truffle hunting in syria once a beloved pastime is now a danger

A cherished spring tradition has become a perilous gamble to earn a bit of desperately needed income during an economic crisis after 12 years of war. Dozens of foragers have been killed already this year.

They are called “daughter of thunder,” or bint al-ra’ad — M​iddle Eastern black and white truffles that are found in deserts across the region and thought to be the product of stormy weather and lightning strikes.

Larger and less pungent than their European cousins, they are an equally prized delicacy. Once the winter storms have passed, Syrian families in the east of the country have traditionally packed up their cars to go camping and forage for them in the desert.

But the cherished pastime of truffle hunting has become a perilous gamble to make money during desperate economic times. At least 84 people have been killed so far this year hunting truffles in the country’s central and eastern desert, according to two groups that monitor Syria’s war. Some were killed by land mines, others shot by gunmen or kidnapped and killed later.

Now, instead of venturing out into the desert with their families, truffle hunters are taking rifles and first aid kits. Still, they go on the expeditions, driven by severe poverty and unemployment, a collapsing currency and inflation. More than half of the population struggles to get enough food, and amid a nationwide fuel shortage, some Syrians have resorted to burning trash and plastic to stay warm or cook.

“People have started to fear poverty more than death,” said Baha Sulieman, 28, who lives in Deir al Zour Province in eastern Syria and went out twice to collect truffles about a month ago.

Residents and analysts say it is unclear who is targeting the truffle hunters. In the large desert region where many have been killed, battles between warring parties are continuing after more than 12 years of a war that has not ended.

The areas are mostly under the control of the government of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and allied armed groups, including Iran-backed militias. Islamic State sleeper cells are also active there, and Syrian state media have blamed the terrorist group for all of the killings.

Middle Eastern truffles have a more subtle taste than their European cousins and are eaten much like meat or mushrooms would be, roasted over campfires or cooked in stews or with rice. Although the local truffles do not command the same prices as European ones, they can bring in some much-needed cash.

A kilogram of truffles can sell from $6 to $35, depending on the location and variety. Youssef Badawi/EPA, via Shutterstock

A bumper crop and high price of truffles this year have made it especially tempting for the hunters.

At one market in Damascus, Syria’s capital, black truffles were selling for $35 a kilogram — the equivalent of a month’s salary for many in Syria, where about 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.

A grocery store in an upper-middle-class neighborhood was charging about $17 for a kilogram of black truffles — a little more than two pounds — while white truffles go for about $6, according to the shop owner, Samer Baalbecki.

Taking advantage of the dangerous situation and the desperation of those willing to risk it, pro-government forces have coerced truffle hunters to bring them along for protection. The forces also offer information about where mines have been laid and demand a large cut of the profits. Those who refuse the forces face the risk of stepping on mines or being kidnapped or attacked by gunmen, some truffle hunters said.

National Defense Forces, a pro-government militia, and the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by the younger brother of the Syrian president, are both involved in the protection racket, according to three people living in eastern Syria.

War profiteering, shakedowns and looting have long been common among armed groups in Syria’s conflict, especially those associated with Mr. al-Assad’s regime.

Some truffle hunters believe that some of the attacks are being carried out by the very same forces offering protection — in order to dissuade people from going alone and leaving them out of a profitable harvest.

About a month ago, Mr. Sulieman, the truffle hunter in eastern Syria, said he joined a caravan of hunters whose leader had arranged protection from the National Defense Forces militia. The soldiers were armed with automatic rifles and a few machine guns.

But Mr. Sulieman was not reassured.

“I saw that they themselves are afraid, so how are they going to protect us?” he said. “There was constant fear.”

Syrian Army soldiers searching for land mines in 2020 at a pistachio orchard in the village of Maan. Land mines, as well as other threats from the country’s continuing war, are making truffle hunting dangerous.Louai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the end of the day, they had to sell their entire hauls to a truffle trader who paid half the market price. The rest of the profits went to the militiamen, he said.

Mr. Sulieman collected about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds, the first day, and 12 kilograms the next. The money was good. But two days later, some foragers were kidnapped and killed in the same general area, and he decided the payoff was no longer worth the risk.

Still, many others have kept going out, Mr. Sulieman said, even some who have been previously attacked.

“It’s an enticing sum,” he said, adding that he had heard stories of people making up to 3,000,000 lira a day, or nearly $400. “That is what has led people to risk their lives.”

When truffle hunting season began in February, a 19-year-old man in the city of Deir al Zour and his father began going out in groups to the desert, hours away. They were accompanied by soldiers from the Fourth Armored Division for protection, he said.

At the end of each day of foraging, the soldiers would take half of their harvest and buy the rest for half of the market rate, said the young man, who did not want to be identified because he lives in a government-controlled city and feared retribution.

About a month ago, the man from Deir al Zour and his father had had enough of handing over what amounted to three-quarters of the day’s profit. Instead, they coordinated with a local tribe to provide armed protection. At 5 a.m., he said, they headed out into an area of mountains and valleys accompanied by the tribesmen armed with light weapons.

Suddenly, they were attacked by a number of assailants who ran at them with assault rifles and machine guns, he said. The truffle hunters huddled on the ground as the tribesmen opened fire on the attackers in a gunfight that lasted for about an hour.

A merchant selling truffles last month at a market in Raqqa, Syria.Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Six of the tribesmen and two of the attackers were killed, while the rest of the assailants fled, according to the young man.

The truffle hunters were unharmed. But the young man said he thought they were going to die in the firefight, and he has not ventured out into the desert since.

Syrian state media blame the Islamic State. After the group’s self-declared caliphate crumbled and lost its last territorial foothold in Syria in 2019, sleeper cells have hidden out in Syria’s vast desert, using it as a base to carry out attacks.

The Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.

The deadliest attack was on Feb. 17, when 53 truffle hunters were ambushed in central Homs Province and shot in the head, according to state media, one of the attacks it blamed on the Islamic State.

The Syrian war has robbed the country and its people of so much. But the disappearance of this cherished tribal tradition is something that Jassem Abu Baraa, 33, and a member of a local municipal council in Deir al Zour Province, mourns deeply.

Two years ago, he said, a relative was killed while foraging for truffles.

“After the war, this camping became too hard to do because of the security situation,” he said, lamenting the loss of what was once a beloved pastime. “It will be hard for us to ever get it back.”

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