Beset by a freezing winter and stifling fuel and electricity shortages, Syrian civilians desperate to stay warm in a northern forest have no choice but to cut down trees for firewood.
Once a tourist destination for Syrians and other Arabs across the Middle East, the formerly pristine national park to the north and west of the city of Idlib is being systematically stripped bare.
Bald, muddy swathes of fresh-cut land now stretch in many directions, with men using chainsaws to bring trees down and dozens of pick-up trucks coming and going for loads of lumber.
“My heart burns to see all the trees cut down. But there’s no choice. People need to stay warm,” says Hamad al-Tawheed, one of more than a dozen pick-up drivers waiting in the town of Darkush to go out for another load.
The area being cleared is renowned in Syria for its beauty. Sheer cliffs tower over the magnificent Orontes river. Conifers, oaks and shrubs grow over the mountains, with narrow winding roads linking the villages perched among them.
Before the war, a special unit of forest rangers protected the area.
Their vigilance underlined just how precious this forest is to Syria. In all, just 1.4 percent of the country is covered with woodland, according to an estimate by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But with Syria’s conflict causing a spiralling fuel crisis and power cuts across the country, people are now resorting to hacking at living wood to provide fuel for their stoves to ward off the freezing winter.
And with bread shortages even affecting residents of Syria’s main cities, the wood has also become necessary to fuel bakers’ ovens.
The heating oil that used to arrive from other parts of Syria has disappeared, and substitute fuel from nearby Turkey is substandard and too expensive, locals say.
Even children in the region can be seen using picks or axes to split logs for their families.
“This area was famous for its forests. Now, almost everybody in the town is cutting down the trees,” Tawheed says.
The activity is also virtually the only economic prospect available in a region where businesses have been forced to shut.
A chainsaw operator receives the equivalent of $5 to chop down a tree, and a truck driver gets around $150 per tonne of lumber.
The locals know the lasting damage they are doing to the area, and regret it. But they say the war has left them no choice.
“I feel very bad,” says Abu Saleh, a 64-year-old, as he helps men bring branches and logs down a steep slope to be chopped up.
“Before this was a very beautiful forest — now it’s like a desert.”
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s 22-month conflict, which broke out after a peaceful uprising morphed into an armed insurgency when the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.
More than 650,000 people have been forced to flee the fighting, the UN says.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]