BENGHAZI, Libya: Far from the front line where Libyan rebels take on Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, Saleh Awad is fighting his own battle to keep his grocery store stocked with basic foodstuffs such as cheese and sugar.
Awad’s store in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is packed with milk cartons, canned tuna and bread – for now.
He says trade disruptions since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February have made replenishing stocks a daily struggle, while prices of items such as cooking oil have doubled.
“These are the hardest days we’ve had so far, because we can’t get the goods we want when we want them. We’ve never had anything like this before,” Awad said as he rang up purchases. “The last couple of days I have not been able to find any cheese. I used to buy two or three boxes, but some days you can’t find any.”
Fears of a looming food shortage in eastern Libya have grown since the World Food Program warned this week that food stocks were not being replenished at normal rates.
Most international grain traders have suspended business with the rebel-held east over fears of non-payment, European traders say, while shipping companies are staying away from the country over fears of breaching a U.N. arms embargo, a shipping group said.
Awad said he suspected that some people had started hoarding food as the conflict drags on. Residents of nearby towns were also coming to Benghazi to stock up on food, he said.
Benghazi’s stores remain reasonably stocked for now, but the difficulty in securing food imports has sent prices of basic foodstuffs soaring.
At a large supermarket in the city center, where the shelves are filled with eggs, juices, frozen foods and chocolate, manager Ibrahim al-Arabi said he was trying to keep prices down.
Most food items were still available, he said, but difficulty in finding the foreign currency to pay manufacturers meant he was running out of specialty items such as sugar-free foods for diabetics.
“Before the revolution, I could choose what I wanted from Europe, but these days you have to take what you get,” he said.
Supplies are now largely brought over land from Egypt along about 1,500 kilometers of highway, since Gadhafi’s forces have cut off the city from the west and disrupted shipping from Europe and Asia at eastern ports.
At Awad’s store, a bottle of vegetable oil that retailed for 2.5 Libyan dinars ($2) now goes for 5 dinars, while the price of sugar has more than doubled to 2.25 dinars a kilo.
Many Libyans in Benghazi say the higher prices and scarce supplies are a small price to pay for a possible end to four decades of Gadhafi’s rule.
But the strain is starting to show on some families, as the conflict enters its third month and the rebel National Council scrambles to secure funds to pay salaries and handouts.
Haida Rashidi, 55, a widow with six children, said feeding her family has become tougher every day, especially on the 200 dinars a month she gets from the rebel government.
“Everything is available but prices are going up,” she said. “I’m trying to use very little tomato and oil each day.”
Food Crisis could hit Libya soon: U.N.
GENEVA: Libya will suffer a large-scale food crisis within two months unless stocks are replenished and distribution networks are supported, the U.N. said Thursday.
The country has sufficient stocks for only 45 to 60 days, after which many will be forced to cut back on meals, said the World Food Program’s regional director Daly Belgasmi.
The most vulnerable, including children, pregnant women, sick people and the elderly, are likely to be worst affected, Belgasmi told reporters in Geneva. Already at least 600,000 need food assistance.
Libya imports more than half of its food and the conflict between Moammar Gadhafi’s government and rebels has badly disrupted supply lines, according to a report by several U.N. aid agencies.
Among the biggest problems are the closure of commercial ports such as Misrata, the lack of hard currency as the value of the Libyan dinar plummets, and the sharp rise in fuel prices that is driving up the cost of food. In northwest Libya prices have increased by up to 40 percent, according to the WFP.
Belgasmi said the exodus of 500,000 foreign laborers since the start of the conflict has added to the problem, as thousands worked in food production such as bakeries that now struggle to stay open.
Government-run distribution networks for the poor have also come under pressure, he said.