Saturday, 15 February 2020

Ariha: An ancient Syrian town emptied and destroyed

The aftermath of airstrikes on the neighborhood in which al-Shami Hospital is located

 'On both sides of Ariha’s Market Street stand dozens of shops selling sweets. Their windows display the full range for which the city is famous: mushabbak; awwama; halawat al-jibn. Most important of all is shuaybiyyat, the town’s great pride and trademark, with which it’s practically synonymous, such that the name Ariha can hardly be mentioned without adding shuaybiyyat. The sweet traveled with the city’s people throughout their displacement and exile—it’s enough for a shop anywhere in the world to write “Ariha shuaybiyyat” on its façade to draw the attention of Syrians.

 The town’s cardamom market, meanwhile, is the last of its kind in the surrounding region, popular especially with people from the nearby towns and villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, for whom Ariha is a marketplace in which to sell their produce, and a center for shopping, studying, healthcare, and work.

 Like a beehive, the town buzzes each day till the late hours of the night. Or rather, it did, until 2020 brought abrupt changes to the town, in the form of an intense military campaign by the Assad régime and its allies, which grew more intense still after the latter took over the city of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man along with other towns and villages in the environs.

 The images and videos now coming out of Ariha depict widespread destruction across the city. Local activists estimate around 30% of Ariha has been totally leveled, and a further 20% partially damaged. They also believe some 90% of Ariha’s residents have fled in recent weeks to seek refuge in safer areas, as the air and artillery bombardment intensify, and residents fear a ground advance by the régime towards the city.

 During the month of January alone, local civil defense crews documented four direct airstrikes on Ariha’s main market, as well as another market, a hospital, a bakery, and the civil defense staff themselves. A mosque, a kindergarten, a school, and numerous civilian houses were also hit. At least 25 civilians were killed, including seven children and numerous medical staff, most recently Zakwan Tammaa, the administrative director of al-Shami Hospital, who died of wounds sustained in the strikes. Dozens more have been injured.

 The bombardment has rendered most medical services inoperative in the town, according to an announcement by the Idlib health directorate, which said the attack on al-Shami Hospital left no more health centers operational across the entirety of southern Idlib province. In recent months, Ariha had taken in large numbers of people displaced from elsewhere in the province, who were forced to live in harsh conditions due to the suspension of aid from humanitarian organizations, according to Muhammad Khalid al-Attar, an engineer and member of the “Youths for Syria” organization, which was active in and around Ariha before suspending its work recently. “Today, the town is practically empty,” he says. “Most Internet towers have been dismantled and transported. The same goes for bakeries, most of which have been taken apart and moved, while others were destroyed by bombardment.” Al-Attar describes one recent night in Ariha as having been “pitch-black,” with residents too afraid of being targeted to light up so much as a lamp.

 “Only a small minority remained in the city. Electricity generators and water containers have stopped, as have all Internet networks, except one working at a specific location,” says media activist Sulayman Abd al-Qadir. A local woman who requested anonymity said the city was “completely shut down, with no activity except the work of the civil defense teams.”

 It was a “miracle,” says Layla Saeed, a humanitarian activist from Ariha, that she and her children survived the strike on al-Shami Hospital, which happened to be located near her home. They woke to the sound of a blast that smashed the windows and doors of the house.

 “There was thick dust, and dirt and shrapnel everywhere. We took cover in a side room away from the main street, only for another rocket to land, punching a hole in the wall of the room. I ran with my children toward the bomb shelter underneath the building. The sound of crying and screaming filled the air, until it was overpowered by a third blast, and then the sirens of the ambulances and civil defense crews looking for survivors under the rubble. When I came out, I was carrying a bag containing my ID papers. I took one last look at the wreckage of my house, and left.”

 The days and sleepless nights leading up to this attack, on the night of 29 January, had already seen numerous families depart the town. When the attack came, almost everyone remaining decided to leave. “The streets filled with buses waiting to take them away,” says Layla. “This time there was no Ariha to greet them. Most headed for the camps in the north, while others wandered aimlessly, not knowing where their feet were taking them.”

