Saturday, 21 September 2019

Pro-régime Militias and ISIS Militants Stand Against the Return of Palmyra’s People

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 'In 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the renowned city of Palmyra, which was then under the control of the Syrian régime. The subsequent battles between ISIS and the Syrian régime over Palmyra led to the devastation of the modern city and the displacement of its 100,000 inhabitants.

 The majority of the civilians who were displaced did not manage to go back because of their fear of reprisals from the Syrian régime militias and the continued presence of ISIS militants in the surrounding desert. The return of these local people to Palmyra will be a cornerstone in any attempt to rehabilitate the ruined city and revive its tourist industry after the war. But the obstacles to that return show no sign of being resolved.

 Following the battles between ISIS and the Syrian régime, many of the displaced people avoided taking refuge in régime-controlled areas, fatigued by living under a repressive régime and distrustful of how they would be treated as internally displaced people. Only a small minority were allowed to stay in Homs, while the majority of these displaced people were dispersed between the governorate of Idlib and the al-Rukban refugee camp.

 Since 2015, the régime militias, accompanied by other Iranian militias and Russian military advisers, have commandeered different houses in the city of Palmyra for use as military bases. Some locals who made it back to Palmyra recently found militias that spoke a foreign language occupying their homes. These locals avoided conflict with the foreign fighters even though some of the foreign fighters were living in their houses and using their furniture. The locals’ response was to avoid confrontation and leave Palmyra.

 Despite the régime’s state media claiming that it is encouraging locals to go back to Palmyra, this return is happening on a very small scale and only for those who have connections with the régime and fought alongside its national defence militias. Encouraging these particular people to go back is an attempt to strengthen the régime’s presence in Palmyra, enabling it to withdraw some of the militias from Palmyra to fight at the frontlines in Hama and Idlib.

 Palmyrenes who live in al-Rukban refugee camp, who were promised amnesty by the régime if they return to Palmyra, have been arrested, some killed, while others have been conscripted into fighting with the régime’s militias. Those who returned from Idlib without permission have been exposed to arrests and disappearances.

 Incidents like these and the previous experiences of living under the régime will continue to play in an important role in deterring people from going back even if they live under extremely difficult conditions in al-Rukban refugee camp and the rural areas of Idlib.

 Since the beginning of its activity in Syria, ISIS has been active in the mountainous areas to the north of Palmyra. When the group captured Palmyra in the middle of May 2015, it executed approximately 500 locals, including Khaled al-Assad, the director of the Department of Antiquities in the city, accusing them of being collaborators with the régime.

 Although ISIS has been driven out of Palmyra, the group continues to have a strong presence in the surrounding desert, particularly in the mountain of Abu Rujmain, which has deep natural caves which makes it suitable for hiding. The group’s active militias in this area have arrested and killed many Palmyrene sheep herders and truffle gatherers.

 Moreover, using hit-and-run attacks, the group has killed dozens of Syrian army soldiers around Palmyra since their withdrawal from the city in 2017, and captured some of their armoured vehicles and machine guns.

 During its lifespan in Syria, the group attracted more than 150 youths from Palmyra itself who became active members in the group, providing intelligence and logistical information about the city and its inhabitants. Even régime loyalists, protected by the régime’s militias, returning to Palmyra would be concerned that their identity could berevealed to ISIS by these local members.

 These local members of the group played an important role in creating a ‘death list’ before ISIS captured Palmyra in 2015 and 2016. They also have knowledge of the desert routes that enabled the group to capture Palmyra, which could potentially enable them to sneak into the city and kidnap some of its people.

 The continued presence of ISIS militias in the surrounding mountainous areas of Palmyra and the local members among its ranks are constant reminders of the group’s ability to retake the city, which it did in December 2016 when they massacred dozens of locals, accusing them of being supporters of the régime.

 The return of local Palmyrenes to their hometown in the near future seems far-fetched. Régime loyalists who live in Homs and Damascus are terrified about the prospects of ISIS resurging and taking over their city again, while those who oppose the régime are certain that they will be persecuted by the régime militias if they go back. The recent cases of arrests and disappearances of returnees from Idlib and al-Rukban refugee camp shows that the current régime is not keen on allowing people to return to Palmyra unless they constitute part of its support base.

 The régime has announced on more than occasion that it wants to restore the archaeological site and activate the tourist industry in the city. However, unless the official plans to rebuild the world heritage site are accompanied by sincere action from the Syrian state to allow the safe return of local people regardless of their political background, any attempt to rebuild Palmyra will founder.'

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Sunday, 15 September 2019

Idlib chaos forces displaced Syrians into strange dwellings of abandoned buses, caves

 'Inside a rusty, abandoned bus in north-western Syria, Ms Umm Joumaa washes a silver tray and glass teacups, light pouring into her makeshift kitchen through broken windows.

 Around her, towels, bedsheets, clothes and plastic bags hang from wires that stretch across the smashed-out vehicle where the 44-year-old widow lives with her six children.

 "We used to live in Al-Shariaa," she said, referring to a village in the north-western province of Hama.

 "My home was hit once, and then hit a second time, while we were living there," she added, saying that this forced her to flee to olive groves in the neighbouring province of Idlib.

 Now, she lives in the village of Birat Armanaz in western Idlib, in a bus riddled with holes, its interior cleared of all furnishings.

 "We cleaned the bus and I settled here with my children," said Ms Joumaa, whose husband was killed seven months ago by artillery fire from the Syrian regime.

 Her set-up is rudimentary: Foam mattresses and thick blankets are arranged at the rear, while a kettle and basic utensils are stored inside a plastic crate.

 Water containers and firewood are propped against the mangled front bumper.

 In a tight cave near the Turkish border, Mr Abu Ahmad and his young son chip away at stone walls with metal rods and hammers.

 The 49-year-old father of three has dug a cave for his family in the village of Kafr Lusin, three months after fleeing bombardment of his hometown of Termala, south of Idlib.

 "I had dug a cave in Termala where we were living throughout the revolution, so I had the idea of digging a cave here as well," Mr Ahmad said.

 "There, I dug a cave out of fear of air strikes and bombing, but here, it's out of fear of the cold," he added.

 Mr Ahmad said the cave is a better place to live than a tent, especially in winter or during periods of heavy bombardment.

 "The tent does not protect you, not in summer or winter," he said.

 "I want to make this cave big enough for my whole family," he added, his face red from hours of hard labour.

 Sitting cross-legged on a large green carpet on the cave's floor, his wife lamented her losses.

 "We spent our entire lives working, struggling, building - and then, in an instant, a war plane destroyed our house with one missile," said Ms Khadija, pillows and mattresses stacked behind her.

 Overhead, a green water cooler hangs from a metal rod.

 A handful of cooking utensils are kept in a plastic container and, besides a few spices and pickles stored in water bottles, there is not much else.

 "Look around, this is where I live, this is my life," she said. "This is the alternative to a home." '

Abu Ahmad, a displaced Syrian from Termala sits with his family inside a cave he dug for shelter near the Syria-Turkey border, on Sept 9, 2019.