Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Image result for Bringing up baby in a Syrian jail: I covered his ears to block out the screams

 'Omar had been imprisoned for 14 months when he learned to walk.

 His mother can’t recall the exact date, all she knows is that they were in the Adra jail outside Damascus.

 “I didn't recognise whether it was day or night,” she says. “We weren't allowed to leave, for the bathroom or for a shower.”There wasn’t much legroom in the dark and airless room that she and her son shared with their fellow prisoners.

 “I would stand up and create some space so I could teach him how to walk, playing with him,” says Om Omar from her new home in the countryside of Idlib.

 She does not reveal her true identity for fear of her life and asks to be referred to as "Om Omar" - which translates into English as "mother of Omar".

 “I was on one side and another girl named Marwa was in front of me, about one-and-a-half metres away. I would walk with him, using my hands, towards her. Then we would swap over.”

 When Omar fell, his mother would catch him. Slowly but surely, with uncertain steps to begin with, he found the confidence to walk.

 “He was strong,” she says. “He was the only baby there. It made the other prisoners happy to look at him. It was one happy time amid the darkness of this prison and its cruel guards.”

 Omar spent the early years of his life in a Syrian jail while his mother was tortured. This is their story.

 When she was younger Om Omar, now 38 and originally from Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, would imagine what life might hold for her.

 “Like every woman in the world, I would dream of having babies,” she recalls, “of raising my family in a good decent house like every family in the world.

 “When I was teenager, I was so obsessed with babies, taking care of our neighbours’ babies and friends’ when they used to visit my mother. I dreamt I would have at least one, and I did. But unfortunately it wasn't the life I expected."

 Om Omar and her husband Khalid, also from Deir ez-Zor, married in 2006 and moved to Aleppo before the war, where he was employed in a fabric manufacturing business by his uncle.

 When conflict broke out, the city, the country’s second largest, rapidly became a focus for protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

 Khalid lived in the rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods: He joined the Free Syrian Army but was killed by mortar fire during a battle against government forces in August 2013. He was 44 and had been married to Om Omar for seven years.

 Omar was born in March 2014 in Eza’a in western Aleppo. Father and son never met.

 Om Omar was widowed, alone and had no contact with her family, who disapproved of the couple’s activism against the government. She had already been detained in 2011 and 2013 for her opposition, the second time for three days.

 “I didn't bother trying to talk to them or convince them,” she says. “I continued with my activism.”

 Her life now, Om Omar says, is like that of a single woman. But while she grieved for the loss of her husband, she also worries for the future of herself and her son.

 Even before Khalid’s death, Om Omar feared arrest by the government. For almost two years, she had moved much-needed medicine to eastern Aleppo through Bustan al-Qasr, a rebel district and home to opposition groups.

 The neighbourhood, which was a frequent haunt for snipers, provided a corridor between the divided city before it became a no-go zone after clashes in 2014.

 Om Omar knew that her activism carried a high risk - but still regarded it as her duty. “I was reckless, yes. But I had to do it and don't regret it. I had a priority, which was the sick people who needed the medicine.”

 She thought those hopes of her younger years would never come true. “This was my life after giving birth and Khalid's death,” she says. “I was struggling to breastfeed my baby because of the intensity and pressure I was living under at that time.”

 And then, in September 2014, Om Omar's life took another turn for the worse.

 One night, five men from a government intelligence agency burst into her home while she and Omar were asleep. She believes they were betrayed by a neighbour.

 The men broke the crockery and chairs and overturned family possessions.

 They searched the house, swore at Om Omar and took away packets of medicine.

 They accused her of helping injured terrorists with medical supplies.

 Om Omar denied the allegations and refused to provide the names of her social circle, lest they also fall under suspicion and face arrest. When she began to scream, the men put guns to her head. “The raid was the straw that broke the camel's back," she recalls.

 She and Omar were then taken to the agency HQ in Damascus, more than 200 miles away where, Om Omar says, “the horror began”.

