Saturday, 2 March 2019

This girl survived an airstrike in Syria. Her siblings didn't make it

A wounded girl waits to be rescued after an airstrike in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on Tuesday, February 26.

 'The heartbreaking photo shows a 6-year-old girl, blood smeared all over her face, as she waits to be rescued from the rubble of a bombed-out building in northwestern Syria.

 Looking past her shell-shocked face, you can see a lifeless hand under her knee.

 It's the hand of her 3-year-old sister, who didn't survive the airstrike. Her 1-year-old brother also died in the attack, as did a cousin, according to Anas al-Dyab, a White Helmets volunteer who took the photo of her and others at the scene.

 The incident took place Tuesday in Khan Sheikhoun, which is in the rebel-held province of Idlib.

 The rocket hit several residential buildings that led to deaths and injuries among two different families, al-Dyab said.

 In recent weeks, Syrian and Russian planes have conducted scores of airstrikes in Idlib, where a large-scale military campaign is looming. Some 3 million civilians have been scrambling to find safety in the province.

 The girl who was rescued Tuesday is Hasna'a Qatran, al-Dyab said, and it took nearly two hours for the White Helmets to pull her out of the rubble. She was released from the hospital on Thursday, he said.

 Al-Dyab's dramatic photos also show the father, Abdul Razzak Qatran, clutching his dead daughter, Elaf, close to him while he cries. He kisses her feet as one of the White Helmets carries her away.

 The attack happened around 12:30 in the afternoon, said al-Dyab, who has filmed dozens of airstrikes and was himself injured in one last year.

 Al-Dyab said he's been injured several times while covering these rescue missions, but he keeps going because he believes strongly in his work with the White Helmets.
"We want to rescue the biggest number of lives in the shortest time," he said.'

Abdul Razzak Qatran kisses the feet of his 3-year-old daughter, Elaf, who died in the airstrike.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Syrian National Coalition calls for urgent aid to regime-blockaded Rukban camp

 'The Bashar Assad régime in Syria has been toughening the blockade on the Rukban refugee camp along the border with Jordan in order to force out the 60,000 residents of the camp, the chairman of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition said in a statement Tuesday.

 In a statement released on the coalition's website, Chairman Abdurrahman Mustafa said that the regime forces have blocked the routes used for the humanitarian aid transfer, aggravating the already worsened conditions in the camp.

 "The siege will lead to a genocide before the eyes of the silent world," Mustafa said.

 The camp, located in a remote area of the Syrian desert near the Jordanian border, is home to some 60,000 refugees living under harsh conditions.

 The Russian Defense Ministry announced last week it would open two "humanitarian corridors" near Jleighem and Jebel al-Gurab settlements, with the help of the United Nations, to "allow Syrian refugees to leave voluntarily for places of residence they choose."

 However, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that the U.N. was not involved in the opening of the corridors.

 Udey Selame, a civilian living in the Rukban camp, said that he fled from the regime offensive and does not want to return without security.

 Selame called for much-needed humanitarian aid to be provided to those at the camp who have nothing.

 He said that while Syrians living along the northern border with Turkey are safe, displaced persons in the south "have nothing but the mercy of God."

 Muhammad Elasura, another civilian living in Rukban, said that they have all been asked to leave the camp. However, since they have no security of life and livelihood, they do not know where to go.

 Elasura said the refugees do not want to return to the territories controlled by the Assad régime, and would prefer to go to the areas which were cleared of PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) in Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield.

 Turkey conducted two successful cross-border operations into Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August 2016, which cleared Syria's Al-Bab and Jarablus from Daesh terrorists and Operation Olive Branch launched in January 2018 to clear northern Afrin from YPG terrorists.

 Most of the refugees in Rukban camp fled areas in eastern Syria that had once fallen to the Daesh terror group, and were trapped after Jordanian authorities closed the border.

 Last year, at least 20 people died inside the camp, faced with starvation, disease and lack of medicine.

 The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has blamed the Assad regime for the humanitarian crisis in the desert camp and accused the Jordanian government of banning the entry of humanitarian aid into the camp.'

Syrian National Coalition Chairman Abdurrahman Mustafa (AA Photo)

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

David Nott: ‘They told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50’

People look for survivors after an airstrike in eastern Aleppo, Syria, 2013.

 'It was in Syria that I began to get seriously angry about the inability of the major powers to prevent hospitals and medical staff being targeted in war zones; in Syria that I realised I must begin seriously to collate and share the knowledge I had acquired over my career to help other doctors; and after Syria that post-traumatic stress disorder finally tipped me over the edge.

