Between February and April, hundreds of impoverished Syrians search for the money-spinning delicacy in the vast Syrian Desert, or Badia – a known hideout for jihadists that is also littered with landmines.
“It’s a treat dipped in blood,” says vendor Mohammed Salha, showing off truffles he spent a week collecting near his village, in the central Hama province.
So far this season, more than 130 truffle hunters have been killed, mostly by jihadist attacks and the landmines they have left behind, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
“Every day I leave my house not knowing whether I will come back to my wife and daughter,” says Salha adding that “we risk our lives… but we don’t care anymore, we want to feed our children.”
Known for their high quality, Syria’s desert truffles fetch high prices in a country battered by 12 years of war and a crushing economic crisis.
At the market in the city of Hama, truffles can sell for up to €23 per kilo, in a country where the average monthly wage is around €17.
“We make big profits during the two months of the truffle season, but we risk our lives,” says Salha with a pained smile.
Sellers told AFP the black truffle found in desert areas of Hama and Aleppo provinces fetches the highest prices.
Jamaleddine Dakak, a wholesaler from Damascus, said some traders bought high-quality truffles and exported them to neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon, while others are reportedly smuggled to rich Gulf countries through Jordan.
A gamble to make ends meet
Foragers take the risk despite repeated warnings in the Syrian media.
In one report earlier this month, a military source warned people against hunting for truffles “as some areas have not yet been declared safe” from landmines and IS fighters.
Jihad al-Abdullah, 30, lost his leg when a mine exploded as he was driving to collect truffles east of Hama.
He now gets around on crutches, yet he says he still sometimes goes out foraging and has spent much of this season selling truffles his brothers have collected.
Across the country, more than 10 million people live in areas contaminated by explosive hazards, according to the United Nations.
Abdullah says collecting truffles was like playing a game of cards.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he says. “It’s a gamble that I have accepted.”
Watch the video above to learn more about this story.