Friday, 8 March 2019

Syria rallies demand release of jailed women, children

Syria rallies demand release of jailed women, children

 'As the world marks International Women’s Day, demonstrators in northwestern Syria are urging the international community to take immediate action to secure the release of women and children still languishing in Syrian prisons.

 Friday’s demonstrations were organized in support of the Conscience Movement, an alliance of individuals, rights groups and organizations who demand the release of women and children from the jails of Syria’s Assad régime.

 Rallies were held in the towns of Azaz, Al-Bab, Cobanbey and Bizaah in Syria’s northeastern Aleppo province.

 According to the Conscience Movement, more than 13,500 women have been incarcerated since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, while more than 7,000 women remain in detention where they are reportedly subjected to torture, rape and sexual violence.

 Marwa -- a female Syrian engineer who did not give her full name due to security concerns -- called for the immediate release of jailed Syrian women and children.

 “As relatives of those who are still behind bars, we came here today to demand their release,” Marwa said. “We hope these rallies will help achieve that objective.”

 Maryam al-Ali, a young girl who attended the rally in Bizaah, said her father had once been jailed by the régime.

“My father was held in an Assad régime prison for a year and a half. He was finally released two years ago,” she said.

 “But his friends still remain in prison and we are demanding that they be freed without delay,” she added.

 The Conscience Movement was founded last year after an all-female international convoy made global headlines by raising awareness about the abuses suffered by female prisoners of the Assad regime.

 In March of last year, the 55-bus convoy made a three-day journey from Istanbul to Turkey’s southern Hatay province near the Syrian border, where 10,000 women staged a massive rally marking International Women's Day.'

Fleeing régime fire, Syrians desert northwestern town

 'During a lull in régime bombardment, Abu Abdo al-Sarmani drove a pickup hurtling into his wrecked hometown in Syria’s Idlib province to grab his family’s belongings a day after they fled. The northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun is supposed to be protected by an internationally brokered cease-fire deal, but increased shelling and airstrikes by régime forces last month have left its streets near empty.

 “There was a truce and everything quietened down, and then suddenly the bombardment picked up again and we could no longer stay,” Sarmani said, wearing a maroon bomber jacket.

 “The bombardment was so close ... I spent two hours hiding in the bathroom,” the 36-year-old said, describing the events that pushed his family to flee last week.

 Khan Sheikhoun lies in the Idlib region, the last major bastion of opposition to President Bashar Assad in Syria.

 In September, rebel backer Turkey and régime ally Russia inked a deal to set up a buffer zone around the region, part of which runs just south of Khan Sheikhoun.

 Sarmani said he, his wife and three daughters escaped Khan Sheikhoun last week because of the bombardment, but also because the town has become unlivable.

 “There’s no work, no more people about, no hospitals, no doctors, no pharmacies, no basic infrastructure for living,” said the accountant, whose family has relocated to Sarmada, 100 kilometers north.

 Outside Khan Sheikhoun, two lone donkeys stood in a field of bright green grass, as shelling sent a grey cloud billowing up into the sky.

 “We hope we won’t be displaced for long,” Sarmani said, standing by a pickup truck loaded with a large plastic rug, pillows, and a cooking gas canister.

 Eight years into Syria’s civil war, the Damascus régime has gained ground against rebels and militants with Russian military backing since 2015. It now controls nearly two thirds of the country and has taken back control of most of the main commercial arteries.

 But a section of the highway linking the capital to the northern city of Aleppo remains out of its reach as it runs through Idlib, including through Khan Sheikhoun.

 At least 46 civilians including 18 children have been killed in bombardment on the town since the start of February, the civil defense says.

 Elsewhere in Khan Sheikhoun, 29-year-old Ahmad Faraj and his family brought out what remained of their belongings from a temporary home shot through with rocket fire.

 In their pickup, the farmer from the nearby village of Zaka piled blue plastic chairs, and bags of pistachio husks his family would later burn for heating.

 “When we came here about three months ago, the town was safe,” Faraj said, dressed in a zipped dark blue hoodie.

 But “for a month, there has been violent bombardment ... The war planes have started up again,” he said.

 In order to stay close to his land, Faraj, his wife and child had headed to Morek, a town in the nearby buffer zone.

 They hoped Turkish observers deployed there under the September deal would earn them some protection, but said conditions were likely to be tough. “Running water, sewers, electricity - there’s absolutely none of that,” he said.'

 "Turkey begins patrolling with armoured vehicles the countryside of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib (part of the de-escalation zone) in order to stop the SAA shelling on civilian areas."

 "Turkish army convoy patrolling in Southern Idlib today to prevent régime shelling on civilians. There was no régime shelling today."

