x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syrian families ready to rise from the ashes again

The destruction of the Nestlé factory in the village of Khan Cheik is a potent symbol of the struggle for life and livelihood that Syrians have endured for decades.

Last month a Nestlé foods factory in the Syrian village of Khan Cheik about 20 kilometres from Damascus burnt to the ground.

A warehouse next to the plant caught fire first after it was hit by a mortar round. Nobody knows who fired the shell, but voices on both sides of the fight seem to agree it was a mistake.

But the warehouse fire was just the beginning and a production line soon went up. The part of the factory in flames was responsible for manufacturing Maggi Bouillon. The aroma must have been quite alluring as the fire soon brought out the crowds from Khan Cheik - many of whom used to work in the Nestlé factory before it was shuttered because of the fighting in late 2011.

There is no civil defence to speak of in the area these days, nor is there across Syria, so it was these crowds of villagers that stopped the fire from spreading further when it threatened to take out the whole town. But some of the villagers were also responsible for looting the rest of the factory.

They didn't just take the supplies of food but also stripped the place bare, walking away with computers, bathroom fittings, ceiling tiles and anything else they could get their hands on. And who could blame them? A people living hand to mouth in fear of their lives for two years can be forgiven for taking any measure to survive.

The warehouse fire and subsequent destruction of the factory received no international media coverage. I have found only one small report on a website linked to the Facebook page of a Syrian refugee camp that even mentioned it. In the face of the tens of thousands of deaths across the country, such an event might seem insignificant.

But it is not. The destruction of the Nestlé factory is a potent symbol of the struggle for life and livelihood that Syrians have endured for decades.

The factory was built in the 1990s by a joint venture between some prominent Syrian businessmen and the food company.

It was the first ever international joint venture struck in the country, after years of Baathist rule under the president Hafez Al Assad. It was a landmark private sector deal for the socialist regime involving US$25 million (Dh91.8m) of investment in a plant that employed as many as 325 locals in its heyday. In 1996, when it started operations, the plant had a turnover of about $40m. When it closed in 2011 turnover was as high as $125m.

In 2001, Nestlé bought out all the shares and it become Syria's first major manufacturer wholly owned by a foreign multinational. Syrians were proud that one of the biggest corporations in the world had decided to take a bet on the country's future.

All that has gone now.

But the significance of the factory's destruction is even greater than these losses, large though they are.

The Syrians broke ground for the plant in 1992. The first Iraq war was over and there was a sea-change in the country as Assad softened his stance towards the Americans to rely less onthe Russians and Iranians who had supported his socialist regime.

One of the businessmen involved in the deal had been exiled in Lebanon for 30 years but was able to come back thanks to this shift in policy and outlook.

His family started out as farmers in the country in the 1940s. Over the next 20 years they became one of the most prominent mercantile families in Syria with dominant positions in the cotton, barley and wheat markets.

But in the early 1960s, when the Baathists brought in so-called agrarian reforms, much of their land was confiscated and redistributed.

The wave of nationalisations that followed the Baath coup d'état claimed the rest of their business interests.

This could be the story of any one of dozens of mercantile families from Syria who have watched their family fortune built and destroyed more times in a single generation than you would think possible. But still they fight on.

Many of those same families are poised to return to Syria to reclaim what was once theirs. They wait in Dubai, Beirut, Amman and Cairo, some in Turkey, ready to start again just as they have so many times before.