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In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
In Jabal al-Zawiya, near Idlib
Omar Abdullah

Four years into Syria's conflict, cannabis has become an unlikely key source of financing for a number of groups in the opposition-held north. It's used mostly to buy weapons.

Jabal al-Zawiya in the province of Idlib is a mountainous area close to the Turkish border. Once famous for growing olives, it is now used to grow pot. Farmers here say the plant grows quickly, and yields higher revenues than olives.

Most villages in Idlib province are living off the spoils of goods smuggled between Syria and Turkey, and many basic commodities available for purchase here now come from Turkey, too.

"We don't have jobs anymore," says Ahmad, a 31-year-old marijuana farmer from the town of Maarret al-Numan. "We have no land, no trade, nothing. If it wasn't for smuggling, we'd starve to death." He adds that many of his fellow villagers have already started growing cannabis in a bid for financial survival.

Ahmad and his family once harvested olives; they shifted to growing cannabis one year ago, when other sources of income ran dry. But now he says that Jabhat al-Nusra and allied armed rebel factions are raiding farms like his, arresting anyone who grows hash because they believe that growing a drug like weed is forbidden by Islamic law.

To defend themselves, farmers say they pay local fighters from more moderate groups to protect their farms and then transport the crop into Turkey, through a series of well-concealed smuggling routes. The success of the trade has been a lucrative boost to those brigades, who have come to specialize in smuggling cannabis.

Farming in fear

Residents of Harim, another Idlib town, are too scared to name the extremist faction that they say destroyed 20 tons of cannabis in the outskirts of the town last month.

Abu Riyadh, a farmer from the Haff Sarja village who now grows cannabis on half of his land, says that the umbrella group Jabhat Thowar Souria unofficially oversees all marijuana growing in the province, skimming from its profits. He says its fighters protect farms and convoys that smuggle the cannabis into Turkey, then charge farmers up to 60 percent of the profits.

"If we sell it all, the profit would be about 7 million Syrian Pounds $40,000 per month," says Abu Riyadh. "The fighters would take around 4 million."

He says that even if a smuggling mission is unsuccessful, the Front still forces farmers to pay the fee.

One Front fighter who protects Abu Riyadh's farm says that as fees climb, some villagers are protecting their farms themselves, without paying for help from his brigade. He adds that fighters hired individually to cover a farm can make as much as $500 per month, while when a group is hired, the money goes to the Front's leaders, who distribute it as they see fit.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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