 Om Omar was blindfolded when she first entered the state’s prison system – but she could already detect the “stinky, dirty smell” that would permeate her life during the coming years.

 “I felt shocked,” she says. “I was shaking with my crying baby, wondering what my or his destiny would be.”

 Mother and son were to spend nearly a month there, then shuttled between other prisons across the capital, including that at Al-fiha'a. “They took the baby from me on the first night, to put pressure on me, then they gave him back after the first interrogation."

 Omar was two months old at the time.

 “When I entered, there was water on the ground that smelled terrible," she says. "The walls were full of words, the names of previous prisoners who used be in the same room. It was like an abandoned basement that had not been fixed for ages. I could barely walk because I felt dizzy. I had not slept and it was night.”

 The room was crammed with other women. There was no ventilation: Instead, prisoners resorted to digging holes through the walls to try and let in air. Throughout her first night, Om Omar could hear the sounds of men and women screaming.

 For her first interrogation Om Omar was led into a room. Her hands were bound. Her eyes were blindfolded. She was hit with every step she took.

 The interrogator asked her about her family, about her husband, about her work. She was accused of taking medical supplies to help the Free Syrian Army.

 When Om Omar started to answer, her interrogator hit her on the head. "Stop lying and tell me the truth about your work and husband!” she recalls him shouting.

 "In the beginning I was utterly terrified because of the torture and beating,” Om Omar says. “I was afraid of being raped, or killed.”

 And then there was the threat to Omar. Human rights groups have documented how the Assad government has tortured and killed children to punish, or extract information from, their families.

 “My child had nothing to do with jails or anything else," says Om Omar. "But the Syrian regime is criminal enough to kill and imprison children or babies. My son was always on my mind. Who's going to take care of him? Are they willing to kill him too? Or beat him in front of me?”

 In the days after her first interrogation, Om Omar was left in an overcrowded room. Omar cried all the time. The guards paid no attention to her appeals for food or baby supplies. Eventually she had to improvise diapers by ripping up pieces of old clothing.

 Soon the torture sessions became a regular part of prison life. “When I came back after every interrogation, I held my son and cried,” Om Omar says. “So did he.”

 Om Omar also had to face torture sessions at night, the first after she had been detained for a week. She recalls how she handed Omar to one of the friends she had made in prison before she was dragged to a large room and faced, as she puts it, by a “fat middle-age man, with a big stick in his hand. He started to come close to me, and said: ‘Tell me everything or you will never return to see your baby tonight.' I said nothing. I was shocked.”

 The man screamed at Om Omar to confess, then beat her to the ground. She was covered in blood and already barely able to stand. Later he returned with an accomplice and a rope, which he hung from the ceiling. Om Omar was then suspended by her bound hands, her feet only just touching the ground.

 What she describes is a common and well-documented form of torture practised by the Assad regime. Prisoners call this method "shabeh" (hanging), according to a report released by the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria in September 2013, which inflicts “awful pain, ligament rupture and semi-permanent paralysis in the hands".

 Om Omar was left strung up for hours. Then, more questions. Still, she said nothing. “I knew that if I said anything then they would keep on torturing me and increase the level and the brutality of the torture.”

 This treatment continued for almost two months. She recalls fellow detainees being repeatedly raped and tortured, dying from hanging or lack of medical treatment.

 At one point Om Omar was moved to the notorious Branch 215 where, the VDC reported, up to 70 prisoners would be crammed into a cell four metres by four metres. Consistent testimony from survivors describes how prisoners were starved or thrown onto the floor “swimming in a pool of blood and pus that oozes out of their bodies due to the lack of sanitisers and hygienic conditions”.

 In December 2015, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 3,532 detainees had died at the centre, based on evidence smuggled out of Syria, although the group regards this figure as an underestimate.

 To many Syrians, the centre is simply known as “the Branch of Death”.

 In December 2014, Om Omar and Omar were taken to Adra prison, where they were to spend the rest of their imprisonment.

 About a year after they were first arrested, Om Omar started telling Omar about the outside world, “about real life, about parks, school and so on".