The refugee for refugees: How one Syrian is saving lives in the Greek island camps

The refugee for refugees: How one Syrian is saving lives in the Greek island camps

 'Omar Alshakal is 24 years old, but when he speaks it seems like he's a hundred.

 "When I was in Germany I sometimes stopped looking at the boys with backpacks in front of the high school," he said. "Or those who crowded at the entrance to the university. I looked them and I suffered. Not just because they could study and I could not, but because they were my age and lived like 20-year-olds. And I lost my light heartedness, forever, eight years ago, when the Syrian war began."

 He carries the burden of war on his shoulders; a wounded body and an indelible memory, the loss of loved ones, the failure of revolutionary expectations, the escape.

 He speaks while drinking a hot coffee on the island of Samos, after a morning spent distributing winter clothes to the thousands of migrants in the main facility here, as well as those living in informal arrangements in a field and forest that surrounds the facility.

 Thousands of women and children are here. Even when the temperature drops below zero, many walk in the mud without shoes; the lucky ones have slippers.

 Omar has a tired face, worn out from smiling to all the children in the camp. His smiles mask his despair.

 "Eight years ago I lost my life," he said. "After being a year in Germany I realised that I had to help others. In Germany I was not doing anything that was not for me, but for the ones in need. I felt useless. So I returned to Greece and founded Refugee for Refugees. I feel more useful; people here have nothing. The hardest thing to explain when talking about migrants is that these people - like me - were not born like that. They were not born poor and dirty. The war and the escape made them poor and dirty. I, like them, up until eight years ago had a house, some friends, a school. Then suddenly we did not have anything any more. That's what brought us here, asking for help, asylum."

 Omar was born and raised in Deir ez-Zour; he left Syria for Lebanon in 2010 to work as a lifeguard. When the uprising began, he returned home and was arrested by Assad's army in the early days of the protests. When he recalls that time, he remembers prisoners beaten to death.

 After the prisons of Assad, he says, you no longer distinguish between life and death.

 He became a volunteer, driving ambulances for the rebels. As an activist, he believed in the revolution, he wanted a new, free Syria.

 In 2013, his ambulance was hit by a bomb. The paramedics and the six wounded in his vehicle were all killed. Omar escaped with his life, his leg seriously injured.

 After using a wheelchair for a few months, Omar travelled to Turkey, where a doctor recommended he venture onwards to Europe for treatment.

 To 20-year-old Omar, "Europe" was the Greek coast. Thousands of people were attempting the same journey, so one day Omar and two of his friends tried their luck - but not in rubber boats, like the others. Omar and his friends started swimming. It was a 14-hour swim from Turkey to Kalymnos.

 "I realised I was still the good swimmer I was when I was a lifeguard in Lebanon. And then I was not afraid to die. A piece of me had already died forever."

 Once he arrived in Greece he realised his onward path would be hard: he was repeatedly turned back at the Macedonian border, he slept on the street in Athens, with other Syrians like him. Then, finally, he found transport to Germany, and waited eight months for his documents to be ready. It was now May 2015.

 Omar lived in Rostock for a while. The government had provided him with a place to live and he volunteered at a local NGO that cooked food for the refugees.

 One night he woke up to the sound of the police breaking down his door. He was arrested and held at the local police station. They suspected he was linked with the Islamic State group.

 It was a farcical situation. The very man who had risked everything to escape from Deir ez-Zour, who carried both the physical and invisible scars of a fierce war, was arrested on suspicion of being an IS supporter.

 "I felt like going crazy," he says.

 After a few weeks he received a letter of apology: we were wrong, we received false indications. Two months later, Omar left Germany. He wanted to help his people.

 At the beginning of 2016, he returned to Greece, at the peak of the migration crisis. The EU and Turkey were about to sign the pact that created holding facilities on the Greek islands, turning them into de facto prisons. Thousands of people would be held in humiliating conditions awaiting the assessment of their asylum application.

 Omar started to help those in need, to help those who crossed the sea. He volunteered for several organisations. Then he decided to build his own.

 He began to collect clothes, toys and shoes and help migrants, first on the island of Lesbos and now also on Samos, where he is building a warehouse for shoes and basic necessities with other volunteers.

 "This cold [weather] is an emergency, we do our best to give everyone clothes for the winter," he said.

 "There are thousands of people in tents, for them living outside or inside is the same. The situation is terrible, they have no electricity, water, toilets, showers. Their conditions are not safe, at night it is very dangerous for women especially, when they need to go out to urinate they are not safe at all. And for children it's the same, there are hundreds of children with summer clothes and there's a lot of wind. The night is terrible."

 Omar is affectionate with all the children who line up in the early morning. He wears a hat shaped like a bear, tells jokes, teaches the youngsters a few words of English - but at the same time remains strict: one piece each, everyone has the right to be clothed.

