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Armed Syrian Kurdish women stand guard over precious wheatfields

Thursday, 6 June, 2024 , 05:04

Al Qahtaniyah, Syria, June 6, 2024 (AFP) — Holding a weapon in one hand and fixing her scarf with the other, Yasmine Youssef patrols one of northeast Syria's vast wheatfields, a vital source of income in the country's breadbasket.

The 42-year-old is among dozens of volunteers, some of them women, helping the semi-autonomous Kurdish-led region protect the fields near Qahtaniyah, from fires and arsonists.

"Our mission is to serve farmers and protect their crops," Youssef said, adding that the work lasts one or two months.

"If fires break out we are notified directly and we call the fire trucks," she told AFP.

This year the farmers in northeast Syria are expecting an exceptional harvest after heavy rain followed years of drought.

But residents also fear that yearly summer wildfires could destroy their precious crops.

"Agricultural production rebounded in 2023 amid improved weather conditions" after near-historical lows the year before, according to a recent World Bank report.

"Official statistics indicate a doubled wheat harvest for 2023, yielding two million metric tons," it said.

In June 2019, flames swept through wheatfields in the region, killing at least 10 people who were fighting the fires, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

At first, "people didn't trust our efforts. They were saying, 'What are those women doing?'," Youssef said.

"Now everyone agrees on the need to unite to protect" the land, she said.

"The people depend entirely on this harvest... If we lose it, our conditions will deteriorate."

- A strategic asset -

Nearby, farmers toiled in the scorching heat, ploughing the golden fields as Kurdish police also patrolled the area.

Northeast Syrian wheat is a strategic asset for the semi-autonomous administration, providing bread for people who live in the area.

Every year, the administration and the Syrian government, which accuses the Kurds of separatism, compete to buy the wheat harvest from farmers.

Residents and officials in the Kurdish-held region told AFP they believed the fires were often the result of arson.

Islamic State group extremists have previously burnt crops in areas under Kurdish control, after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces -- the Kurds' de facto army in the area -- dislodged the jihadists from the last scraps of Syrian territory they held in 2019.

Volunteer Renkin Hassan, 50, urged people not to discard cigarettes that could start fires accidentally, but also blamed unspecified parties for "burning the land intentionally".

"We will not let them do that," she said defiantly, patrolling beside other armed volunteers and wearing a military vest.

"I don't own a single acre of land, but I come here every day so farmers can harvest their crops" without having to worry about fires, she added.

There have already been limited outbreaks of fire in several locations this year, local authorities said.

The volunteers brave high summer temperatures and sometimes surprise attacks by IS jihadists, as well as Turkish strikes targeting the SDF.

Sporting an assault rifle, flip-flops and a flowery dress, Atia Hassan, 50, said her goal was to prevent arsonists from "burning the land -- and to protect ourselves".

"People are happy when they see us... and we are proud of our efforts despite all the difficulties," she added.