 Omar began to form words when he was nearly 18 months old and his mother was teaching him parts of the Quran. “His first word was 'mommy', which he said very roughly,” she recalls. Teaching her son the word "daddy" caused great sadness - but Om Omar wanted Omar to remember that he had a father.

 The toddler's progress had a positive effect on the other prisoners. “The atmosphere in the jail room was happy, despite the desperate conditions we were all living under,” Om Omar says. “Everyone gave Omar a kiss. But then the guards heard that it was getting noisy and started to hit the metal door quite hard, which made Omar cry.

 “They didn't supply me with milk or any other items that I needed for my newborn baby. His size and weight were low because of the lack of food when he was meant to be growing.

 “Once he got an infection because of the hot weather in the prison. It was so incredibly bad, he couldn't sleep, or calm down, until the prisoners came and took me to the prison doctor and gave him medicine.” Still Omar did not get better. Eventually some friends "had some leaves which we put in water and after half an hour he fell into a deep sleep".

 Prison was Omar’s home. Sometimes he might toy with a blanket – but it was a world where he was too young to make friends.

 “That broke my heart,” his mother says, “because I looked back at when I was pregnant with him and the life I dreamt of him having in the future. Of buying his small bed and toys and everything any mother dreams of getting for her baby.

 “It's heart-breaking. It made me cry many times at night, thinking of a bright future with his dad, who is dead already.”

 Om Omar would sing to lull her son to sleep or else “start to tell him short stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his fellowship, trying to reassure him”.

 But sometimes Omar could not sleep because the weather was too hot or too cold - or because of the sounds of torture from the prison yard.

 “I was covering his ears to prevent these voices from entering his head,” Om Omar says. “I couldn't do it in the end, he was crying so intensely when he heard these voices.”

 For support, Om Omar clung to her faith and the struggles of the prophet as well as the love of her son and encouragement from fellow prisoners.

 “Many times I burst into tears out of pressure and desperation. I thought I would die here and never get out to live a normal life and in a house. They were the worst days of my life.

 “I took an oath that I wouldn't give up, because of Omar, so long as he's with me... for him and his beloved dead father, who left me a piece of him. I'll be taking care of him for the rest of my life."

 And then Om Omar and Omar were free. On 8 February 2017, the government cut a deal with opposition forces that resulted in the release of 50 women from government prisons. As part of the agreement, Om Omar had to pay a judge just under $6,000.

 Her relief was uncontainable, she recalls, as she told Omar that they would return home and see the sun, people, children. “I cried a lot,” she says. “It was unbelievable, the reaction on his face. He was crying and happy.”

 Om Omar now lives with a friend in the countryside in Idlib and is in contact again with her sister, with whom she lost touch while she was imprisoned. She also has space to reflect on what her years in detention did to her and her son, who is comprehending the outside world for the first time.

 "One time he asked ‘Are we in heaven, Mum?' because he saw birds and cats and wanted to know,” she says. “You can imagine how surprised he was when he was realised it was the actual world.”

 Omar, who now sports short brown hair, lives at a rehabilitation centre with other children in an attempt to reintegrate him back into society. His mother visits her son as much as she can.

 Ahmad Khaldon, assistant manager at the facility, said that Om Omar’s case is not that unusual amid a conflict that has left more than 470,000 people dead, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.

 “They have been through similar circumstances, of struggling from the aftermath of the war and its physiological effects and losing their childhood," he says. "We try to give them the proper atmosphere of bringing up a family, which they miss back in their home.”

 At first Omar had problems interacting with other children, including fighting, but is now more relaxed and playing and eating. Om Omar says: “It’s like he's born again, seeing everything new and adapting to aspects of his new life. He has flashbacks about what and how it was like in the prison, but he's got better recently."

 He is forming new memories of things he had never seen before, of animals, buildings, cars and food.

 “I hope he gets rid of all the bad influences from the first three years of his life and starts a new page with no bombing or death or fighting, just craving a normal, decent life where he can have what he wants."

