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Idlib farmers harvest figs amid shelling, landmines

Farmers in the Jabal al-Zawiya area that has recently witnessed escalating bombardment by Syrian government and Russian forces, are braving dangers to harvest their fig crops.
Syria harvest

Drones flying over farmlands, the sound of artillery explosions and hidden landmines did not stop farmers in Idlib, in northwest Syria, from harvesting their fig trees this season.

Owners of agricultural lands near the demarcation lines with the Syrian government forces in Jabal al-Zawiya are putting themselves in danger when harvesting their crops every season.

In late July, farmers began picking figs, which are an important source of income in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, in the south of Idlib, where the government and Russia have stepped up their shelling in the past two months.

Abdallah al-Aaraj, a farmer who is originally from Jabal al-Zawiya, was recently displaced to one of Idlib’s camps in the wake of the escalation. He says fig crops need great care, which has become impossible to provide under daily bombardment.

The Syrian government’s military posts, where snipers are stationed, are only three kilometers away from Jabal al-Zawiya, and reconnaissance drones are a constant menace, he adds.

Two weeks ago, he and his sons climbed a ladder to pick figs from the trees when "the bullets started falling over our heads like rain, which forced us to go down and leave. A few minutes later, mortar shells hit the place where we were, just minutes before,” Aaraj told Al-Monitor.

He added that fig fruits do not all ripen at the same time, which makes them even more difficult to harvest. He said that a large part of his crop fell on the ground and was spoiled. “I had to risk my life and the lives of my children among the mines and under the shelling [to harvest our crops] because we rely on figs to secure our livelihood.”

The fig harvest season is an opportunity for the people in the opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria to earn money, in light of the worsening living conditions, limited job opportunities and low wages, as well as the displacement of more than 1 million people.

The Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, reported in a Facebook post on Aug. 16 that two civilians were killed and another wounded as they were picking figs in the fields in the village of Kansafra, in the south of Idlib. Unexploded ordnances, including landmines and explosive devices, pose a real threat to civilians in northwestern Syria, and prevent farmers from harvesting their crops, the agency said.

On Aug. 13, another civilian was killed in a landmine explosion while picking figs near the village of Neirab, in the east of Idlib.

Ahmad al-Hallaq, a farmer from the village of Bara in Jabal al-Zawiya, was unable to harvest the majority of his crop this season. He only managed to pick 20% of the figs after coordinating with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) fighters in the area, who allowed him to enter his farmland without crossing into an area where he could be targeted by government snipers.

The risk of snipers was only one reason for the losses Ahmad incurred for the second year in a row. He told Al-Monitor that fig crops are the only source of income for his family and children, as well as the children of his brother, who was killed in government bombardment in Bara two years ago.

Ahmad said that this year’s yields declined because farmers could not provide the needed care for farmlands, such as plowing the land, spraying insecticides, and pruning and watering.

According to Ahmad, the villages and towns of Kafar Aweed, Kansafra, Fatira and Bara are the most dangerous places for civilians, because they are located on the demarcation lines. He added that his agricultural land is located in the most dangerous part of Bara, in Idlib countryside.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a May report that half of the Syrian population is at risk of explosive hazards.

Every night at midnight, Riad Hallaq and his cousins walk ​to the village of Bara to pick figs from their orchards and those owned by other people in their village. They get paid only 15 Turkish liras (83 cents) per hour and work until before sunrise to avoid being targeted by government forces.

Riad says he is lucky because the wage is more than some other workers get in northwestern Syria. But, he told Al-Monitor, “We may escape the shelling and snipers’ fire [at night], but we may not survive the landmines.” 

Since the beginning of 2019, the government forces and Russia have seized 60% of lands from the opposition factions, which consequently lost 2,300 square kilometers of agricultural land, while only 1,500 square kilometers remain under their control, including Jabal al-Zawiya.

The Syrian Civil Defense documented 16 remnants of war explosions in northwestern Syria so far this year, killing 11 people, including five children, and wounding 18 others, including 14 children and a woman.

In a post published on Facebook on Aug. 17, the group added that its unexploded ordnance teams conducted more than 780 non-technical surveys and removed 524 arms ammunitions in 449 clearance operations during the same period. The teams provided 1,080 awareness sessions on the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnances to 20,000 civilians, including children and farmers.

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