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The true price of Syrian desert truffles is blood: a story of delicacies, landmines and destruction

Executive Summary: Every year, between February and April, desert truffles grow in the Badia, the Syrian desert, fetching a high price throughout the country. However, the Badia is a known jihadist hotspot littered with landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), resulting in over 130 truffle hunters being killed so far this season, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Up to March 9th, at least 76 civilians have been killed and injured in IED, landmine, and ERW explosions while searching for truffles. The majority of civilian casualties are attributed to ERW, specifically legacy landmines, which have caused 1,011 reported civilian casualties across 486 incidents in Syria since 2010. Victim-activated IEDs have killed and injured 895 civilians across 363 recorded incidents in Syria since 2010. Since 2010, AOAV has recorded, on average, 240 civilians killed and injured every year in Syria by mines, ERW, and victim-activated IEDs. The failure of the Syrian government and armed groups to clear the land of these explosive weapons puts both the lives and livelihoods of Syrian civilians at risk every day.

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Between February and April every year, desert truffles grow in the Badia, the Syrian desert. Hundreds of Syrians head out to gather and collect them, identifying the prized fungus through tiny cracks in the dry soil. These delicacies fetch a high price throughout the country: in Hama city market, desert truffles can sell for up to $5 and $10 a kilo – in a country, battered by 12 years of war and a chronic humanitarian crisis, where the average monthly wage is around $18. 

But their true price is even higher. The Badia is a known jihadist hotspot, which also happens to be littered with landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW). According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, so far this season more than 130 truffle hunters have been killed, in jihadist ambushes and landmine or improvised explosive device (IED) explosions.

Up to March 9th, AOAV has recorded at least 76 civilians killed and injured in IED, landmine, and ERW explosions, while explicitly reported to have been searching for truffles across Syria’s Deir Ezzor and Hama governorates. This doesn’t include civilians shot or kidnapped by ISIS and other armed groups. 

The most injurious incident took place on March 2nd: eight civilians were killed and 35 injured when their truck drove over a legacy landmine (an unexploded landmine from a previous conflict in the area), on their way to gather truffles near Kabajib, Deir Ezzor. 

Two incidents, on February 27th, killed 13 people and injured 22 in Hama’s Salamiyah area. Nine people were killed and two injured when an IED, likely planted by the Islamic State (ISIS), detonated under their car in Mustareha village, while four more civilians were killed and ten injured in a legacy landmine explosion later on that day. 

Figure 1: Truffles paid in blood

25/02/2023Boy killed and his father injured in ISIS IED explosion while searching for truffles in Shawla, Deir Ezzor
26/02/2023Boy killed in landmine explosion while searching for truffles in Harbisha, Deir Ezzor
27/02/2023Nine civilians killed and two injured in ISIS IED explosion against their car in Mustareha village, Hama, while going to search for truffles
27/02/2023Four civilians killed (one woman), ten civilians injured in legacy landmine explosion in Salamiyah, Hama, while searching for truffles
01/03/2023Man killed, man injured in ISIS IED explosion while searching for truffles near Harbisha, Deir Ezzor
02/03/2023Eight civilians killed and over 35 injured in legacy landmine explosion against their truck while on their way to pick truffles in Kadajeb, Deir Ezzor
04/03/2023Man, woman killed in ISIS IED explosion against their motorbike while searching for truffles in Duwaizein, Hama
06/03/2023Man killed in legacy landmine explosion against his car while searching for truffles in Deir Ezzor

So far this year, AOAV has recorded 27 civilians killed and 49 injured, across nine incidents in which they were specifically reported as searching for truffles. Among the civilians harmed are at least two children and two women. 

The majority of civilian casualties are attributed to ERW, specifically legacy landmines. 13 civilians have been killed and 45 injured in the explosion of war remnants while searching for truffles. Unexploded mines, shells, and other ordnance are a considerable threat to the safety of civilians throughout Syria.

Victim-activated IEDs have killed 13 truffle gatherers and injured four. Specifically, 11 were killed and two injured by roadside bombs, while two were killed and two injured in the explosion of non-specific IEDs. All IED incidents have been linked to devices allegedly planted by ISIS. 

In one incident, the explosive weapon was reported as a landmine, rather than a war remnant or an explosive device planted by ISIS. A boy was killed. 

Overall, in Syria AOAV has recorded 3,114 civilians harmed (1,716 killed and 1,398 injured) by ERW, mines, and victim-activated IEDs since 2010. At least 1,094 children and 227 women were reported among these casualties. 896 armed actors have been reported killed and injured in similar incidents in that time.

Legacy mines have caused 1,011 reported civilian casualties across 486 incidents in Syria since 2010, while ‘fresh’ landmines have harmed 819 civilians. ERW of unclear detonation methods, often unexploded munitions shells, cluster munitions, or grenades, have killed and injured 389 civilians – 70% of whom, 273, were reported as children. 

Victim-activated IEDs, most commonly detonated when a person or animal stands on them, or when they are driven over, have killed and injured 895 civilians across 363 recorded incidents in Syria since 2010. 

Since 2010, AOAV has recorded, on average, 240 civilians killed and injured every year in Syria by mines, ERW, and victim-activated IEDs. Many such incidents go unreported in English-language media sources, and the actual number of victims from mines, IEDs, and ERW is likely much higher than AOAV’s data can possibly suggest. The failure of the Syrian government, and of the armed groups who control contaminated territories, to clear the land of these explosive weapons puts both the lives and livelihoods of Syrian civilians at risk every day.