Crop fires are destroying Syria’s war-ravaged farmers – but who is starting them and why?
The wall of smoke from the raging crop fires was so dense that Ali Mohammad lost sight of his companions. With few trained firefighters in this part of Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, it was down to the 31-year-old teacher and others from his village to put out the flames.
But while Mr Mohammad managed to stumble to safety, fire scorching the back of his head as he ran, the others succumbed to the smoke.
“We’ve never seen anything like this. A fire happens here and we’ll go to put it out, and another happens somewhere else,” Ali’s cousin Fowaz Mohammad, 28, told The Daily Telegraph, perching on a plastic chair in a tent in the village of Kurayfat where his family are hosting condolences for his brother Saleh.
While blazes in this dry corner of the country, known as Rojava to the Kurds, are not unusual for this time of year, their unprecedented scale and ferocity have left farmers wondering if they are being started on purpose. And if so, who would do such a thing?
They have been blamed variously on defeated Islamic State militants seeking to avenge the loss of their “caliphate”; on Turkey, with whom Syria’s Kurds are fighting a war; and on Syrian government forces trying to weaken the Kurds as they forge an autonomous state, which has only deepened the mystery.
The fires have been burning here since early May, destroying over 47,000 hectares of wheat and barley crops – a devastating loss to farmers who have struggled through more than a decade of war and drought.
The damage is so vast black patches of burned earth can be seen from space.
Ali Mohammed, barely able to muster any words on what happened the day he lost 10 members of his family and friends, stared blankly as cousin Fowaz spoke.
“Someone is doing this. It’s not a coincidence,” said Fowaz. “They want to destroy the entire area.”
In May, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) claimed responsibility for fires which damaged hundreds of hectares of farmland in Syria, and neighbouring Iraq too.
Isil said it burned the farms of “the apostates in Iraq and the Levant” and called for more.
“It seems that it will be a hot summer that will burn the pockets of the apostates as well as their hearts as they burned the Muslims and their homes in the past years,” the jihadists said in their weekly newsletter, al-Nabaa.
Hundreds of acres of wheat fields around Kirkuk in northern Iraq were set on fire. Several wheat fields in the Daquq district in southern Kirkuk burned for three days straight last month.
But as ever in this region, not all is as it seems.
Kurdish officials have blamed Turkish intelligence for at least some of the fires, claiming they are attempting to undermine their self-administration project.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, reported that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had arrested a number of fighters loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s government for torching crops.
Meanwhile, Syrian state media Sana accused the SDF of burning the fields themselves as revenge against farmers who sold their wheat to the regime. The Syrian government upped the price it pays for wheat in a bid to boost reserves this year, but Kurdish authorities forbade their farmers from selling.
At least some of them are also thought to also be pure accident, started by backfiring lorries and tossed cigarettes as temperatures reach up to 50C.
“Perhaps it’s Daesh (Isil), Jabhat al-Nusra, or some other terrorist group,” said Ali Ismael Mohammad, 65, Fowaz’s father. “We just don’t know and we don’t have any evidence.”
According to Salman Bardo, the head of the Rojava’s agriculture authority, since the harvest season began in May some 50,000 hectares of land has been burned, amounting to losses worth some $50 million.
Years of drought and war had already cut agricultural production by some 30 per cent.
The World Food Programme reports that lives of 6.5 million Syrians are now in immediate danger due to a lack of food, with another four million at risk of sharing a similar fate in what they call “an all-time low” for food production in the country.
Yet it had looked like with this harvest things were about to change.
“It’s been more than 60 years since the harvest has been this good,” said Fowaz. “The years before we were just planting, but the harvest didn’t come. This year was to be one of the best maybe of our lives.”
The patchwork of scorched fields that now make up much of Rojava’s arable land are a stark indication that this much-needed respite is yet to arrive.
For some, the devastation feels like a final straw.
Fowaz predicted that next season farmers would plant only what they needed to support their families. “This year the harvest was very good and at the end we got nothing, and on top of that we lost people. So why would we do that next year?” he said.
“Look, look! It’s up by the grain silo now,” he pointed to the distance. A tall plume of smoke stretched up into the sky as yet another fire ignited on the horizon.