 By the time I first arrived in east Aleppo with Syria Relief in August 2013, many of the more senior doctors and surgeons had already left. As many as 95% of the city’s physicians had found a route out. Those who remained were brave and committed, but there were very few of them and the risks were considerable. Clinics were assigned codenames to disguise how many there really were. Ambulances carried no sirens or insignia and at night drove with their headlights off. Anything that looked like help for the injured was seen as aiding the rebels, and so a legitimate target for the regime.

 The hospital where I was based was close to the frontline, codenamed M1. The majority of injuries we saw were gunshot wounds. There were as many as 70 individual snipers dotted around east Aleppo at that time. They simply picked people off as they were crossing the street, going to work or going to the shops. From babies to pensioners, no one was immune.

 On that first day alone in M1, 11 civilians shot by snipers were brought in. The doctors told me they had been losing a lot of patients with wounds to the major arteries; they needed significant training. I immediately agreed to give evening lectures, plus hands-on instruction for any surgeons who wanted it, where I could show my “best moves” – introducing them to new techniques, or little tricks such as how to hold their hands or instruments to save time on the table.

 On that first day, all 11 patients who had been shot survived – but only after a solid 18-hour shift at the end of which I fell on to my bed absolutely exhausted. As the days went by, I noticed there was a weird consistency to the injuries we saw coming in – the patients all seemed to have been shot in the same part of the body. One day we would receive patients who had all been shot in the left groin area; on other days six or seven would arrive shot in the right groin. The same thing was happening with patients shot in the upper limbs and chest – the injuries all seemed to be on the same side, in clusters. Also, despite the snipers having telescopic sights, we rarely saw the head shots that would have resulted in an instant kill. Another surgeon told me that he’d heard that the snipers were playing a game: they were being given rewards, such as packs of cigarettes, for scoring hits on specific parts of the anatomy.

 This sick competition reached its nadir towards the end of my time there when it appeared that one particularly vicious and inhumane sniper had a new target of choice: pregnant women. One such casualty arrived shot in the abdomen. The bullet had missed the baby but gone through the placenta. The woman was on the operating table only a few minutes after being shot and we delivered her baby boy via caesarian. I quickly clamped the cord and gave the infant to one of the nurses to resuscitate, but sadly she was unable to do so. We carefully sewed up the mother’s uterus in the hope that she would be able to have another baby; we weren’t going to let the sniper take that away from her.

 The same day another sniper’s victim came into the hospital. She was a first-time mother, almost at full term. She was very beautiful, wearing an immaculate white headscarf and a long, elegant coat that now had a large red stain on the front. An abdominal X-ray showed that the bullet was still inside her abdomen, but appeared also to show, horrifically, that it was lodged in her unborn baby’s head. In the operating theatre, we performed a midline incision as quickly as possible and pulled the baby out. It was handed to a nurse as usual but it was pointless: the poor thing had a massive head wound and was obviously dead. The uterus was in tatters and we ended up having to give the mother a hysterectomy as well. This was probably the most upsetting and shocking act of violence I had ever witnessed against another human being.

 A few days later, Ammar [a Syrian doctor who became a close friend] and I were grabbing an afternoon nap between operations when there was a knock on the door. Abu Abdullah [a Syrian surgeon] wanted to know whether I could help him with a thoracotomy. I dragged myself out of my slippery plastic bed and put on my operating shoes, which by this time were caked in dried blood – the floor was often awash with it. Once I got to the theatre I heard the patient had been shot in the back just below his shoulder blade. He was very pale under his thick beard and it was obvious that he was bleeding significantly.

 Just as I was about to suture the pulmonary vein, the doors of the operating theatre burst open. I looked up and saw six fully armed men wearing black combat fatigues and headscarves storm into the room. They were Isis fighters, and the patient on the table was one of them. My heart lurched and I froze stock still. I felt a rush of adrenalin. The leader of the group came forward with his gun levelled at us.

 “This is my brother!” he said aggressively, in English but with a very strong, Russian-sounding accent. Not just Isis, but Chechen Isis. “What are you doing to him?”

 In English, Abu Abdullah told him that we were trying to save the man’s life.

 “You should have asked us before taking our brother to surgery!” was the reply. “Who are these people?” he went on, indicating Ammar and me.

