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Syria. The truffle pickers die in the attacks

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Syrians used to take their entire families on a desert truffle hunt. Today only a rifle and a first aid kit. This springtime tradition has been marked by the risk of death in attacks attributed to jihadists. At least 26 civilians were killed on Sunday, according to state media.

Black and white truffles, nicknamed “daughters of the storm”, can be found in the deserts of the Middle East. It is believed that they grow in this medium thanks to the stormy weather. They are larger than their European cousins ​​and slightly milder in taste. Nevertheless, they are also a valued delicacy.

As soon as winter subsided, Syrian families used to pack their cars and go camping to look for these mushrooms in the desert. It has become a springtime tradition and one of Syrians’ favorite pastimes. It is also a way to save your home budget – you can earn more per kilogram than the average monthly salary in the country, which oscillates around $ 18. A kilogram of mushrooms, on the other hand, can be worth anywhere from $5 to $25, depending on size and quality. The extra money is extremely valuable during the economic crisis caused by the 12-year war. However, the period in which you can earn money is short, because the truffle season lasts only from February to April.

You can earn more than the national average per kilogram of trufflesLOUAI BESHARA/AFP/East News

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Once a favorite distraction, today a deadly occupation

However, truffle hunting has become a deadly way to earn money. In the deserts where gatherers search, jihadists have their hiding places. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a British monitoring group that relies on a wide network of sources in Syria – since the beginning of February, more than 240 people have died while collecting truffles at the hands of militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) or as a result of mine explosions.

Activists and state media reported that on Sunday there was another jihadist attack on treasure hunters. The Syrian state news agency Sana, citing a police source, said militants attacked a group of civilians in the village of Duwaizin in eastern Hama province, killing 26 of them.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 36 people were killed, including at least 17 soldiers from the pro-government National Defense Forces.

“They began to fear poverty more than death”

Information about hundreds of victims, however, does not discourage Syrians from taking up an extremely dangerous job. Only the way of organizing expeditions has changed – instead of taking the family to the desert, you take rifles and a first aid kit with you.

“People started to fear poverty more than death,” said Baha Sulieman, 28, who lives in Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria. He reported that about a month ago he went mushroom picking twice.

Syria is struggling with extreme poverty and unemployment, a weakening currency and inflation. According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. More than half of the population has to struggle to get enough food. Fuel is also scarce, and some Syrians resort to burning garbage and plastic to keep warm or cook.

Pro-government forces are taking advantage of the situation

Despite attributing the attacks on the truffle hunters to IS militants, they have not claimed responsibility for any of these actions. Residents and analysts say it is unclear who is behind all the crimes. There are clashes between several warring parties in the vast desert region. One of them is the so-called Islamic Statewhich in 2014 occupied large areas in Syria and Iraqimposing its brutal rule on nearly eight million people.

In March 2019, the group was broken up by the international anti-jihadi coalition led by United States, but still has an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 members and supporters in both countries, roughly half of whom are militants. They spread across the desert lands. Since the beginning of this year, IS cells have stepped up their attacks in these areas.

US military in Syria. Archive videoReuters Archive

Most of the desert areas, however, are controlled by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied armed groups, including Iranian-backed militias. They are fighting the Syrian armed opposition

The pro-government forces take advantage of the danger of this situation and the desperation of the citizens, and force them to take them with them on searches for protection. They also offer information on where mines have been planted and claim a substantial share of the profits. Some seekers believe that some attacks are carried out by the same forces that offer protection.

“I saw that they themselves are afraid”

About a month ago, Baha Sulieman, looking for truffles in eastern Syria, said he had joined a gathering group whose leader had arranged for protection from the Syrian National Defense Forces militia. The soldiers were armed with automatic rifles and several machine guns. But this did not reassure the man. “I saw that they themselves are afraid, so how are they supposed to protect us?” – He was asking.

At the end of the day, the pickers had to sell their entire harvest to a truffle dealer who paid half the market price. The rest he gave to the militia.

The war in Syria has robbed the country and its people of many things, including the joy of the truffle-picking tradition. Jassem Abu Baraa, 33, a member of the local municipal council in Deir al-Zour province, expressed regret over the incident. As he said, because of the war, camping trips became too difficult and dangerous. “It will be difficult for us to ever get it back,” he said.

Main photo source: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/East News

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