 Will Om Omar tell Omar the full story of those years spent in prison?

 “I will tell him what happened,” his mother says. “I won't lie to him ever. He will know from the internet what has happened to his country, his land, his dad and how death and devastation were brought to his land.

 “The media tells people everything, so I would rather tell him myself. I will tell him how they were torturing men and women. And how hard it was to carry on and be positive and have a dream.” '

Image result for Bringing up baby in a Syrian jail: I covered his ears to block out the screamsImage result for Bringing up baby in a Syrian jail: I covered his ears to block out the screams

ISIS Jurist Conspired With Hezbollah to Defeat Rebels: FSA Commander

ISIS Jurist Conspired With Hezbollah to Defeat Rebels: FSA Commander

 'Jihadist fighters have blamed Islamic State (ISIS) jurist and commander Ahmad Wahid al-Abd (Abou al-Baraa) for losing rebel strongholds at the Syrian-Lebanese border following the commander's recent surrender to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

 In an exclusive interview with Zaman al-Wasl, rebel commander Samer Mohamad al-Masri said Hezbollah members were able to advance and take control of the Jurd Jiyet and Maraat Yabroud areas without facing any notable resistance.

 Masri said his faction had imprisoned members of the ISIS forces, including Abou al-Baraa, but that other parties intervened to see their release because those arrested were locals. No foreigners were among the group members being held by Masri.

 The ISIS fighters were released after they pledged to return to their homes and abandon the organization, except they soon returned to fight the Free Syrian Army factions until Jurd al-Qalamoun fell and rebel fighters were forcefully displaced to Idleb.

 In the interview, Masri claimed that Abou al-Baraa’s faction in Qalamoun received half a million dollars a month from oil billionaire George Hassouani for more than two years. Hassouani, who is closely tied to the Assad regime and is facing sanctions from the U.S. and EU, is known to have financed and purchased oil from ISIS.

 Despite claims it was fighting the Hezbollah forces, ISIS forces based in the Qalamoun were secretly coordinating with the militia to kill rebel fighters in the area, Masri said, adding that the Lebanese group's shelling never targeted ISIS areas.'

Monday, 21 August 2017

Remembering Ghouta: Obama's meaningless red line

Remembering Ghouta: Obama's meaningless red line

 Sam Charles Hamad:

 'Winston Churchill once remarked about appeasement that it's like someone feeding a crocodile and hoping that it will eat them last.

 This was true of the threat posed to the world by an expansive superpower like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but when it comes to the Syrian civil war and its allies, the appeasers do so without any fear of being consumed by the war that has been unleashed by Assad and his allies.

 They do so without the fear of ever having to face death squads, or torture dungeons, or missiles, or barrel bombs, or napalm - or, of course, poison gas. Only nameless and faceless Syrians must suffer these things.

 It was on this day four years ago, and a week after Sisi made his brutal name on the world stage by massacring hundreds of people at Rabaa and Nadha, that Bashar al-Assad poisoned to death over 1,000 innocent people with sarin gas in the Ghouta area of Damascus.

 Sarin, it ought to be noted, brings a particularly brutal form death, and before it strips of you of your life, it strips you of dignity. This is precisely its function - cruelty and terror.

 Those of us who live far away from such horrors can barely begin to understand the personal aftereffects of this violent chemical weapon on those who survive. Pictures and eyewitness testimonies of whole families lying dead in their beds were widespread, while survivors spoke of stepping over bodies trying to look for friends and loved ones.

 However, while Assad's 2013 Ghouta attack was a particularly vicious one, it must be remembered that it was but one atrocity within the much larger atrocity that is his genocidal war against those Syrians who revolted against his tyrannical regime. Most of the murder, maiming, torture and trauma in Syria is carried out by so-called "conventional weapons", but it was Barack Obama who famously said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "red line" – one which, if crossed, would see US action taken against the perpetrators.