 “Will the city fall?” This, says Layla, is the question that has haunted her ever since, and was etched on the frightened faces of all the residents that joined her on the journey of mass displacement.

 Abu Ahmad, another Ariha resident, describes the events of that day as “apocalyptic:” people shouting through walkie-talkies at the civil defense and ambulances to arrive; others searching for survivors after the first raid, soon followed by the others on the same target to kill the greatest number possible of civilians and rescue workers; collapsed buildings with women and children fumbling for exits in the darkness. Most of those killed were displaced people from elsewhere, who had fled to Ariha from battles in their own towns and villages, only to find death waiting for them once again. “Nowhere is safe anymore,” says Abu Ahmad, “Death is everywhere.”

 Ariha is located to the south of Idlib City. In official administrative terms, the greater Ariha area comprises 55 smaller towns and villages, as well as 44 farms. The town of Ariha itself has great geographic significance within Idlib Governorate, in that it sits in the middle of four major cities: Jisr al-Shughur to the west; Ma’arrat al-Nu’man to the south; Saraqeb to the east; and Idlib to the north.

 The Ariha area also contains the Arba’een mountain, part of the Jabal al-Zawiya series of mountains, reaching a height of around 1,000 meters above sea level. This strategic highland overlooks the national M4 highway connecting Saraqeb to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, as well as the road from Ariha to Idlib, and a number of towns and villages in Jabal al-Zawiya and even southern Aleppo Province. Whoever controls Mount Arba’een, therefore, enjoys the ability to cut their opponents’ supply routes and monitor their movements or incoming assaults.

 For this reason, the Assad régime had fought hard to keep hold of Ariha in the early years of the revolution, which had seen three attempts by opposition factions to liberate the town by the end of 2014. Local residents paid dearly for their eventual release from the régime’s rule, with around 1,300 killed as of the start of 2015. On 28 May, 2015, the jihadist-led “Army of Conquest” coalition succeeded in taking control of the town after driving out the régime.

 Ariha represents a mid-point between Aleppo and the Mediterranean, on the one hand, and between Idlib and Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, on the other. In addition, the road leading to it from Jisr al-Shughur hems in all the towns and villages of Jabal al-Zawiya, which is one reason so many of their residents fled, fearing besiegement.

Ariha today contains local fighters from the town itself as well as the surrounding villages. Some spoke said they first moved their families to safe locations and then returned to defend the area. They were reluctant to divulge details about their preparations, saying only that they would do what they could to keep the town out of the régime’s hands.

 Al-Attar, the engineer and activist, does not downplay the significance of the local resistance, though he recognizes the disparity between the scale of the air and ground bombardment pounding the town and the ability of the lightly-armed locals to combat them. For their part, fighters encountered by al-Jumhuriya said the régime’s forces were heading for the city of Saraqeb, east of Ariha, and would be concentrating the bulk of their firepower there. The fighters asserted the military map would change in the coming days, since the régime had been sustaining large losses in men and materiel, while new fronts had been opened in the Aleppo countryside as opposition factions mounted counter-attacks.

 Subhi al-Khalid, a local activist from Jabal al-Zawiya, says that regional and international factors may prevent the régime from succeeding in its ambition to control all of the M4 and M5 highways in their entirety; an aim that, if accomplished, would inevitably mean the capture of Ariha. By way of evidence, al-Khalid points to an intensifying dispute between Russia and Turkey, made manifest in Turkey’s deployment of five observation posts around Saraqeb. One such post has faced direct fire from Assad régime forces, killing Turkish troops in the process, and prompting a wide-ranging response from the Turkish army against régime positions. These developments, al-Khalid argues, indicate Turkey aims to prevent the régime from taking the highways in full.