 It was vital that I kept a low profile – I was almost certainly the only westerner in Aleppo at the time, and it would have been a major coup if I had been kidnapped. Ammar piped up in his strongest Syrian accent to say that we were all surgeons simply trying to save the man’s life. By this time I had begun to shake. It was all I could do to keep my legs from buckling under me.

 “Who’s this?” he said, pointing to me. Abu Abdullah whispered in my ear, “Don’t say a word,” before turning back to the Isis leader and saying, “This is the senior surgeon. If you disturb him he will not be able to save your brother’s life.”

 The leader came up to the operating table and peered into the man’s wound to see what we were doing. The rest of the group milled around the room menacingly – a few sat on the floor while others leaned on equipment and made themselves comfortable. It took us another hour to finish the operation. Usually, there is a lot of banter in the operating theatre but today we were silent. As we neared the end they all left, apart from the leader, who stayed until the last suture was in place. Afterwards, I found myself feeling confused and lost. I had saved the life of someone who might go on to commit terrible crimes. Did that make me complicit, somehow? Perhaps it did. And yet, I still firmly believe that it was my duty to save his life.

 I promised to go back to Syria. When we reached the outskirts of Aleppo, the difference from the previous year was immediately visible. Where in 2013 there had been shops, markets and people, now there was only destruction on an industrial scale. We could see dozens of cars, trucks and lorries on the side of the road, some completely destroyed and others bearing the scars of rocket attacks. I was certain bodies must still be inside the wreckage of the vehicles. It was like something out of a Mad Max movie.

 I noticed the atmosphere in the hospitals and among my colleagues was quite different: tense, charged. It felt altogether edgier and more dangerous than my previous trip. The doctors looked drained, hollow. They were under constant barrage from barrel bombs, rockets and machine guns. Simply getting around the city had become exceptionally dangerous. The chance of being killed simply moving from one hospital to another was something like one in four. One of the new doctors helpfully told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50.

 I had a near-constant pain in the middle of my chest, which I could ignore only when I was immersed in an operation. Day after day we saw entire families brought in to the hospital, their homes destroyed by barrel bombs. Most of the children we saw were under 10. Some were dead on arrival, from the effects of the shockwave or from inhaling pulverised concrete. One particular day will stay with me for the rest of my life. Following a colossal bang, a family of seven children came in with their dead mother. The first child was just a toddler, and had lost both her feet. Her brother on the next trolley was about seven – he had a massive pelvic injury. Another boy, about the same age, had blood streaming from his face. I still have nightmares about what happened next. A little boy, about five years old, was brought in, face down on the trolley. Both his buttocks and the backs of his thighs had been completely blown off. He was still alive but completely silent as he gazed around the room. One of the nurses pulled his hair back from his face and started to comb it gently with her fingers. That was all we could do for him; we had run out of morphine. A few minutes later another child was brought in, his sister. Half of her head and brain were missing.

 On our last day, we heard the sound of heavy gunfire outside the house. I peered through a crack in the window and could see about 20 armed men coming towards us, some walking and firing their weapons, others with heavy-calibre machine guns on the back of pickup trucks. I began to panic. I was cold and clammy and began shaking uncontrollably. Had Isis finally caught up with me? We hit the deck, hiding under our beds. I closed my eyes and lay there, in despair – for myself, and for this poor country that had been overwhelmed by darkness. The shooting lasted around an hour. At some point the hospital administrator told me not to worry – the fighting was just between two rival Free Syrian Army factions. It turned out later he had hidden the reality of the situation to protect me. The fighters were Isis, and it was their last chance to take me hostage.'

David Nott photographed at Chelsea and Westminster hospital.

Inside HTS' takeover of northwestern Syria

 'In a conference hall adorned with the flags of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and National Liberation Front, a banner read overhead, “Hand in hand, we win our revolution.”

 Syria’s remaining rebel factions—diverse, and at odds with one another almost as often as they are with the Assad régime—came together at a General Conference of the Syrian Revolution in Bab al-Hawa in rural Idlib province at the beginning of this month.

 Meant as a show of unity, the meeting produced a 12-point statement promising to “unify revolutionary efforts socially, economically, and militarily” through a new government for the rebel-held northwest, a joint military council and the creation of new civilian institutions purportedly aimed at improving the lives of civilians.

 The last similar conference, more than a year ago, resulted in the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)—a governance body largely considered a puppet of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

 Much has changed since then.

 Through a combination of military force and negotiated settlements, HTS has asserted effective control over the majority of Syria’s rebel-held northwest following a lightning campaign against rival rebel factions launched at the beginning of this year. HTS now maintains control over Idlib and outlying opposition areas of neighboring Aleppo and Hama provinces.