 "No one can understand how living in a tent is," he said. "It is a loss of dignity to live in a place where you feel you are worth less than nothing. I believe that Europe cares more for animals than for these people. And I strongly believe that children and families will never forget the time spent here. Before the war, we had normal lives, schools, houses, friends. And then we lost everything. We had only a dream, to be welcomed and helped. But once here people don't even receive a tent."

 Omar helps a woman who has just escaped from Syria with her two sons. She arrived on the island with $150. She found no space in the official detention facility, and bought a tent with the little savings she had. For two days she did not eat, she told Omar. "When you have a house, you do not imagine how your life could be in a tent, in the middle of winter," he said.

 "I am pretty sure that the Greek government has prepared an emergency plan for the cold, for their streets, for their schools. But they did not think about the emergency for migrants living in the cold. I say this because last year we had the snow in Lesbos and someone died because of the snow, guys died, freezing. And despite that, this year there are no winter plans. Winter is not an emergency, it is not difficult to predict. It depends only on the calendar."

 Omar does not know what his future holds, but every day he wakes up to help those in need.

 "If you let people live like this for months or years, you can not talk about humanity," he said. "I do not think this Europe is human." '

Monday, 4 March 2019

The teachers of Idlib on the impossible struggle to educate their students

Teacher Abdulkafi Alhamdo, in front of a bombed-out school in Aleppo

 'Abdulkafi Alhamdo is an English teacher in Syria. He loves Coleridge and Shakespeare and is currently teaching his students Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In 2016, he was evacuated from Syria’s very own heart of darkness – Aleppo – where he taught traumatised school children in cellars and bombed-out buildings throughout the siege, even as they starved. Now he lives and works in the rebel-held north-west province of Idlib, where he and fellow teachers are struggling with few resources and little support to educate the next generation, those who will shape the future of Syria.

 Idlib, the largest province in Syria to remain outside the control of Bashar al-Assad’s régime, has seen a steady increase in bombing raids by Russian and Syrian jets and the arrival of refugees fleeing from other war-ravaged zones, which – according to Alhamdo – makes the ongoing work of Syria’s teachers all the more vital. “We want education to continue because we don’t want these young children or students to think of guns,” he says. “Without schools, they would carry guns but, because of their attendance at school, they are students.”

 According to Anna Nolan, director of the human rights group The Syria Campaign, at least 2.5 million locals and refugees are now packed into Idlib, which has been described as “a kill box”. There is great humanitarian need and no state education, but Nolan says that remarkable efforts are afoot on the ground to preserve civil society, with teachers organising their own schools and university classes, often working voluntarily without pay to build an extraordinary patchwork of DIY education.

 Some have set up their own after-school clubs offering formal lessons, creative arts and vocational training, while others forced out of buildings by armed rebel groups are teaching classes in the open air and on WhatsApp. “There’s a real determination,” says Nolan. “What we hear again and again is that they know that education is the key to the future and this is the generation that will rebuild Syria. The depth and creativity of the services being provided is incredible.”

 Many of the teachers now working in Idlib are themselves displaced, among them Alhamdo, who fled Aleppo with his wife and young daughter and nothing else. In Idlib, the bombs are still falling – “There’s always bombing. This is our life,” says Alhamdo – but it’s nothing like his experience in Aleppo. “Aleppo was something unusual,” he says. “Every day when I went to school to see my students – they are like my children – I just check who is absent, who is alive and who is not, and then I start teaching them. We would stop many times because there were bombings. For one or two hours, we go to a cellar then, after the bombing stops, we go back again to our class and teach. If the bombing was heavy, we let our students go home.”

 In April 2015, Saad Al-Ansari school, where Alhamdo was teaching, was hit by a rocket. He was returning from the playground when an explosion ripped through the building, killing four teachers and three students and injuring dozens more. “My heart jumped out of my body,” he recalls. “I saw the students running out, blood on their faces. They were in trauma, crying: ‘Did you see my little brother? Did you see my sister?’ They did not know what to do. Most of them were running out without shoes, without their books. I went inside and saw blood everywhere.”

 From that point on, the large-scale schools were abandoned and teachers organised their classes in small, makeshift schools in local neighbourhoods, so that the children did not have so far to travel to school and – should another rocket hit – the number of potential victims would be fewer.

 “When you teach in such circumstances, you are more psychologist than teacher,” says Alhamdo. “You have to be so careful about their trauma and their personal stories. When there’s heavy bombing, you tell the children they are heroes because they are still learning. It was a very, very difficult job.”

 The children, traumatised by their experiences, found it hard to concentrate, but their teachers tried to preserve some normality for them. They still sat their public exams, hidden in cellars away from the shelling. “The conditions were very, very bad, but we could not let the war or their situation affect their progress. They are the future of Syria for us.”