 Since antiquity, Ariha has been bound to the city of Aleppo. In his 13th-century Encyclopedia of Countries, the geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described it as “a small town on the outskirts of Aleppo; the most verdant and luscious on God’s earth; endowed with green fields, trees, and rivers.” Indeed, as well its famous sweets, Ariha is also renowned for cherry trees. It was a breathing space for the surrounding region’s residents, especially Aleppans, with its touristic sites and ancient archaeological monuments. As for its name itself—which it shares with the biblical Jericho—it is thought to hail from Aramaic roots, meaning “the sweet fragrance of flowers.” '

Ariha as seen from al-Arba'een Mountain

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A doctor in Idlib: 'It cannot get more evil than this'

Dr Tarraf on the roof of his home after it was bombed for the first time [Photo courtesy of Dr Tarraf]

 'My name is Dr Tarraf. I was born in Al-Mash'had, one of the urban slums of Aleppo, on February 1, 1982 - the day the terrifying Hama Massacre began. Over 27 days, Syrian soldiers razed the city, killing 20,000 people, to put down a rebellion against the rule of President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad.

 My family is originally from a small village in Idlib province called Haas, about 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Maaret al-Numan. We moved back there in 1995 because our small apartment was not large enough for our growing family.

 I was the second child in a large household of six boys and two girls. One of my brothers, Mustafa, has managed to move to Germany to start a new life. I call him the only survivor of the family.

 Of the remaining five boys, two have been lost to Syria's war, two have had their lives and studies put on hold because of the fighting and detentions, and I no longer make plans for the future.

 My work as a doctor has become unbearably exhausting - both physically and mentally - since the régime launched its Idlib operation last spring. At the time, I worked at two hospitals, Kafr Nabl surgery hospital and Maaret al-Numan central hospital. These facilities were the closest to the régime's front line, and came under intense bombing for a long period of time. There was a constant stream of casualties coming to the hospital. The medics literally did not get a chance to rest.

 I remember one of the worst days, August 28, 2019, when the main vegetable market in Maaret al-Numan was targeted by an air raid from a Syrian army jet. We had six operating rooms in the hospital, and only eight doctors. Soon after the air raid, injured people began streaming in, along with dead bodies. Within five minutes all the operating rooms were full. I was the last surgeon to get there.

 I walked in to find two patients, both needing immediate help. As a doctor, I had to choose which one to treat and which to transfer to another hospital some 30 minutes away - something we do when there are limited resources and many cases to attend to. The first patient was a man in his thirties who was in hemorrhagic shock. The other was a three-year-old-boy who was bleeding from shrapnel in his chest; he was also in shock.

 It was a terrifying moment in which I had to make a choice; one which would help one patient but might lead to another dying on the way to the referral hospital. I had no other choice but to choose, so I chose the child.

 It was a difficult choice. But I thought about my two-year-old son. I saw that child as if he were my own, and so I chose to help him. I started treating him, I opened his abdomen, tried to stitch blood vessels. But after 15 minutes we, unfortunately, could not save him, and the anesthesiologist declared him dead. I went out of the operating room to find that the man was still there, still waiting for an ambulance, as they were in high demand.

 I got back to work, trying to save him as well. I started a blood transfusion in the waiting room; I opened his abdomen and made thoracentesis. But unfortunately, the man also died after 30 minutes of trying to help him.

 I had just left the operating room, frustrated and exhausted, when a local man asked me about the patient. I told him he had died. He then asked me about the child, and I told him he was dead, too. He then told me: "You know, doctor. The two were a man and his son."

 It was one of the worst, most traumatising, moments of my life. I will never forget it because I failed to save both the man and his son.

 At the hospital, there were so many critical cases in urgent need of help. So I would always be under pressure and suffer from insomnia.

 More than a month before that August day was another horrifying moment. It was after sunset on July 10 when Maaret al-Numan hospital came under attack. The facility was badly affected and the electricity generator was damaged.

 I was the doctor on duty and, along with other colleagues, decided we needed to evacuate the hospital and all the patients. But the most worrying part was when we had to evacuate the newborn incubators. The hospital had six of them. All those babies needed to remain there; but we knew the régime might target the hospital again, so they had to be moved. We continued with the evacuation, but some of the babies died along the way.

