Showing posts with label War -Syria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label War -Syria. Show all posts

October 30, 2019

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi May Be is No More But What Happens Now

In Iraq and Syria, news of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death has stirred a mix of responses — from joy to disbelief to dread.

Since President Trump announced this weekend that Baghdadi died during a U.S. military operation in Syria, analysts have been grappling with the implications for the militant organization that has now lost its main chief in addition to all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. 

But in the lands that were under ISIS rule, conspiracy theories are swirling. While many are happy that the man behind much suffering is dead, residents are questioning the details the U.S. has offered about Baghdadi's demise and whether he died at all. Some even wonder if he ever existed, suggesting how deep distrust of the U.S. government may run in this part of the world.

"First [President George W.] Bush came and said he killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then [President Barack] Obama came and he said he killed [Osama] bin Laden, now this one comes saying he killed Baghdadi. Every president kills one," says Zekko Zuhair, a pet store owner in Mosul, Iraq.

People walk near Mosul's heavily damaged Al-Nuri Mosque. Baghdadi used the site in 2014 to announce the launch of a caliphate. 
Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images

Mosul is where, in 2014, the ISIS leader declared himself "caliph," claiming to be a successor to a historical Muslim figure. Baghdadi later went into hiding, while ISIS went on a rampage across Iraq and Syria, imposing its extreme interpretation of Islamic law, recruiting members from around the world to help slaughter civilians, soldiers, and rival militants; take hostages for ransom; and women and girls as sex slaves. 
Much of Mosul is still recovering from ISIS' three-year reign, and from the destruction left by U.S.-backed forces battling the militants. Many families have relatives who were killed either by ISIS fighters or during the fierce fighting against them.

Mahmoud Saeed, a local imam, says he recalls the day Baghdadi came to the city surrounded by bodyguards and declared the start of the caliphate from the pulpit of al-Nuri Mosque.

Ruins where Baghdadi declared the caliphate six years ago. ISIS blew up the mosque in the battle for Mosul before it was driven out of the area in 2017.
Jane Arraf/NPR
"We did not choose him," Saeed says.

Still, even after news of his death, Saeed and friends have been discussing whether Baghdadi was really invented by the U.S.

'The Old City Will Come Back Better': Residents Of Mosul Return And Rebuild 
'The Old City Will Come Back Better': Residents Of Mosul Return And Rebuild
When asked who the man really was, Saeed says: "We don't know — ask America. Ask Donald Trump."

Mosul resident Marwa Khaled is with her 5-year-old son Mohaiman, who's holding a plastic toy rifle almost as big as he is. Mohaiman never met his father, a police officer who was killed by ISIS.

"I'm happy but I'm not sure about the news," Khaled says. "We didn't see a body, we didn't see anything." 
President Trump announced on Sunday Baghdadi had died during a U.S. military operation in northwest Syria the night before.
According to Trump, as U.S. special forces attacked the compound where Baghdadi was hiding out, the ISIS leader ran into a dead-end tunnel and detonated a suicide vest that killed him and three children.

Trump said he is considering making some of the footage of the raid public "so that [Baghdadi's] followers and all of these young kids that want to leave various countries, including the United States, they should see how he died. He didn't die a hero. He died a coward."

In spite of Trump's claims of victory over ISIS, Baghdadi's death does not represent the end of the group, says Mansour Marid, the governor of Nineveh, Iraq.

"This is only one page of the situation, and we presume there is another page to it," says Marid. "The important thing is to end the ideology, otherwise with these kinds of men, one leader goes, another will come in his place." 
Next door in Syria, many residents who spent years under ISIS rule say they're thrilled Baghdadi is dead.

"It's very happy news ... because it feels like he's a personal enemy," says Mohammed Kheder, who leads a group of Syrian researchers documenting ISIS atrocities called Sound and Picture. "ISIS committed numerous crimes against our sons. ... The person responsible for the death of their sons has died." 

Kheder adds that families feel like "they have gotten their revenge, even if it's from someone who's also responsible for many deaths of their sons." The someone he's referring to is the U.S.-led coalition that defeated ISIS but used overwhelming firepower, which rights groups say killed many more civilians than it did ISIS fighters. "People believe one criminal killed another criminal," he says.

This attitude doesn't surprise Jeremy Shapiro, who worked on Syria policy at the State Department under the Obama administration. "People in that area are pretty jaded about the United States. The fact that they are not sad that Baghdadi is dead isn't going to change their opinion of us," Shapiro says.

