Northern Hama farmers see harvests burned by government bombardment

AMMAN: Fires sparked by pro-government bombardment of agricultural land in Syria’s rebel-held northwest are costing farmers tens of thousands of dollars in damages, local officials and residents told Syria Direct.

Roughly one-third of the farmland around the northern Hama city of al-Lataminah has burned due to bombardment by nearby government forces since harvest season began one month ago, Ali al-Hawari, agricultural director of the al-Lataminah Local Council, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The city council’s agricultural office “estimates the losses at $124,000,” said the director, adding the majority of the fire damage impacts the wheat and barley harvest in the opposition-held city.

The agricultural hub of al-Lataminah, controlled by opposition forces since late 2012, lies 20 km north of Hama city near a restive frontline dividing Syrian government soldiers to the south from a rebel bastion to the north.

A farmer attempts to contain a fire on his land in al-Lataminah this month. Photo courtesy of Ali al-Hawari.

Syrian rebel factions in control of the northern Hama countryside reported they clashed and repelled an attempted advance by government forces on Monday, pro-opposition Baladi News Network reported the same day.

Though al-Lataminah and nearby farming cities and towns in the northern countryside have been subject to shelling and resulting fires for years, al-Hawari says the damages were previously limited to areas immediately bordering checkpoints manned by Syrian government soldiers and members of allied militias.

But this year, bombardment of northern Hama with airstrikes and reported incendiary munitions as well as a near-daily barrage of artillery shells has meant more widespread and costly damages than in past years, Idris al-Amr, an agricultural engineer and member of al-Lataminah’s local council, told Syria Direct.

Pro-opposition media reported artillery fire by Syrian government forces on the outskirts of al-Lataminah as recently as Tuesday morning.

Fires sparked by artillery shells have burned roughly 1,250 sq. km in al-Lataminah alone over the past month, al-Hawari told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

A fire on a farm outside al-Lataminah in May. Photo courtesy of Local Council for the City of a-Lataminah.

The agricultural director, who also owns a farm west of al-Lataminah, added that the threat of damage to agricultural land around the city only increases as the harvest season, which ends in mid-June, continues. As the wheat and barley crop ripens and dries, the fields become increasingly flammable.

And when fires begin, local farming communities struggle to extinguish or contain fires caused by artillery shelling from nearby government-held checkpoints.

Farmers around al-Lataminah have previously used tractors to dig narrow trenches around the site of an air or artillery strike in order to prevent the blaze from spreading. But in many cases, “they are afraid to do so because it is frontline area,” says al-Hawari, which is within firing range of pro-government forces.

“It’s gotten to the point where when a fire breaks out, barely anyone dares to go and try to put it out,” said al-Hawari. “We cannot do anything.”

Qasim, a 39-year-old barley farmer, told Syria Direct this month that when artillery shells sparked a fire on his farm, that all he could do was “leave his land and flee towards” the city of al-Lataminah.

Qasim’s fields lie just one kilometer from town of al-Zilaqiyat, the site of a government-controlled checkpoint.

Scorched farmland outside al-Lataminah. Photo courtesy of Ali al-Hawari.

“My entire crop was incinerated,” said the father of four. “The civil defense couldn’t even step in because they could also have been hit.”

Even if any small portions of the farm remained unharmed, said Qasim, he will not risk approaching the checkpoint to survey the damage.

But the ramifications of government bombings extend far beyond a single harvest, said agricultural director al-Hawari. He worries that the burning of crops will have long-standing effects for al-Lataminah, part of a major cereal-producing region of Syria, as well as for its residents.

The northern Hama countryside falls within the greater Sahel al-Ghab region of Syria, a low-lying expanse of farmland once flooded by the Orontes River that underwent reclamation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The overwhelming majority of residents in al-Lataminah depend on agriculture as their primary source of income, said al-Hawari, and their harvests supply nearby cities and towns with wheat for flour, barley, olives and pistachios.

But the continual outbreak of fires means that much of the rural expanse outside of al-Lataminah is now sterile or fallow. Years of shelling and airstrikes have pushed thousands of civilians to flee the frontline region, leaving the city of al-Lataminah home to only 1,500 residents compared with its population of more than 25,000 at the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

“To have one’s land burned is difficult and takes a mental toll on people, leading to displacement or migration from the region,” said al-Hawari. “People leave their homes and their land without cultivating it.”

“It’s dangerous.”

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Asma Faisal

Asma is from Hama city. She moved to Jordan in 2014 and studies English at the British Council. She joined the Syria Direct training program in order to learn the fundamentals of journalism for the purposes of communicating the suffering of her people to the world.