 When this red line was finally crossed at Ghouta, it turned out to be little more than a red herring. One of the most perverse narratives concerning the events after Ghouta was that there was a "drive to war" by the US and its allies. At its very worst, this narrative produced conspiracy theories, mostly emanating from the alt-Left and alt-Right, which claimed that the Ghouta attack was a "false flag" used to justify western "regime change" against the victim, Assad.

 Of course, these conspiracy theories have been firmly debunked, but even the conventional narrative seems to in some way accept that the US failing to live up to its promises to the Syrian opposition was in some way a triumph for "peace". Firstly, following Ghouta, there was no "drive to war" - Obama reacted to the attack with characteristic hesitance and indecisiveness.

 In truth, the calculation had been made long before Ghouta that the US would not decisively intervene to aid the Syrian opposition in overthrowing Assad. However, if Obama was to be taken at his word, the "red line" that was crossed at Ghouta might be the impetus needed for the US and NATO to act as they had done in Libya to avert further mass murder.

 This is what was rendered by a collection of so-called "peace" activists, Assad supporters and "anti-war" groups as a "drive to war", as if acting to protect Syrians in any manner would've been a greater injustice than atrocities such as Ghouta.

 The closest any "drive to war" came to materialising, was when UK Prime Minister David Cameron - one of the key proponents of NATO intervention on behalf of the Libyan revolution - held a vote in the House of Commons on whether the UK would aid the US in any strikes on Assad regime targets following Ghouta.

 The vote failed, mostly due to the squalid politicking of then Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband who thought he could exploit weaknesses in Cameron's coalition government.

 Watching Labour MPs who had voted for the catastrophic Iraq war based on the spectre of mythical weapons of mass destruction, trooping through the lobby to vote against protecting Syrians who had been the victim of real WMDs was sickening. Cameron, the alleged warmonger intent on overthrowing Assad as he had done Gaddafi, respected the decision of parliament and said no more about it.

 In the US, intervention following Ghouta was suggested in a bill that didn't even make the floor of the Senate. There was no real "drive to war" – military action was not favoured by Obama. Even when it looked like the US might be expected to act, John Kerry went out of his way to reassure Russia and Assad's allies that any such action would be "unbelievably small".

 What followed was not a drive for some US-driven fantasy war of regime change against Assad, but rather a Russian-driven drive to continue Assad's very real war of regime preservation. With the US allegedly poised to strike, far from the prophets of doom who very conveniently croak about World War III whenever the very notion of action against Assad is brought up, Russia didn't react with threats of military violence to defend its ally from a potential US strike.

 Rather, it came up with a plan that simultaneously got Obama out of having to act against Assad, while allowing Assad to get away with Ghouta entirely unscathed.

 The Kerry-Lavrov deal, as it was called, allowed Assad to allegedly get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles under supervision. Some people perversely called this deal "peace", but it was merely a manner through which Obama's red line that morphed into a red herring, could now become a green light – a green light for Assad to continue his genocidal war by conventional means.

 As Syrian revolutionary activist and Ghouta survivor Dani Qappani put it, "If a murderer kills someone with a hammer, you don't just take away the hammer and leave the murderer unpunished".

 But this is precisely what happened. Russia and the US could act as if they were dealing with Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles, which are of course merely one aspect of his Iranian-supplemented, Russian-provided arsenal, as well as posing as "peacemakers", while the barrel bombs and missiles were falling on Syrians.

 Even on its own terms, the Kerry-Lavrov deal failed dramatically, assuming it was ever meant to succeed. Yet barely anyone has mentioned the great crime that was the US-Russia theatrics that followed Ghouta. When 130 people were murdered by Assad using sarin gas again at Khan Sheikhun earlier this year, the Trump administration at least responded with a warning that it wouldn't tolerate Assad using chemical weapons. But, as we've seen subsequently, no US administration cares about the genocidal destruction unleashed by Assad and his allies in its totality.

 It's of no surprise that following the brutality of Ghouta and the lack of any meaningful action to protect Syrians and aid rebels in fighting Assad, the region was partially eclipsed by the black banner of the Islamic State group, trading, as it does, on the perceived indifference of the world to Muslim suffering.