In March, U.S.-led forces drove ISIS fighters out of their last held territory in Syria. Now thousands of suspected ISIS fighters are in prisons in the country and their wives and children are in detention camps. The facilities are run by Syrian Kurdish forces, who have come under heavy attack by Turkey, following President Trump's order for U.S. troops to withdraw from parts of Syria.

A woman walks with children at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp where families of ISIS foreign fighters are held in northeastern Syria on Oct. 17.
NPR contacted a Syrian humanitarian worker who is in touch with detainees in al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria to hear what they are saying about Baghdadi's death. He called them on their smuggled cellphones and provided recordings of some detainees.

"We are all soldiers of Baghdadi ... but the jihad hasn't stopped," says one of the women, an Iraqi. "And there's nothing to prove he died. We heard in the news. It's been a rumor numerous times. As warriors, we believe that even if Baghdadi dies, the caliphate will not end. ... We aren't just here for one person."

Analysis: The End Of The 'Caliphate' Doesn't Mean The End Of ISIS

Analysis: The End Of The 'Caliphate' Doesn't Mean The End Of ISIS
"If Baghdadi is dead, there are tens of thousands of Baghdadis," says another detainee, speaking in French. "Do not think we are over. We are like a boiling volcano in constant eruption."

Some of the women in the camps say they regret joining ISIS. One Tunisian woman sends texts saying she is relieved Baghdadi is dead. "He will be rewarded with hell," she says.

But she and some of the other women detained with her do not trust President Trump's account that Baghdadi died in a cowardly way, she says. "Nobody believes Trump's tales."

Fatma Tanis and Jane Arraf reported in Mosul, Iraq; Daniel Estrin and Lama al-Arian reported in Beirut, Lebanon; and Alex Leff contributed from Washington, D.C.  

A worker in Mosul, Iraq, assesses the damage in the al-Nuri Mosque compound. Workers are reconstructing the mosque's al-Hadba minaret.
Add caption 
 Iraqi youth watch the news of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death, in Najaf, Iraq, on Sunday.
Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

October 21, 2019

War is Without Purpose And As The Kurds Prepare to Fight or dig themselves in the Ground Families Separate

Crossing the bridge over the Tigris river into Syria from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Daniel Estrin/NPR


Mohammed Sheikho and his family fled heavy fighting in their town of Tel Abyad, Syria, and had been on the run for three days trying to reach safety in Iraq when NPR encountered them in northeastern Syria on Sunday.

Our small NPR reporting team arrived in Syria just in time to witness a historic moment in the long-running civil war. But we didn't think we would have to rush out so quickly.

It was on Sunday. Only a week before, President Trump had ordered some U.S. troops to exit parts of northeast Syria, making way for Turkey to launch an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces controlling the area. The day we arrived, the Kurdish forces invited the Syrian government to retake the territory and fend off the Turkish invasion.

As the Syrian government military advanced, we found ourselves among other journalists and aid workers scrambling to escape, fearing arrest by the regime — and leaving behind the Syrians we had met who had no easy way out. 

Mohammed Sheikho and his family fled heavy fighting in their town of Tel Abyad, Syria, and had been 
on the run for three days trying to reach safety in Iraq, when NPR encountered them in northeastern 
Syria on Sunday.
Daniel Estrin/NPR

Entering Syria took hours. At the border crossing in Faysh Khabur, northwestern Iraq, we processed paperwork with Iraqi Kurdish officials and sipped Qazwan coffee, a Kurdish hot drink with notes of pistachio, with the border manager we liked to call the Big Responsible, as he was nicknamed in Arabic. Then we shuttled across a rickety bridge over the Tigris River into northeastern Syria.

We soon saw a local journalist in tears. Her Kurdish fighter friend had just been killed in battle.

Our driver Hamoudi picked us up in a large white van with a license plate with Kurdish, Assyrian and Arabic written in red, a mark of the diversity of this corner of Syria. (He doesn't want his full name used to avoid trouble if the Syrian regime takes over his area and discovers that he worked with journalists.) His stuffed gorilla named Zizo rode on the dashboard. Zizo has accompanied Hamoudi for five years, witnessing the rise and fall of ISIS in this part of Syria, and he would join us in this latest chapter of the war in Syria.

We drove past oil rigs and cows grazing in yellowed fields. Pickup trucks sat roadside, packed with stacks of colorful mattresses, bags of eggplants and tomatoes, and young women who look much older than their age. We pulled over.                                  

A 70-year-old man with a weathered face, Mohammed Sheikho, was with his siblings and their families. They had fled heavy fighting in their town of Tel Abyad, Syria, and had been on the run for three days, sleeping in the desert, trying to reach safety in Iraq. They had not been able to cross the border for lack of the right documents.

