On Syria’s Coast, Olive Trees a Reminder of War

A Syrian woman with the colours of the national flag painted on her face with the Arabic word "We love you" in Damascus on 15 March 2012. (Photo: Louai Beshara)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Friday, December 7, 2012

Latakia – During the olive season, the women of Syria’s Mediterranean coast, of all persuasions and ranks, are peasants.

“There is no other solution. The men went to war and the season is at its end. Who will pick the olives?” Sana tells Al-Akhbar. She is an academic who has never done this type of work before.

One of her brothers was called for the army reserves. A few days later, another brother, who had already been deployed, was killed in the fighting. Both were married with children. The whole family, young and old, went to harvest the olives. Somehow, it turned into a joyous collective ritual.

The operation was being supervised by Sana’s mother, Um Mohammad. She tells us to call her Um al-Shahid, the martyr’s mother. Her husband works in a grocery store to provide for a portion of family expenses.

With force and decisiveness, Sana’s mother says that it was not the crisis that brought women to the picking; it is nothing new on the Syrian coast, nor the rest of the country.

Rural women, according to Um Mohammad, are strong and rooted in their land, alongside the trees that they nurture.

“The boys went to war to defend the homeland. Our duty towards them begins with feeding their children and then doing their labor. This is until they are victorious and return standing on their feet, or martyred,” she continues.

Noha is a friend of the family and women’s rights activist, in addition to her day job as a government employee.

She tells us that the olive picking season is a chance to “let off steam” and escape from the Facebook wars, where Syrians from both sides fight while their country deteriorates.

To join the picking is to hold on to the land, despite the worsening calamity. Noha believes “it is the fate of Syria’s women to build their country, sow its land, and reap it alone.”

“It is not impossible,” she adds. “German women gave an important example of women’s abilities and efficacy in rebuilding their country following World War II.”

“The men are joining the military in droves. There are none left to marry,” jokes Razan, a university student.

She cannot fathom how all the young men of one family are called for duty without taking into consideration how his family will support itself. Meanwhile, other families have not had any of their sons conscripted.

“This is a war that aims to empty the country of its young men. Each week, around 200 martyrs arrive at Latakia airport. They are soldiers and security men from all over the Syrian coast,” Noha explains.

On the other side, Um Khaled, a refugee from the village of Salma in Latakia’s countryside, speaks about the land she left behind in the wake of battles nearby.

The worst thing to happen to her at the beginning of last season was the arrest of her sons, then husband. They had joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

This prompted her go to the land on her own, before the village was set alight and she fled to her brother’s home in Latakia’s al-Saliba neighborhood.

The olive picking season came and went. She became distressed, not knowing what happened to her trees. She even received a message from one of her neighbors that all her trees were burned. Her sorrow intensified. She accuses the Syrian army of burning her land and home.

Al-Akhbar asked about the type of assistance her husband and sons gave to the FSA. She replied that her son Khaled was one of the first fighters against the regime’s army in Salma, after training in Turkey.

The farms and trees of the regions became barricades for the FSA. They were shelled by the regular army without mercy every time there was a suspicion.

Hayat is one of the few women remaining in her small village near the Ballouran dam north of Latakia. She recounts her tragedy.

Most of the villagers left for the safety of relatives’ homes in the city or surrounding towns. But she was attacked, along with some of her neighbors, by FSA fighters who torched farms, homes, animals, and whole harvests.

She refused to leave her village and remained. “I take care of the land with my husband, but I also try to look after a plot owned by my neighbors. It is almost impossible,” she said.

Hayat’s heart aches every time she sees an olive fall without being retrieved. She and her husband are helpless due to the reluctance of their children to return to the village after the catastrophic events. On the contrary, their sons are trying to convince them to leave the land to its fate. But the mother is adamant.

There is a discrepancy between the Syrian army casualties announced by the official media, and the real numbers. Still, the city falls solemn at the news of its children wasted in a world war on their soil, where all forms of attack and defense are allowed in a fight for survival.

The olive trees, on the other hand, have their own sorrow to tell. But the pain felt by women on the coast of Syria is the same all around the land.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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