 Some of the patients, about 10 percent, refused to be evacuated. It was a very difficult moment. But as medics we decided to stay with them, accepting the potential risk of being hit a second time by the air raids. Two hours later, régime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the town of Maaret al-Numan. The hospital received dozens of injuries. We managed to save most of them because we stayed.

 After the régime's latest campaign in Idlib, I sent my family to the Turkey-Syria border where it is safer, while I remained working in hospitals in Idlib.

 But for months before, every time I went to the hospital, I would say goodbye to my family as if I would never see them again. There was always the thought that I would go to the hospital and never come back.

 It was mentally exhausting, because we had to work under constant bombing. Whenever I heard jets in the sky, I would think the hospital would be the next target. That put those of us in the medical field under enormous psychological pressure. And it made my family and loved ones worry constantly. They contact me every once in a while to make sure I am not hurt. Especially my parents, who have already lost two sons, Yusuf and Huzaifa.

 When we were young, our family did not have much. But my parents tried their best to provide a decent life for my siblings and I.

 Although all eight of us were very good at school, life began to get harder when my brothers and I started college. My father's salary was hardly enough to cover basic family needs. My eldest brother, Yusuf, went to medical school in 1999 and I did the same in 2000. My father started to borrow money, and those debts began to accumulate. With more college bills as the years continued, my family remained in debt until my brother and I graduated from college and started to work overtime shifts in hospitals in addition to our specialisation internships.

 In 2011 the Syrian revolution started. Yusuf was by then a doctor at the Tishreen Military Hospital, near Damascus. He was a resident doctor specialising in general surgery and I was in my last year of a urology specialisation at the Al-Muwasat Hospital in Damascus. Our brother Huzaifa was in his last year at medical school.

 Soon after, Yusuf left Damascus and moved to Idlib. Then he left his government job and started to help people in our hometown, where people were being shot during protests and later killed by régime bombardment. I remained in Damascus until I finished my thesis and got my degree.

 Then, Huzaifa was arrested in late 2012 at the university campus in Damascus. I did my best to get him out and paid huge amounts of money to get him released. I reached out to an intermediary involved in these types of transactions. However, when he found out Huzaifa was a doctor he said he could not help.

 "It is easier to secure the release of a [opposition] militant or a protester from prison than doctors," he told me.

 We found out two months later that Huzaifa had been tortured and killed in custody.

 I moved back to Haas, our village, and the revolution had by then become militarised. Yusuf and I remained firm in our commitment to revolutionary principles by helping people in the field hospitals. Another one of our brothers, Qutaiba, was arrested during his last year of civil engineering college but later released, after which he decided to go back to the village and never dared to return to university.

 Our youngest brother, Ubayda, finished high school and got into computer engineering college, but he did not dare to continue after his first year because he was afraid of being arrested. So we all remained in the village. All besides Mustafa, who went to college, where he started to study communication engineering, and then managed to move to Germany to continue his studies.

 In 2016, Haas was bombed. The régime targeted a complex of schools on October 26 in what later came to be called "the Massacre of Pens", since the régime deliberately targeted the schools complex and all the roads nearby. Most of the victims were children in elementary school.

 Many medics were killed, too. My brother Yusuf was in the village and rushed to the place that had been targeted because he wanted to help those in need of medical assistance. The régime planes targeted the same place deliberately and he was among the victims.

 Régime forces always do that. They would target a location with air raids and when people come to help any survivors, they would target the place again several minutes later. And a third time as well.

 Our house had been targeted repeatedly throughout the entire revolution, but with the help of my brothers we had always managed to fix it. The last time it was targeted it was destroyed completely, as was my house.

 Now, I have no plans for the future. We live day by day, here. I cannot even think of tomorrow. Just today another battle started a few hours ago, with non-stop air raids and artillery shelling, injuries constantly coming to the hospital in the city of Idlib, where I now work.

 My worst fear is for the future of Syria. Syria is turning into the worst possible thing a state can be: A failed state plus a dictatorship, combined under occupation. It cannot get any more evil than that.'

Photos - Idlib doctor first person [Photo courtesy of Dr Tarraf]