He was thinking of those he left behind. "My sons are stuck in Kobani," a Syrian city under Turkish bombardment with roads cut off, "they are surrounded," Sheikho said and wiped away his tears with the scarf on his head. He then drove off to find a place to sleep for the night.

It is horrible to see a grandfather cry. It wouldn't be the last time we witnessed that on our trip.

The Syrian town of Derik is about a half-hour drive from the Iraqi border and a few hours' drives away from where Turkish-backed troops are pummeling Syrian Kurdish forces, as U.S. troops quickly withdraw.

We reached the Syrian town of Derik, about a half-hour drive from the Iraqi border and a few hours from areas where Turkish-backed troops were pummeling Syrian Kurdish forces, as U.S. troops quickly withdraw. Derik is considered an upper-middle-class town. The town is known for its homegrown musicians, according to Sangar Khaleel, a Kurdish journalist who was our guide. They are throaty singers with the "voice of the mountains," he said. No one was singing that night.

Before sunset, we took a drive around town. Wedding halls and some restaurants were closed as battles raged nearby. Some Kurdish officers were building scaffolding in the road. A man in fatigues said they were making a canopy to keep troop movements hidden from Turkish drones, anticipating the fight coming to their town. We wondered how this contraption would protect them from a forceful opponent. 

We spotted a church and wound up crashing a baptism. Baby Hanna, just a few months old, cried while women trilled in celebration. Clergymen in gowns with golden embroidery dunked him in a marble basin of holy water. They chanted prayers in ancient Aramaic. A relative offered us tiny blue candies decorated with baby figurines. It was Sunday, and the priest said he urged his worried congregation to lean on their faith for comfort. Turkish shelling had hit nearby villages the night before.

All this chaos began after the White House's Oct. 6 announcement that NATO-member Turkey was ready to launch an offensive into northern Syria and some U.S. military personnel would stand aside. The U.S. troops were stationed there in support of Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS and the U.S. presence as a buffer against Turkey. The Turkish government considers the Kurdish forces as part of an insurgency threatening its national security.

The day we entered the country, as Turkey's offensive intensified, President Trump said the U.S. would be pulling all its troops out of northeast Syria.

Trump came to protect us. But the day someone came to hit us, he pulled out.
Mikhael Yousef Issa, a Christian in Syria

"Trump came to protect us. But the day someone came to hit us, he pulled out," said the baby's grandfather, Mikhael Yousef Issa. "It's a betrayal for the whole area, not just for Christians. What affects you, affects me. The bullets are falling upon us all."

The 65-year-old with a white mustache gave us cake and Coca Cola and invited us to stay at his house, even "for one year." This hospitality is not unusual. Thousands of Syrians who have fled the fighting are sleeping at relatives' homes away from the front lines.

We stopped at a tobacco shop. The owner had a faded tattoo of a girl's face and the word "love" in English on his forearm. He was chain-smoking with his friends and shouting at the television. The news showed stretchers and bloodied Syrian Kurds in a town about three hours away.

"We're watching in order to know when to escape," he said. Then he asked us: You're journalists, you tell me, when should we leave?

We wondered where he could even go. The Iraqi border is closed to most refugees, and his town is one of the quietest in the area.

Journalists huddled around a TV at our hotel when the news broke. Alliances on the ground suddenly shifted. The Kurdish forces invited the Syrian regime to recapture the area. The Syrian military announced it would retake the entire length of the country's border with Turkey, which we could all see from our hotel windows.

Grandfather Issam kisses his grandson Rayan goodbye before the 4-year-old left to enter Iraq. Issam did not have papers to cross. "Separation has killed the people. It's destroyed a generation. War is without a purpose," Issam said, crying. 

They said they preferred President Assad, though his regime has limited the Kurds' rights, to their bigger rivals, Turkey and its Syrian Arab mercenaries, whom Kurds said they fear will kill or expel them. But a 19-year-old barber said he was afraid of being drafted into the regime's army and wondered if he will have to flee.

Regime forces were quickly advancing toward towns in the area, and there were rumors they would be taking over the border crossing with Iraq. We had entered Syria with permission from Kurdish authorities, not the Syrian regime. None of us wanted to end up in a Damascus prison. At 12:41 p.m., a colleague told us he heard the regime would take charge of the border at 3 p.m.

Hamoudi rushed us to the border, only slowing for a gaggle of geese crossing the road. Empty vans were driving in the opposite direction after delivering international aid workers to the border. For days, aid workers had been burning their documents in steel bins, anticipating the return of regime forces and destroying evidence of who had been in Syria.