 In response, international organizations pulled funding for key healthcare infrastructure and opposition-era structures, including the Free Syrian Police, dissolved. Private universities have closed and residents have little choice but to navigate new taxes and checkpoint fees imposed by the hardline group.

 And while international funders announced Monday that funding for health directorates would be reinstated according to “strict conditions,” the true impact of HTS’ takeover may not be known quite yet—with civilians increasingly fearful of what may come next.

 HTS’ rapid military expansion has paved the way for the expansion of the SSG in step—and the hardline group’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani insisted last month that the group intends to “hand over all our areas to a civilian government.”

 Following an outbreak of rebel infighting last month with longstanding rivals Harakat Nour a-Din a-Zinki, part of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel coalition that was present across the northwest, HTS suddenly made its move.

 Zinki all but collapsed within a matter of days. A January 10 ceasefire agreement between HTS and the NLF saw factions from the Ankara-backed coalition agree to evacuate north to Turkish-controlled Afrin, in neighboring Aleppo province, while the SSG would take over administrative control of the region.

 In territories newly acquired by HTS, the hardline group is now absorbing local councils previously under the administration of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG), based out of the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Those councils are falling under the umbrella of the SSG, which is using the annual January 1 expiration of the tenure of all local councils as a pretense to recreate them in its image.

 HTS has historically used the SSG to control civil society in the territories it holds—overseeing aid efforts and local councils while collecting taxes, policing local communities and controlling water and electricity stations. Its apparatus has embedded HTS into civilian life.

 In the past, local councils that came under SSG control were mostly dissolved and reformed with HTS-approved cadres from the top down.

 In Saraqib, a city in eastern Idlib province that HTS seized by force in July 2017, the local council was later dissolved and reformed without elections and now “completely abides by the specifications of the...SSG,” according to the city’s former local council head Muthanna Mohammad.

 Last month’s military advances have allowed HTS to repeat the process across the northwest, by absorbing several new council bodies while using a semblance of bureaucratic procedure to do so.

 SSG officials talk up what they describe as an efficient, legitimate government infrastructure that comprises much more than local councils—with so-called ministries, and even a prime minister. Meanwhile, the SSG has developed seven directorates and other province-level institutions for running local infrastructure—water, electricity, transportation, sanitation and telecommunications—and administering services.

 Observers and residents meanwhile question whether these SSG-affiliated authorities can even properly distribute basic services to the communities they purportedly now serve.

 At the same time, taxation and royalties have become key to SSG’s strategy of control, but also its own stability.

 “Most of the [SSG’s] resources come from taxes and royalties on citizens and organizations, as well as entry and exit fees at the Bab al-Hawa crossing,” says an SSG employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to press.

 SSG Minister of Local Governance Muaed al-Hasan claims that taxes allow the SSG to provide key services across the northwest.

 However, he admits, enforcing taxation and service fees remains a problem for the SSG—not least because of a “lack of compliance among some people with paying the duties, even though they are low.”

 The SSG has reportedly not yet introduced taxation in areas acquired during recent advances—according to some observers, because of concerns over the response from local communities.

 The SSG has also started imposing additional taxes in Idlib city—the epicenter of its civil control in the province—on car registrations, shops and street vendors.

 In response to HTS’ recent expansion, German development agency GIZ pulled funding last month from over 50 health directorates across the northwest—although the GIZ reportedly reinstated support to health directorates in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib provinces albeit with strict conditions on where that money ends up.

 Still, civilians and local aid organizations are bracing for more cuts in the future.

 “It will definitely stop. I have no doubt about this,” Mohammad Halaj, director of the Response Coordination Group NGO that documents service provision in Syria’s northwest, tells Syria Direct.

 “There is an international consensus that these areas are categorized as ‘terrorist,’ so funding will stop.”

 However, according to al-Bakour from Maarat a-Numan’s United Council for Local Councils, ongoing bombardments by pro-government forces across southern Idlib province—and not HTS advances—have led to NGO closures.

 “Some NGOs are stopping their operations, but it’s because of regime [military] campaigns and not because of the entrance of the SSG,” he says.

 David Swanson, an Amman-based spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says that “despite a difficult operating environment, both the United Nations and [NGOs] continue to operate in the area,” by providing “critical life-saving assistance through cross-border operations out of Turkey.”

 There is one possible scenario that could upturn all that—the looming threat of a possible pro-régime offensive on the rebel-held northwest.'