 That this entity has struck at the heart of Europe is certainly not in any sense a comeuppance, but there is a brutal irony at the heart of it. All this poison - whether sarin gas attacks in Ghouta or vehicle attacks on civilians in Barcelona - seeps out from the open wound that is Assad.

 As Qappani summed up, "[Western] governments have pretended to be interested in Syria, but they have never cared about the lives lost at Ghouta or the hundreds of thousands killed by Assad in general in the way they do about the innocents killed in Europe, most recently Barcelona."

 Today marks the fourth anniversary not just of a single monstrous attack on innocent people, but on the day where the world said that the hopes, dreams and lives of Syrians don't matter and seemingly never will.'

Syrian regime launched 174 chemical attacks in 4 years

Syria regime launched 174 chem attacks in 4 years: NGO

 'The Assad regime has carried out 174 chemical weapons attacks since its attack in East Ghouta near Damascus that left hundreds dead, according to a London-based rights watchdog.

 In a Monday report -- released on the fourth anniversary of the East Ghouta attack -- the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) stated that the Assad regime had carried out a total of 207 chemical attacks since the first one in Homs’ Al-Bayyada district on Dec. 23, 2012.

 The SNHR also recalled April’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun, in which around 100 civilians in the opposition-held village were killed.

 The NGO went on to assert that the international community, including the U.S., had failed to prevent the Assad regime from carrying out chemical weapons attacks or confiscate its arsenal of chemical arms.

 According to Monday’s report, the regime carried out at least five more chemical attacks since April’s attack on Khan Sheikhun.

 “Over the course of the six-year Syria crisis, Russia and China have used their veto right seven times in favor of the Syrian regime, which has hamstrung the UN Security Council and stopped it from safeguarding international law and order,” the report states.

 On Aug. 21, 2013, more than 1,400 civilians were killed and more than 10,000 injured -- including women and children -- in the chemical attack on East Ghouta.

 In September of the same year, the Syrian regime signed on to a chemical weapons convention, but this did not prevent it from carrying out additional chemical attacks.'

Obama's failure to enforce his "red line" emboldened and strengthened Al Assad

The United States military launched tomahawk cruise missiles against Al Shayrat military airfield near Homs.  Seaman Ford WIlliams / EPA

 'In August 2012, the American journalist Chuck Todd, enquiring into Barack Obama’s “latest thinking” on the rebellion in Syria, which at the time was a year old, asked the now former president if he ever envisioned intervening militarily in Syria to ensure “the safe keeping of the chemical weapons” in Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s arsenal. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Syria under the Al Assads had built up “one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons programmes in the world”. Mr Obama answered the question with uncharacteristic unambiguity: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime”, the president said, “that a red line for us is … chemical weapons moving around or being utilised”.

 Mr Al Assad did not wait long to start testing president Obama’s red line. On December 23, he dropped bombs containing a toxic gas called Agent 15 on Syrians queuing for bread in the city of Homs. The White House not only did not take action, but it also issued a statement saying that reports of chemical weapons use were not “consistent” with its own assessments. Mr Obama’s failure to enforce his own warning clearly emboldened the Syrian regime. On August 21, 2013, four years ago today, Mr Al Assad rained bombs loaded with sarin gas on Syrian citizens outside Damascus. The images of suffering that emerged that day from Ghouta will long haunt humanity. They are a stain on our conscience.

 Even though the red line had been crossed, Mr Obama feared that intervention in Syria might turn it into another Iraq. This was the wrong lesson to draw from history. As events have shown, his refusal to punish the Syrian president has meant that, four years on from the massacre in Ghouta, Mr Al Assad has consolidated his position. The insidious narrative that Iran, Russia and Mr Al Assad are fighting terrorism, when if anything they are at the forefront of terrorising and killing Syrians, has taken hold. And Mr Al Assad is now treated as integral to any solution to the crisis in Syria, rather than as the person who precipitated the conflict. The Syrian president again used chemical weapons in April this year, killing dozens of people in Idlib. While the crossing of that red line once more was enough to stir the new US president, Donald Trump, to order a retaliatory cruise missile attack on Shayrat air base, the action appeared more symbolic than strategic. It was designed to prevent and deter the Syrian regime from launching future chemical attacks, but in reality served only as a light slap on the wrist to Mr Al Assad.

