As forest fires spread, Hama town residents to regime officials: You ‘don’t care if we get burned’

AMMAN: Wildfires devoured forests near the regime-held west Hama city of Masyaf for the seventh day on Wednesday as angry residents accuse unlicensed charcoal traders of intentionally setting the blazes and provincial officials of collaborating to “line their pockets.”

“Since last Thursday, five fires broke out in separate areas, one after the other,” Masyaf resident Rafiq told Syria Direct on Wednesday, using a pseudonym. So far, the blazes have consumed more than 20,000 square meters of pine and oak forests, brush and farmland on mountains west and south of Masyaf, Ibrahim Deeb from the pro-regime Maysaf News Network told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Masyaf, home mostly to Alawites and Ismaili Shiites, lies 45km southwest of Hama city, deep within regime-held territory in Hama province. More than 100,000 people live in Masyaf proper and villages in the surrounding countryside.

Approximately 100 residents of two villages near Masyaf have fled their homes for the provincial capital over the past week, “fearing the flames and the thick smoke that can cause suffocation or death, especially for those with asthma,” says Rafiq.

Forest fires are unusual in Syria during the relatively temperate spring season. “All of the fires were started intentionally,” Rafiq told Syria Direct, echoing accusations circulating on social media and local news sites.

 Hama governor Doctor Ghassan Khalf dances as Masyaf forests burn in an image created and posted by a local news site earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Masyaf News Network.

Over the past week, pro-regime news sites and Masyaf residents have accused unlicensed charcoal traders, who burn trees to process them into the black fuel used for cooking and heating, of starting the blazes to generate more of their product.

“Making charcoal without a permit is against the law and the penalties are steep, including jail time,” Rafeef, 25, a Master’s student in agricultural engineering in Homs with family in Masyaf, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“There are charcoal traders who pay bribes and sometimes attack people who try to protect the forests or agricultural brush with weapons. They’re burning the forests now as a new method.”

“We’ve been seriously trying for a week, using all means to put out the blaze, but there is no cooperation whatsoever from the local community,” the governor of Hama province, Doctor Ghassan Khalf told pro-regime daily Al-Baath on Wednesday. Khalf also accused charcoal traders of setting the blazes, calling on authorities in the city to “arrest the arsonists and punish them harshly.”

 A fire on a mountaintop near Masyaf earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Masyaf News.

Khalf also stated that the provincial government was making extensive efforts to combat the blazes, a claim that at least two local Masyaf news pages on Facebook and two residents who spoke with Syria Direct on Wednesday denied.

“The attempts to extinguish the fires are very basic, and are being carried out by volunteers from the Civil Defense and firemen in Masyaf,” Ibrahim Deebof the Masyaf News Network told Syria Direct.

“Just four vehicles to put out fires in hectares of forest” have been sent by province officials, according to a post on Facebook by the Masyaf News Network on Tuesday. Posts and comments on the same page drew comparison to regime demolition vehicles dispatched to Masyaf twice over the past month to tear down houses allegedly built without permits on agricultural land in Masyaf. A third demolition was due to occur Wednesday, but the vehicles never showed, Masyaf resident Rafiq told Syria Direct.

“We in secure areas are being subjected to destruction and terrorism that the people in the fighting zones aren’t,” Masyaf citizen journalist Deeb told Syria Direct. “All this is from the actions of people we know and the government knows.”

“The Hama provincial directorate is proving it is complicit with [the arsonists] because it isn’t doing anything to put out the fires or catch those profiteers who are exploiting anything that serves their financial empire,” said Deeb.

“In a country where you’re worth the price of a bullet, in the country of ‘don’t you know who I am?’ consciences have dried up and people and trees have no value,” Masyaf News posted on Monday. “A green dollar bill on an official’s table is equal to all of the greenery in my country.”

“They don’t care if we get burned,” said Masyaf resident Rafiq. “What’s important is to line their pockets with money.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.