smaller explosions. I couldn’t count the number, there were so many,” said Samer al Hamwi, a local activist. “I saw body parts from 200 meters. When I got closer, I saw people in front of the bakery all piled on top of each other. Blood and body parts were everywhere.”
The Halfaya massacre was only one of scores of artillery or air attacks on bread lines and bakeries last year, according to data McClatchy has compiled from multiple Syrian sources.
Two Syrian opposition groups say government forces have attacked bread lines and bakeries at least 100 times, causing hundreds of casualties and in most cases destroying the bakeries. A McClatchy investigation found another source for 80 of those attacks, either from videos posted on YouTube at the time of each attack or from subsequent interviews with eyewitnesses, activists and municipal council officials.
The attacks couldn’t have been inadvertent: At least 14 bakeries were targeted more than once, in some instances four or five times over months.
A spokesman for the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights said the findings suggested a government strategy, and he called for an end to such attacks.
"The number of reported attacks on bakeries and bread lines is extraordinarily high and, if verified on anything like this scale, it would suggest that this cannot be accidental,” Rupert Colville told McClatchy. “If such attacks are indeed proved to be systematic or widespread targeting of civilian populations, then they may amount to both crimes against humanity and war crimes. All parties must halt all such attacks.”
The assaults on bakeries are a particularly perverse development in a war in which millions of people have been forced to flee their homes and face winter with inadequate shelter and dwindling food supplies. Rebel sympathizers say the attacks clearly are retaliation for rebel advances and that the government of President Bashar Assad is using his air force and artillery to punish civilians in rebel-held zones.
In Halfaya, the bread line bombing came two days after rebel forces attacked a government checkpoint, forcing government troops and allied Shabiha militia to abandon the town and its hospital.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch first documented assaults on bread lines and bakeries in a report in August. The group said then that the Assad regime had targeted 10 bakeries in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, killing and wounding scores of people. It said no fighting had been under way in any of the 10 cases and there was no significant presence of rebel fighters.
McClatchy’s review found that the attacks go far beyond that report, however. Since August, there have been more than 80 attacks, according to the two Syrian opposition groups: the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella for human rights groups, and the Al Jazeera Homs Channel, a group of so-called citizen journalists based in Homs that has no link to the Qatar-based international television network. Both have posted their broader conclusions on the Internet and provided specific details to McClatchy.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission said 360 people had been killed while standing in bread lines or inside bakeries through late December and more than 500 were wounded. McClatchy couldn’t verify this total, but based on detailed accounts of several of the biggest attacks concluded that well over 200 people have been killed.
Such attacks also have grown in frequency, coinciding with the growing success of the rebels.
In the first seven months of last year, there were 17 attacks on bakeries and bread lines, according to the two groups. That number then quickly shot up after the rebels launched offensives in Damascus and Aleppo in July. In August alone, there were 18 such attacks, all but two in Aleppo. There were 10 attacks in September, 14 in October, 14 in November and 21 in December. In the first half of this month, there were at least six more attacks on bread lines or bakeries.
By far, the biggest number of assaults was in Aleppo, where the two groups counted 41 attacks. The World Food Program reported in December that there was no bread in Aleppo, a town now said to be 60 to 70 percent under the control of rebel forces. In second place were Homs, where there were at least 15 attacks on bread lines or bakeries, and the capital of Damascus and the surrounding countryside. The groups reported eight attacks on bread lines or bakeries in the northeastern city of Idlib and six in the southwestern city of Deir el Zour.
Up to now, the United Nations hasn’t made an issue of the bread line attacks, according to Amanda Pitt, the head of media relations for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which overseas policy on Syria. “I haven’t heard any reports on this specifically,” she told McClatchy in an email.
The U.N. World Food Program, which manages the distribution of international aid into Syria, is aware of more than two dozen bombings of bakeries, a spokeswoman said. However, the U.N. body declined to issue a statement condemning the bombings. As a U.N. organization, the World Food Program has to obtain Syrian government permission to distribute food in the country, and it relies on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, whose top appointees are said to be close to the Syrian government, for food distribution. The World Food Program has no independent access to the 60 percent of the country that’s said to be in rebel hands.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said it would have no immediate comment, but U.S. officials said the agency was well aware of the Syrian government’s practice of targeting bakeries.
The World Food Program seemed to play down the possibility that regime attacks on bakeries and bread lines were deliberate. “We are concerned about the fact that many bakeries are unable to operate because of lack of fuel, lack of ingredients, lack of capacity and damage as the result of the conflict,” spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told McClatchy. She said the program wasn’t “mandated with commenting on the responsibilities of any side.”
Halfaya wasn’t the only highly lethal attack. Human Rights Watch said 60 people were killed and 76 wounded in an attack on the Qadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo city on Aug. 16, and at least 23 people were killed and more than 30 wounded in an attack in the Bab al Hadid area of Aleppo on Aug. 21.
Both bakeries were struck repeatedly in the period that followed. Bab al Hadid was hit on Aug. 22, Oct. 13, Nov. 23 and Dec. 24, and Qadi Asker on Oct. 10, Nov. 1 and Dec. 13. Al Sakhour bakery, in an eastern suburb of Aleppo, was attacked five times from Aug. 11 to Oct. 25.
In the city of Deir el Zour, 24 people died in an attack on Christmas Day, and on Jan. 2, 21 people were reported killed in a bread line attack in Al Ma’dhamiya, in the Damascus countryside.
In the case of Halfaya, a town of about 30,000 about 15 miles northwest of Hama, the final death toll may not be known, because many people fled, some taking their dead relatives with them to bury elsewhere.
According to the Syrian Revolution General Commission and two eyewitnesses contacted by McClatchy, the total dead could be more than 90.
Hamwi witnessed the attack from a rooftop 500 yards away. He told McClatchy that up to Dec. 23, the town bakery had had three ovens but nothing to bake.
“There had been no flour for a week before the bombing,” he said. “We had managed to contact an Islamic charity, which sent us 100 sacks of flour. We managed to get the bakery running. Two hours later, the plane attacked. It came from the east, very high, circled around Muhradah,” a neighboring city, “then came back and dropped eight cluster bombs.”
A YouTube video taken shortly after the attack, which Hamwi said occurred at 4:10 p.m., shows the dead and wounded lying in the street outside the bakery.
Hamwi said townspeople buried 60 people, only 15 of them identifiable, and filled two graves with body parts. “Up to now, we have not been able to count the number of missing accurately, because most of the residents fled, and we can’t contact them,” he said.
A rebel fighter who asked that he be identified only by his first name, Ala, told McClatchy he was convinced that the regime had been tipped about the flour shipment by sympathizers who’d stayed behind when government forces pulled out. “I was about (two miles) away,” he said in a Skype interview. “We all saw the plane. The first bomb targeted the bakery directly. Not all of the others exploded.”
UPDATE: USAID, which did not respond initially to a request for comment, provided the following statement on Feb. 1, 2013: “The bombing of bakeries and bread lines is unconscionable – of mothers in line, often with their children, simply to buy bread to feed their families – it is simply unacceptable. Cutting off essential services like flour supplies and fuel puts vast swaths of the Syrian population at risk. The United States condemns these actions in the strongest terms.”