We shared the ride to the border crossing with a Swedish radio correspondent, Cecilia Uddén, who has covered the region for years. She reminisced about the Syrians she has interviewed over the years, such as a female judge presiding over ISIS trials. "It's awful to be leaving people behind," she said.

At the border, a shuttle bus came to take us back over the rickety bridge to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. As we were boarding, a 4-year-old boy on the bus kissed his grandfather goodbye through the window.

Separation has killed the people. It's destroyed a generation. War is without a purpose.
Issam, a Syrian whose relatives were fleeing to Iraq
"Grandpa, come on the bus with us. Why aren't you coming with us?" the young boy, Rayan, asked.

His grandfather, who gave his name as Issam, didn't have the Iraqi residency papers needed to cross.

"I'm going to miss you so much," Rayan said. "Grandpa, we will talk on video chat every day, OK?"

"Separation. Separation. Separation has killed the people. It's destroyed a generation. War is without a purpose," Issam told us, crying.

His grandson got off the bus and tugged at his grandfather's shirt. "I'll meet you later," Issam said.

Then Issam told us he didn't know when he would.

October 17, 2019

Why Are The Turks Trying to Anhilate The Kurds and Who Are They?

Image result for kurds killed by turks in history
 Kurds children trying to escape Syria as the U.S. runs out and before the Turks attack

Why did Turkey invade? Why did America leave? How did the Kurds gain so much land? We answer 10 key questions about the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. 


The Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria has complicated an already chaotic war.

What began eight years ago as a series of nonviolent protests against the Syrian government morphed into an international conflict, between dozens of local factions, the Islamic State and several foreign countries.

Now, an American ally is attacking a group that fought side by side with American troops for years — and much of the world is reeling from the war’s sudden turn. 

Let’s walk through the details of how the Kurds came to be in the center of a dizzying conflict.

This bakery in Kobani, Syria, had an image of the leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

How many Kurds are there in Syria?

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up between 5 and 10 percent of the Syrian population of 21 million in 2011. They live mostly in the north of the country, close to the border with Turkey, alongside Arabs and other ethnic groups. There are also large Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, but there is no country with a Kurdish majority.

How did Syrian Kurds become involved in the war?

As peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad descended into an armed civil war in 2011 and 2012, various factions vied for control of Syria. These included pro-government militias, rebels fighting for a more democratic state, Islamist extremists, and militias from ethnic and religious minorities seeking to protect their areas from attack.

Among them were several Kurdish militias, the strongest of which was the People’s Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials, the Y.P.G.

How did America become involved in the war?

For several years, the Obama administration resisted calls to play a direct role in the Syrian war, preferring instead to provide funding and training for some rebel groups.

But President Barack Obama changed his mind as the Islamic State took advantage of the chaos of the war to capture vast swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory.
In 2014, the United States joined an international coalition against the militants, conducting airstrikes and later building military bases on Syrian territory to assist ground operations against ISIS.

Trump Says the Kurds ‘Didn’t Help’ at Normandy. Here’s the History. 

Kurdish fighters in Tel Tamer, Syria, in 2015, near confiscated and destroyed tanks used by Islamic State fighters.

Kurdish fighters in Tel Tamer, Syria, in 2015, near confiscated and destroyed tanks used by Islamic State fighters.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
How did this Kurdish militia become an American ally?

As Islamic State fighters swept across Syria, the People’s Protection Units emerged as one of the few Syrian armed groups consistently able to take on the extremists. When the international coalition, led by the United States, sought local partners to contain the militants, they saw the Kurdish militia as the safest option.

Why do Syrian Kurds control so much land?

As the Kurdish militia gradually forced ISIS out of northern Syria — losing an estimated 11,000 troops in the process — it assumed governance of the land it captured. The militia eventually took control of about a quarter of the Syrian landmass, including most of the border with Turkey and areas mostly populated by Arabs and other ethnic groups. 
Residents of Akcakale, in southern Turkey, gathered on Sunday in front of a building reportedly hit by a rocket fired from the Syrian side.

Residents of Akcakale, in southern Turkey, gathered on Sunday in front of a building reportedly hit by a rocket fired from the Syrian side.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
Why does Turkey want to oust them from the area?

The militia is an offshoot of a Kurdish guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey. Turkey and the United States consider it to be a terrorist organization. 

Turkey sees Kurdish control of an area so close to its border as a major security threat, and fears that the area could become a haven for dissidents fleeing Turkey — or a springboard for insurgents plotting attacks on Turkish territory.

