Syrians risk their lives for truffles

HAMA: At a Syrian market, bags are brimming with desert truffles, a seasonal delicacy that people risk their lives to collect while braving attacks from Islamic State groups and land mines.

“It’s a treat dipped in blood,” said vendor Mohammed Salha, 31, showing truffles he had collected for a week near his village in central Hama province.

“Every day I leave my house not knowing if I will return to my wife and daughter,” he said, wrapping a brown keffiyeh shawl around his head.

“We’re risking our lives… but we don’t care anymore, we want to feed our kids,” he told AFP, dark circles lining his tired eyes.

Between February and April, hundreds of impoverished Syrians hunt for the money-spinning delicacy in the vast Syrian desert, or Badia — a well-known hideout for jihadists that’s also riddled with landmines.

According to the war monitor from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 130 truffle hunters have been killed so far this season, mainly in jihadist ambushes or in landmine explosions.

Syria’s desert truffles are known for their high quality and command high prices in a country ravaged by 12 years of war and a devastating economic crisis.

At the market in the city of Hama, truffles can sell for as much as $25 a kilo ($11 a pound), depending on size and quality — in a country where the average monthly wage is around $18.

“We make big profits in the two months of truffle season, but we risk our lives,” Salha said with a wry smile.

“Blood on Her Clothes”

Truffles, big and small, spilled out of baskets, trays and burlap, some propped up on dirty plastic crates or right on the footpath.

“Auction! Auction!” yelled one of dozens of vendors as wholesale buyers milled around to bid on a 50-kilo (110-pound) lot.

Seller Omar al-Boush opened the auction for the equivalent of $4.50 a kilo in Syrian pounds – and the price had soon almost doubled.

“We have truffle varieties that are suitable for middle-income people,” said Boush, 52, with a red and white keffiyeh around his neck.

“Some families would rather buy truffles than meat,” he said, laying large white truffles on his stand with dirt-caked fingers.

Different types of truffles are collected in the desert, which stretches across central Syria to the eastern border with Iraq.

Sellers told AFP that the black truffle, found in the desert areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces, fetches the highest prices.

Jamaleddine Dakak, a wholesaler from Damascus, said some traders buy high-quality truffles and export them to neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, while others are reportedly smuggled to rich Gulf countries via Jordan.

Seller Yusuf Safaf, seated behind a stall, said he bought his truffles from Bedouins who came to Hama in the morning – some with “blood on their clothes”.

“Some have lost family members collecting truffles – but they keep doing it… because they have no other choice,” said the 43-year-old.

“There are landmines, bandits and long stretches” where ISIS is present, Safaf added.

“People sacrifice their lives… just to feed themselves.”

‘A risk’

Despite repeated warnings in the Syrian media, collectors are taking the risk.

In a report earlier this month, a military source warned people not to hunt for truffles “since some areas have not yet been declared safe” from land mines and IS militants.

Jihad al-Abdullah, 30, lost his leg when a mine exploded while he was driving east of Hama to collect truffles.

He gets around on crutches now, but he said he still sometimes forages and has spent much of this season selling truffles collected by his brothers.

“I have nothing to lose after losing my leg,” said Abdullah, sprawled on the ground next to his stand.

“I continue my work to earn my daily living. The rest is up to God.”

According to the United Nations, more than 10 million people live in potentially explosive areas across the country.

Explosives planted in fields, along roads or even in buildings by all sides in the Syrian conflict killed 15,000 people between 2015 and 2022, according to the UN.

Abdullah said collecting truffles is like playing cards.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. “It’s a gamble I took.” -AFP Syrians risk their lives for truffles

Russell Falcon

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