 Now in Idlib, he is teaching linguistics and the modern novel at the Free Aleppo University in the Idlib countryside to students who have fled from regime-held areas. The university opened in 2016 as one of the country’s few remaining centres of higher education. On days when shelling is intense and the danger is too great, students have lessons via WhatsApp, and some medical students have lectures online from doctors in the US. “I am proud of my students and I’m proud of teaching … My students are my heroes,” says Alhamdo.

 In one recent incident, students and teachers resisted an attempted takeover of the university by the armed military faction Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). When they refused to sign the university over, HTS threatened the university and prevented them from using the building for lectures, so Alhamdo and his colleagues took their lessons outside. “It might not be safe for me as a teacher but we cannot surrender.”

 In Atmeh, a village in the north of Idlib near the Turkish border, Sawsan Abbar has opened the “Read and Rise” primary school for girls. Her husband is the headteacher. The school is attended by 120 girls, all of whom have been displaced from their home towns and cities by the war. There are few teaching resources so Abbar and her colleagues have to be creative, sourcing materials from the internet and printing them out for their students.

 In the absence of so much else, the school has taken on a central nurturing role in the children’s lives. “Some of the kids call me and other teachers Mama or Auntie,” says Abbar, adding: “What keeps me awake at night is aerial bombardment. We have to skip school sometimes and it’s very worrying.”

 Meanwhile, in the city of Maarat al-Nu’man, also in Idlib province, teacher Mariam Shirout has set up her own after-school provision for children in the area. In the morning she teaches in the city schools that are still functioning – they were once state schools but have been taken over by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – and in the afternoon she opens the doors to her own school for children aged four to 15. It is called Bilelem Nartaqi, which means “with education, we advance”. It started small in 2013 but has grown and now educates between 150 and 200 children from all over the city.

 “Education is the backbone of the area,” she says. “No matter what happens, I will be working until the last minute. When I see the children coming to the centre under the bombardment because they want to spend time with their friends and me, I can’t think about stopping anything, ever.”

 Shirout and five colleagues teach reading, writing, mathematics, English and Arabic. They also provide extracurricular activities including drama and singing and vocational training such as sewing. “My school also provides psychological and social support to the children to help them deal with the traumatic experiences they are going through.

 “The shelling can really affect their work,” she says. “They are trying to be ambitious and believe they can continue with their work, but sometimes they have to stop for a few days because the shelling is unbearable. They are really afraid. Sometimes the schools stop for around 10 days or a month because of the intensive shelling.”

 Shirout, who is single and has no children of her own, says her pupils are becoming adults prematurely. “They just want to survive. They are always distracted, always thinking of something else. Their minds are always busy. They love school. They want to come, but they are still really distracted and that makes it hard to learn.

 “I worry about my students all the time – not just about their physical safety but their mental health and their future. The education services available are not enough – it’s like a sticking plaster. If the situation continues as it is, the future of most of the students will be lost.

 “My students are not children any more. We can’t ask them what they want to be in the future. The future is not clear.” '

The first day of term at a school in Maarat al-Nu’man in Idlib provinceBoys playing with toy guns in the suburbs of IdlibGirls in school in Idlib

Rebels attack Syrian army posts to avenge civilian deaths

 'Fighters of the Ansar al-Tawheed rebel group launched attacks against Syrian army posts in northwestern Syria, which they said killed at least 25 soldiers to avenge civilian deaths during recent army shelling. Dozens of rebels belonging to Ansar al-Tawheed attacked two major army checkpoints near the village of Masasneh in northern Hama province in a dawn attack on Sunday.

 Syrian state television showed several corpses, which Ansar al-Tawheed rebels said were the bodies of their suicide squads who had caught army troops off guard in an area close to the opposition-held territory.

 Stepped up missile and rocket attacks on villages and towns in northern Hama and adjoining Idlib province have been blamed by residents for dozens of civilian deaths and injuries since the latest army campaign began early last month.

 The recent escalation has targeted schools, mosques and bakeries and caused widespread damage to infrastructure, civil defence workers and hospital sources in opposition areas say.

 Both civilian-run opposition bodies and residents say the attacks have prompted thousands to flee from a number of front-line villages and towns, and have threatened a new exodus towards the Turkish border.
 Khan Sheikhoun, which has borne the brunt of the recent rocket and missile attacks, has become a ghost town as most of its inhabitants fled to the safety of makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of people displaced after previous Russian and Syrian army air raids.'

 "Taking advantage of bad weather, battle moved tonight to Jebal Turkman (NE. Latakia Mountains). HTS raided several positions killing most in those positions and the inghimasis returned safely with several wounded."[]