By Maher al-Mounes, AFP/Tartus, Syria
When the farmers of Syria’s Tartus province went off to war, their famed tomato vines were left to wither.
This summer, the crops are being revived — not by returning soldiers, but by displaced farmers from other parts of Syria who have found refuge in the relatively peaceful coastal province.
In a field of tangled plants covered with plastic sheeting, men, women and children from Aleppo province walked along the rows seeking out red fruits ready to be picked.
Aleppo, to the northeast of Tartus, has been ravaged by a five-year conflict that has left at least 280,000 people dead and displaced half the country’s population.
Ahmad Farhat Ismail, 48, fled Aleppo with his family and found work in the fields of Tartus.
“After the fighting intensified in Aleppo, we thought our best option was to flee to Tartus because it’s an agricultural area and all we know how to do is farm,” he told AFP.
“I want to work so that I don’t become a refugee.”
Thousands of men from Tartus, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, have taken up arms in support of the government since the conflict began.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, says some 30,000 soldiers from the province have died in the conflict.
Many locals have multiple family members fighting for the government and were forced to leave their land untended.
“When some members of my family enlisted in military service, we didn’t have enough working hands,” said 55-year-old Abdel Karim Kaneej as he took a break from picking.
“So the tomato harvest suffered until the newcomers came this season to help us improve the situation and fill the labour gap.”
Kaneej’s two brothers serve in Homs and Damascus, and his young nephew is fighting for the regime in Aleppo.
“We give our men and blood to Aleppo, and Aleppo gives us its men and women, too,” he said.
Syria’s conflict, which broke out in March 2011, has devastated the economy.
Syria was heavily dependent on agriculture.
Farming provided a livelihood to roughly half the population before the war, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Tartus’s farmers produced a million tonnes of tomatoes a year, making it one of the world’s top producers, says the FAO.
But last year, that figure had dropped to just 300,000 tonnes, according to the provincial agricultural department.
The World Food Programme and the FAO, working with the government, have offered technical training, irrigation supplies and other support to 2,000 farmers this year.
That has created work for over 6,000 workers, including displaced Syrians, according to the WFP.
The organisation is helping Syrians become self-sufficient by producing their own food and selling their product through local distributors, WFP logistics officer Ivo Junior Santi told AFP.
An estimated 700,000 people have fled to Tartus from other parts of Syria — around 60 % of them from Aleppo province, according to a provincial source.
Many live in difficult conditions, sleeping in cramped sheds near the land they work.
“I lost my husband last year when he left our house in Aleppo city and never came back,” says Nour al-Abdallah, a female worker arranging tomatoes into white cardboard boxes.
Nour shows her daughter Tima, six, how to stack the boxes on top of one another so they can be moved to distribution centres inside Tartus city.
“I switched from being a hairdresser to a farmer, and I’m very happy about it because I found somewhere safe where my children can eat and drink,” she said.
“Even if the war ends, I want to stay here in Tartus.”
Mohamed Shahhadi, 40, says Tartus has also become his new home since he fled the town of Al-Safirah in Aleppo province in 2013.
“In Tartus, I learnt a new way to farm and I benefitted from the expertise of the coastal people like they benefited from my expertise,” he tells AFP.
“But planting tomatoes is only one of the things that makes me want to stay in Tartus, even though my town has returned to the control of the Syrian army,” he said.
“I found a safe haven here and a decent living wage.”
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