The deadly cost of collecting truffles

A truffle hunter shows truffles in the countryside of Hama, central Syria, on April 18, 2023. People in war-torn Syria have gone out of their way to make a living and support their families amid an economic crunch, and one of the ways even faces death as they venture out to collect costly truffles in the desert region. (Photo by Hummam Sheikh Ali/Xinhua)

People in war-torn Syria have gone out of their way to make a living and support their families amid an economic crunch, and one of the ways even faces death as they venture out to collect costly truffles in the desert region.

Suffering persistent hardships, some Syrians appear nonchalant about their own safety as they no longer afford the luxury of a logical line of action when the war and its implications have already nullified almost all norms.

Sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries have made the situation even worse in Syria, leading to people’s further neglect of personal safety when their livelihoods become threatened.

Hunters risk being killed by Islamic State (IS) militants or explosions of undetected landmines left by the extremists in wartime to collect truffles in the desert region where the valued substance can be found.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 244 truffle hunters were killed in the desert region between February 6 and April 16, either by undetected landmines or by armed men.

In a village in the countryside of the central province of Hama, which is only 50 km from the desert areas where foragers collect truffles, lucky hunters can be seen riding motorcycles back with bags of truffles.

Abdul Aziz Al-Oqab, a sheik in the village, told Xinhua that the high demand for the high-priced truffles has tempted hunters to forage at the risk of their lives.

“There is a difficulty in making a living. So people started looking for ways to make money and discovered that collecting truffles and selling them to traders for export makes good money,” Al-Oqab said.

“Those who collect truffles don’t know if they’d come back alive,” he told Xinhua, calling truffle a substance “being dipped in blood.”

“Many jobs in our village had gone extinct, so people started relying primarily on the truffle, first because of the good money they can make, and second because it doesn’t need any special skill or production cost,” said Al-Oqab, noting the truffles harvest in Syria this year is one of the largest since the 1990s.

Al-Oqab said he had stopped consuming truffles or ventured out to collect them long ago as 20 of his extended family members have been killed in incidents when collecting truffles.

The adversity also befell Nazzal al-Adab, Al-Oqab’s long-time friend, who lost his young son involved in the truffle-hunting adventure.

“My son told me he wanted to go, as he had made good money the previous day. I told him I wasn’t going and he shouldn’t either. But he insisted on going out. At 6 p.m. on the day, I went to bring back his dead body,” al-Adab lamented, recalling his last conversation with his son.

His son and two companions, along with three others, were killed in a landmine explosion.

“If two men from the same family were to go collect truffles, they could make 1 million Syrian pounds (398 U.S. dollars) in two hours,” Al-Adab said, adding the price of truffles has dramatically increased since 2019.

He told Xinhua that more than eight people get killed every week for hunting truffles as far as he is concerned.

The United Nations has repeatedly warned about the danger of undetected landmines and other explosives in Syria.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed in early April that 3,353 civilians, including 889 children, had been killed by landmines in Syria since 2011, not even including those gunned down by IS militants. ■

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