Harvest under fire: Olive pickers risk life and limb in Idlib's Jabal Al-Zawiya

Harvest under fire: Olive picking in Idlib's Jabal Al-Zawiya
7 min read
08 November, 2021
Olive pickers are risking death to work the fields of Idlib's Jabal Al-Zawiya region, a fertile area ravaged by constant regime bombardment. Displaced women make up the bulk of labourers, as they seek desperately to provide for their families.

The relentless bombardment being carried out by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally on Idlib's countryside, in particular on the villages and meadows of Jabal Al-Zawiya, is posing a major obstacle for farmers trying to harvest their olives this year. With farmers' fields under fire, local families are in danger of being deprived of their single source of livelihood, or of having to risk their lives to harvest the crops.

"What forces you to endure bitterness apart from necessity?" asks Hayam Al-Mustafa (35), as she prepares to set out on the daily olive-picking trip before dawn, alluding to the hardship of life in Atma camp on the Turkish border.

The lack of basic necessities and services has pushed her to take on this job in order to support her five children. Working conditions are tough, and danger is always present due to the continuous bombardment. However, her husband is dead, and she feels she has no choice.

"The relentless bombardment being carried out by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally on Idlib's countryside, in particular on the villages and meadows of Jabal Al-Zawiya, is posing a major obstacle for farmers trying to harvest their olives this year"

"My fear for my children, from hunger and the cold of winter which is almost here, outstrips my fear of the regime's bombing and that’s why I took the job – it's the only chance to come my way for a long time".

Set off at daybreak, finish at sunset

She describes the olive pickers' daily routine. They leave the camp before daybreak, accompanied by the farmer. He arranges transport and they make their way together to Jabal Al- Zawiya, arriving at their destination after a journey of an hour and a half. After they have scanned the area for any unexploded shells or other suspicious objects, they begin picking.

Hayam says that the labourers' chatter, their jokes and criticisms of the current situation lighten the mood as they work, removing some of the fear about the possibility that they could come under fire at any moment. They finish at sunset, and the farmer takes what they have harvested to be pressed. The group returned to the camp to rest after an exhausting day and the next morning they set off again.

Olive Harvest in Jabal Al-Zawiya, Idlib 2021
The majority of the pickers are women from the displacement camps, who are bussed in early in the mornings before being taken home at the end of the day [Hadia Al Mansour]

Most olive pickers in these groups are women from displacement camps, who are the only means of support to their families. With lives blighted by war, death, and forced displacement, these women have watched as the ways for them to sustain themselves and their families have dwindled and disappeared. In the seasonal work provided by the olive harvest, they have found a rare chance to help them provide food for their children.

Lives blighted by war, poverty and loss

Safa Al-Karmou (40) has waited impatiently for the olive season this year. She hopes to earn enough to stock up on winter supplies – both food and fuel for heating. However, she deplores her "miserable" luck this year, after she was sent to Jabal Al-Zawiya's fields. The region is a frontline in the continuing battle for control between the regime and rebel forces and sees frequent clashes – she had expected to be sent somewhere safer but she was unlucky, she says. 

Alia Al-Hamidi (43) on the other hand, sees things differently. After a decade of war, poverty and loss, she says the shelling no longer affects her: "For me, there is no difference between life and death. I lost two of my sons nearly three years ago, when the regime bombed the market in our village, Kafr Nabl.

"We have lost our children, our homes, our lands and our livelihoods. We are now exiles in displacement camps inside threadbare tents which offer no protection from the heat of summer or the cold of winter, so why would we fear death and bombs"

"We have lost our children, our homes, our lands and our livelihoods. We are now exiles in displacement camps inside threadbare tents which offer no protection from the heat of summer or the cold of winter, so why would we fear death and bombs? We aren’t living for anything anymore - the regime has destroyed every hope we had in life".

Khaled Al-Sawaf is a farmer from Iblin village in Jabal Al-Zawiya. He says that the damage to his lands has led him to neglect much of the work he used to do. For instance, repeated targeting of his farmland has made it impossible to prune and water the trees in his orchards and plough his land.

However, he does cut away the brambles and weeds that grow up around his olive trees so that at harvest time the workers can lay sheets out underneath to catch the olives as they fall. Al-Sawaf says many labourers are refusing to work his land due to its position near a regime-held military base, so this year, he, his wife, children and other relatives have gone out to pick the olives that form the family's only source of income.

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He complains at how difficult and expensive it has become to secure transport in the area: he has to take the olives for processing at distant olive presses, due to the drastic decline in the number of olive presses in the region. This has been caused by the drop in olive oil production, the rise in fuel prices and wages, and the difficulty in sourcing essential machinery and maintenance parts over the last few years.

Farmer Hayan Al-Sattouf however absolutely refuses to risk the lives of his family of workers for the sake of the harvest, stating that "those who fail to show caution will put themselves at risk". He believes that the farmers of Jabal Al-Zawiya should think a thousand times before risking their own and others' lives.

Meanwhile, a group of children are eagerly waiting for the end of the olive harvest. They can then start what they call "ta’feer" (gleaning) – gathering what has been left behind by the farmers and pickers (sometimes entire orchards have been left untouched because of bombardment). They undertake this perilous task for the chance to collect a few olives for their families, abandoned in camps and unable to afford the price of olives or olive oil.

"The olive season offers myriad work opportunities. These include picking the olives and working at the olive presses and "bireen" factories (a substance made from olive stones which can be used as an alternative fuel for heating)"

A fertile region marred by drought

According to statistics published by the Syrian Interim Government's Finance Ministry last year, there are between 28-30 million olive trees in Idlib and the liberated areas.

Abdul Hakim Al-Masri, minister of the economy, points out that Idlib and the northern region contain a vast natural wealth of olive trees (with Jabal Al-Zawiya producing 30 percent of the region's olive oil annually) but their harvest and processing have steeply declined this year due to drought, neglect and bombardment.

This has had a devastating impact on farmers and workers, for whom the olive season offers myriad work opportunities. These include picking the olives and working at the olive presses and "bireen" factories (a substance made from olive stones which can be used as an alternative fuel for heating). The most serious repercussion for civilians, however, is the escalating price of olive oil, which rose from $30 per barrel (containing 16 kg of oil) last year to $50 this year.

Olive harvest in Jabal Al-Zawiya, Idlib 2021
Olive pickers are risking their lives to gather the olive harvest in Jabal Al-Zawiya this year due to intensive regime bombardment [Hadia Al Mansour]

The Syria Civil Defence (also known as the White Helmets) also play an essential role during the harvest period. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) teams carry out basic surveys of land which needs to be crossed or accessed, checking for unexploded shells and weapons fragments and conducting a clean-up operation to ensure the areas are safe.

This helps protect local communities, farmers and workers. They also arrange sessions to raise awareness of the dangers of unexploded mines and other objects like shrapnel fragments in all of the liberated areas.

Sami Mohammad, UXO programme coordinator with the White Helmets advises farmers in these areas to work their fields in small and scattered groups to avoid the likelihood of being targeted by regime forces. He mentioned the basic rule he always repeats: "If you see a strange object which could be dangerous, do not approach it, warn whoever is nearby, and inform the Civil Defence".

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko