x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Buy a gun? That's easy. But cooking gas …

In clandestine assignations under cover of darkness, large sums of money change hands. Phil Sands attempts to buy a rare, precious canister of gas in Damascus

Syrian refugee boys fill cooking gas cylinders at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the Syrian border, where it is now almost impossible to obtain gas.
Syrian refugee boys fill cooking gas cylinders at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the Syrian border, where it is now almost impossible to obtain gas.

DAMASCUS // Running out of cooking gas used to be a minor inconvenience. These days, the dying blue flame on the stove induces heart-sinking despair.

To replace an empty canister now requires initiative, guile, patience, connections, courage and cash. And luck. Even then, you may not succeed.

Obtaining one of the blue-painted canisters was once simple. There were small centres in almost every neighbourhood - my local one is between the butcher's and the bike repair shop - where an empty canister could be exchanged for a full one for 275 lira (Dh14).

Most people didn't even go to that much trouble, preferring to yell out the window to one of the roving gas salesman, who would announce their presence by banging a spanner against a gas canister. They charged a US$1 premium to deliver a full one to your doorstep, take the empty away and attach the new canister to the stove.

In my neighbourhood, I had a choice of two delivery men. Abu George, a polite, heavyset fellow with a moustache and an uncanny sense of balance, cycled around on a Chinese-made bicycle with three big canisters improbably hooked on to his panniers.

But the cheerfully unmistakable and bright ringing noise of the gas men on their rounds began to disappear from the chaotic soundtrack of Syrian life more than a year ago.

Abu George gave up deliveries when the first serious shortages of cooking gas started to bite in the autumn of 2011.

An honest man, he didn't like to charge the grossly inflated black market rate and, therefore, wasn't himself able to afford to buy his own gas supply. He instead took up work as a labourer on construction sites.

The other delivery man rode a small motorised tricycle that gushed oily smoke and made a noise like a handful of nails in a washing machine. He was widely considered disreputable but grudgingly acknowledged as effective.

He managed to acquire a bottle of gas - for a steep price - even when there was really no gas to acquire. Swallowing their dislike for the man, those with the money used him. Then, last spring, he stopped deliveries too.

In the meantime, the neighbourhood distribution centres had all but shut, forcing many people to load their canister onto a bus, a bike, a wheelbarrow or pushchair and make their way to the main supply depot in Nahar Aisha, in southern Damascus.

An unhappy crowd gathered in the mornings, each body paired with a stout canister. Sometimes, in their frustration and desperation, young men climbed over the high fence, trying to circumvent the long queue. It could take from five to eight hours to reach the head of the queue, by which time the supply might already be gone.

The search for cooking gas has provided its share of lighter moments.

Once, I was sitting on in a minibus when it drove past a smiling man, labouring under what was obviously the weight of a full gas bottle. The other passengers strained their necks to look, as if he were a rare animal or a film star, and asked if his canister was really full. When he replied that it was, they broke out in ironic, laughing shouts of congratulation.

Amid the ebb and flow of gas supplies since late 2011 - sometimes they increase slightly but never for long, never enough to meet demand - overall stocks have shrunk by the month.

I used to have a helpful, somewhat well-connected neighbour who kindly found gas on my behalf. He and his family fled the city last year, fearing for their lives. A minor side effect of their flight - but on a practical level, significant to me - was that my access to cooking fuel went with them.

The last time I needed a canister filled, I was lucky. Sitting over a wood-burning stove with a local shopkeeper, I'd mentioned it was cold at home with no gas to work the heater. The shopkeeper said he might know a man who could get one and, sure enough, he called me that afternoon.

I turned up at his small, untidy store with my empty canister - so battered it was now black, the normal blue paint all gone - and swapped it for a clean full one.

Well, almost full. The government depots stopped topping up canisters a long time ago, cutting the volume by a third and doubling the price.

The shopkeeper instructed me not to show the bottle in public, and made me swear that if anyone found out I wouldn't tell them the source. Everyone would want him to get them one, he said, and everyone would be angry that I'd received preferential treatment.

I was barely out the door when a man passing by noticed the canister and asked if it was full. I lied, telling him it was empty and asked if he knew where I could swap it. He wished me luck.

By that time, six months ago, gas was being traded in increasingly shady ways.

Lorries turned up at night on a patch of wasteland at the edge of town, on streets where lights no longer worked because of power cuts. Not far away was a meeting place where men bought guns out the boot of a car and tested them by shooting at the sad, careworn stray dogs living there amid the rubbish.

The guns were sold in broad daylight, but the illegal trade of cooking gas - far more coveted and thus certain to provoke justified and far louder howls of outrage from ordinary people - always occurred at night. A truck would pull up, lights off, and, with a watch-like precision, cars would drive up - also lights off - to make the pick-ups.

In the stillness of night, the ringing sound of the canisters hitting car floors carried to the nearest blocks of flats. But before the residents could race out and join the favoured few who had received an invitation to the illicit rendezvous, the canisters were transferred, the money passed from hand to hand and the cars and lorry gone.

For those without connections, it was a full day's work to find gas, then two, then more, until it took up to a week to find a canister. Now, key gas production plants are shut, and it is dangerous for distributors to be seen with even a small load of full bottles in a lorry - they complain of being robbed on the roads and blackmailed at checkpoints.

Supplies are hard to find even in richer, central areas of Damascus. In the suburbs where most of the city's population lives and where most of the fighting is taking place, gas canisters are as rare as a day without mortar fire or shootings.

Recently, the owner of a roast chicken restaurant on the edge of Damascus managed to obtain a canister for 3,000 Lira. In Syria, bottles of gas are fast becoming something that exist more in memory than in fact.

My latest search for a canister took place last month. By then, even the local restaurants couldn't get gas (or bread, for that matter) at a price that made any economic sense, and every time asked about one I was met with a shrug. No gas in town.

I finally got one. It took a week-and-a-half to sort out, with a friend going to the capital's Yarmouk district to meet a man who sold them in the street. It cost 1,800 lira - far beyond the reach of a civil servant on a government salary - and I guessed that it was only half-full. But I'm lucky to have it, even luckier to be able to afford it.

That was before the most recent outbreak of fighting in Yarmouk ended its reputation as a relatively safe place, as well as a place where gas and diesel could be found. There's no gas for sale there now, just an overabundance of fear and men with weapons.

I'll stretch this canister out for as long as possible. When it's gone, there may not be another.

psands@thenational.ae