 No atrocity, it seems, can shock the world into acting against Mr Al Assad.'

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Syrian army pounds rebel areas near Damascus after Russian brokered truce

Image result for Syrian army pounds rebel areas near Damascus after Russian brokered truce

 'Syrian jets and artillery struck rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs on Saturday a day after a Russian sponsored ceasefire with a rebel group agreed a halt of fighting in the last opposition enclave in the capital, rebels and witnesses said.

The Russian defense ministry said on Friday it had reached a ceasefire that took effect at 21.00 hrs Moscow time (1800 GMT) with Faylaq al Rahman, the main Free Syrian Army (FSA) group fending off a two-month widescale Syrian army offensive in Jobar district and nearby town of Ain Tarma.

 A spokesman for Faylaq al Rahman said both Jobar, which lies some 2 km (1.2 miles) east of the Old City wall, and nearby Ain Tarma on the edge of Eastern Ghouta witnessed army strikes and shelling soon after the ceasefire went into effect.

 "After the first few hours ... there were many violations midnight they dropped barrel bombs and from the morning there have been strikes across the Ghouta," Wael Alwan, spokesman for the group, said.

 At least five civilians were killed in the towns of Hamouriya and Zalamka and fighters said there were several case of suffocation from rockets filled with chlorine that were fired at the front lines of Jobar and Ain Terma, he added.

 The Syrian army elite 4th Division has been trying unsuccessfully to storm Jobar and residents say the army has retaliated for its heavy losses by shelling residential areas, leaving scores killed and wounded since the campaign was launched.

 Moscow said on Friday that the ceasefire meant an earlier one announced last month in Eastern Ghouta now included all the moderate opposition groups in the main rebel stronghold that stretches from eastern to northeastern suburbs of Damascus.

 The army has not commented on the latest Russian agreement with Failaq al Rahman whom it considers a terrorist group that threatens the capital. It however says it abides by truces Moscow has brokered.

 Many fighters welcomed the ceasefire to help alleviate plight of civilians most hurt by aerial strikes but remain deeply skeptical about Russia's readiness to get the Syrian army to stick to the terms of a cessation of fighting in several de-escalation zones that Russia has already announced

 Moscow had already began to deploy military police in several areas across Syria such as in southwestern Syria where "de-escalation" zones had been announced.

 "This shows the lack of seriousness by the Russia to put pressure on the regime," Alwan added.

 Failaq al Rahman said the Syrian army bombardment appeared to be an attempt to wreck a ceasefire deal whose main points included deploying Russian military police along the frontline, the release of detainees and allowing humanitarian goods into the besieged Eastern Ghouta.

 "It seems the regime wants to take advantage of the opportunity to take revenge for its big losses during their many attempts to storm the Ghouta before the Russian military police enter to disengage the forces," Alwan said.

 Outnumbered and outgunned, local rebels fortified in elaborate tunnels and deploying ambushes have repelled repeated attempts to storm their stronghold, inflicting dozens of losses on the army since the campaign began.'

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Syrians in Montreal remember deadly chemical attacks four years ago

Father Ziad Alrayes and mother Eman Shelh with sons Ziad Jr., right, and Yousef and daughters Abeer and Mariam, left, are refugees from Syria in their home in Notre-Dame-de-Grace.

 'During the first attack, in the spring of 2013, Eman Shelh didn’t understand what was happening. It was the middle of the night and someone was shouting from the minarets to close your doors, close the windows, and cover your mouths.

 Then came the screaming and the ambulance sirens and the bodies of men, women and children with no injuries or blood — but with blue lips and swollen hands, some foaming from the mouth. There were so many bodies that they had to be buried together in tunnels, she said.

