Plastic bottles, aluminium cans, clothes, sometimes spaghetti. When a tractor tows in new rubbish at a dump in northeast Syria, men, women and children rush to find the best pickings.
On the dry plains outside the city of al-Malikiyah, in northeast Syria, a dozen people wrapped up against the cold rip open the black plastic bags, in a desperate search for something to sell, recycle – or even eat.
Across the road, an oil pump swings back and forth in this resource-rich region controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces. An armoured vehicle flying the American stars and stripes drives by.
At the dump, a woman in a scarf and light blue woolly hat hacks away at a pile of smoking, burned rubbish.
Another stuffs some flat bread into a bag hanging around her waist. A gloved hand reaches for the remainder of a packet of spaghetti.
Someone finds a pair of small black boots, while a child smiles, holding out a pair of jeans.
A girl sifts through the refuse with a metal pick, finding some soft drink cans she carries away in a bag slung over her shoulder.
‘Everything is expensive’
Umm Mustafa, a mother in her 40s, said she often comes to the site in search of something to help sustain her family.
“Sometimes we find oranges that are still edible or apples people have thrown away,” she said, her hands coarse and blackened by the hard work. “We take them to eat, because everything is expensive.”
Almost 10 years of war in Syria have ravaged the economy and sent the value of the Syrian pound plummeting. Food prices have tripled across the country since November 2019, the UN food assistance agency says.
In the Kurdish-held northeast, more than 60 percent of people suffered from food shortages in 2019, according to the World Food Programme.
Mustafa said her five girls, the eldest 17, often worked with her while her husband, a shepherd, looked after their small herd.
“Because of the crisis and the price hikes, we’re struggling to get by,” said the mother, whose family was displaced from their village three years ago by fighting between Kurdish fighters and the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
The best days are when the truck brings in food from restaurants, she said. “Some of it is clean.” Other times, “we rummage through hospital waste despite the danger”, Umm Mustafa admitted.
“But we have to because there is no other option.”