 “It was like a dream, at that moment I was in disbelief,” said Shelh, 37. “You see the dust and the people suffocating. Even now sometimes I think — was it a dream or was it real? There were people dying in front of me.”

 That first attack on Harasta would be followed by three more on the suburbs of Damascus, commonly known as Ghouta, each one more intense and widespread than the last. The fourth, on August 21, 2013, using the nerve agent sarin, would kill more than 1,000 people.

 According to UN inspectors, it was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since 1988, when Saddam Hussein turned them on civilians in Halabja in 1988.

 Though Wikipedia still lists the perpetrators of the Ghouta attack as “disputed,” it would force Syrian president Bashar al Assad to give up his chemical stockpiles — or at least pretend to do so.

 But for Shelh and her family, the attacks also precipitated their hasty exodus from Syria to Jordan and finally to Montreal, where they landed three weeks ago — to safety and comfort, if not peace of mind.

 At home on a quiet street in N.D.G., Abeer, Shelh’s eldest daughter, now 15, serves mint tea, complaining in jest of having to do all the housework while her mother nurses a sprained ankle.

 “At least we can still laugh,” says her mother, speaking through an interpreter.

 The family’s sponsors — St. Monica’s Catholic parish — have furnished the apartment and filled the fridge. The only personal item on view is a black and white photocopy of a family portrait taken in Jordan and thumbtacked to the wall. Ziad Jr., now 13, appears so much older than his years.

 Like many of the Syrians who have arrived in Canada since 2015 — at last count more than 40,000 across the country and almost 10,000 in Quebec — Shelh’s family had to leave everything behind. But as the fourth anniversary of the Ghouta attack approaches, they still carry with them the memories of the horror and mayhem.

 At the time of the second attack, a few days after the first, which they believe was using chlorine gas, it had been a year since President Obama had drawn a red line at the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. If that line was crossed, Obama had said, the U.S. would intervene.

 Already there was little bread, water or electricity and Shelh could no longer visit her father and siblings who lived only one street away, for fear of being hit by snipers near the security checkpoint. Finally, she thought, the international community will be forced to react.

 Instead, the red line kept shifting, further and further into irrelevance.

 Shelh’s husband, Ziad Alrayes, who was an ambulance driver and paramedic in Syria, says everyone had expected the United Nations or the foreign diplomats in Damascus to intervene.

 “When we went into homes after the attacks to try and give first aid, we saw whole families who looked like they were sleeping. The most difficult part was seeing the children. … What did they do to deserve this?”

 They didn’t expect the third attack, one month later, this time using sarin gas.

 For Shelh and Alrayes, it was the last straw. Both Yousef, 6, and Ziad Jr. still suffer from that attack, with ongoing respiratory problems. Yousef, who was 2 at the time of the attack, was too little to understand how to cover his mouth or try not to breathe. Ziad Jr., who helped bury the bodies, has suffered psychologically as well, they said.

 The family waited until after dark and walked four hours into the night, Alrayes carrying Yousef in his arms, until they reached a car and driver who would drop them off 20 kilometres from the border of Jordan.

 Mariam, who was five years old, was very tired, they recalled. Abeer, then 11, got separated from the family as they joined a throng of other Syrians walking the last few kilometres.

 “I was following a woman who I thought was my mother but it wasn’t her,” she said. “I was crying and looking for my mom for an hour before I found her.”

 By the time the fourth attack hit, they had made it to the Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp, run by the United Arab Emirates and the Red Crescent society, where they stayed for three months, before moving into a one-room apartment in Zarqa.

 Life was hell in Jordan, the family says. Alrayes was not allowed to work, and when he worked illegally, he was often not paid. The boss would send him on his way, daring him to complain to authorities, at the risk of being sent back to Syria.

 Ziad Jr. was the only one working, at a vegetable stand on the street. The girls went to school sporadically, but only from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., after the Jordanian children had left the building. Meanwhile the Jordanian hospitals refused to treat Yousef for his respiratory problems. It wasn’t until their church sponsors in Canada sent money for treatment in a private hospital that he started to improve.'