Turkish hostility to Kurdish groups put the United States in a bind: one American ally, Turkey, a NATO member and a fellow adversary of the Syrian government, was eager to crush another American ally, the Kurdish militia that fought on the front lines against ISIS.

How did the United States try to solve this problem?

The Obama administration tried to play down the militia’s connections to guerrillas in Turkey, encouraging the group to change its name and enlist more non-Kurdish fighters. The group is now called the Syrian Democratic Forces, and about 40 percent of its fighters are Arab or from other ethnic backgrounds, according to a 2016 estimate by American officials.

American forces also began to act as de facto peacekeepers, conducting patrols of the Turkish border, first on their own, and then in tandem with Turkish troops.

In recent months, the United States persuaded the Kurdish authorities to withdraw forces from the border and dismantle a series of defensive fortifications, as a show of goodwill to Turkey.

American troops near Manbij, Syria, last year.

American troops near Manbij, Syria, last year.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
Why did American policy suddenly shift?

President Trump has long wanted to withdraw American forces from Syria, saying that the United States must avoid “endless wars.” He first ordered a withdrawal in December, but suspended the plan after his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest. 

American troops seemed to be in Syria for the long haul, with American commanders assuring their Kurdish counterparts that they would be able to keep the peace in northern Syria for the foreseeable future.

But then Mr. Trump suddenly changed his mind again on Oct. 6 during a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Then he ordered American troops to leave the border area.

That gave Turkey open access to Kurdish territory, and a force consisting of Turkish troops and their Syrian Arab proxies began an invasion on Oct. 9.

Have American troops completely left the area?

Not entirely.

Initially, American troops withdrew from a relatively small part of the Turkish-Syrian border, redeploying to American outposts in other parts of Kurdish-held Syria.

But amid the chaos of the invasion, in which American troops were almost shelled by accident, the Pentagon has now ordered a complete withdrawal from northern Syria. The retreat will most likely take several days.

A small American base in southern Syria will remain for now.

The Trump administration has threatened to impose economic sanctions on Turkey for its attacks on the Kurds, and on Monday President Trump said that he was halting trade negotiations with Turkey and doubling tariffs on imports of Turkish steel. 

Who benefits from Mr. Trump’s decision?

The immediate winners were Turkey and its Syrian Arab proxies, who had captured over 75 square miles of previously Kurdish-held territory by the end of the weekend.

The Islamic State might also profit from the instability since Kurdish-led fighters no longer have the manpower to root out remaining militant cells or to guard roughly 11,000 captured ISIS fighters detained on Kurdish-held territory. The Kurds also operate more than a dozen camps for displaced families, in all holding tens of thousands of people, many of them the wives and children of Islamic State fighters.

The Syrian government is another beneficiary: On Sunday, the Kurdish authorities allowed Syrian troops to return to large parts of northern Syria in which they had no presence for more than half a decade.

Officially, the Syrian Army will just assist the Kurds in their defense of the area, with civilian life still managed by the Kurdish-led administration. But many fear that eventually the Assad regime, and its feared security forces, will take back control.

Russia and Iran, Mr. al-Assad’s main international protectors, are the other winners.

America’s withdrawal from northern Syria allows the two countries to expand their influence in the region. In particular, Russia has emerged as the main power broker in negotiations between the Kurds, Mr. al-Assad and the Turkish government.

October 16, 2019

The Voice Of An Immigrant Writer: Syria to The World, Notes on Tyranny, War, Despair

By Jihad Eddin Ramadan
Based on actual events and true stories of Syrian people, including the author's friends and relatives, these Notes capture the many aspects of the Syrian tragedy and shed light on the fragility of the Syrian life. They send a clear, loud message that Syrians deserve to live in peace, dignity, and freedom—just like everyone else in the world. The Notes were translated from the original Arabic by Tesbih Habbal.
‘I am a child, studying at an elementary school in the east, west, south, north of Syria—or somewhere in between. It doesn’t really matter where my school is. I once dreamed of becoming a teacher. My school, and so my dreams, turned into ruins. I suddenly found myself displaced, without dreams, at some camp.’
‘I am an infant. I live with my seven brothers in a pitiful house. But I love our house. It is my paradise; my safe haven. Then on a dark night, wild beasts wearing human skins broke into it. They slaughtered me along with my brothers; oh father, they did so just because you said “no.””
‘I am an annoying child. I ask my mother every day of Ramadan to buy me Eid clothes and new shoes. My nagging only stopped after I tried on the new outfit and shoes. I watch my mother hiding my new clothes in the closet—she hid them for coming to Eid. Then, and in a fleeting moment, a missile blew through my body. To avoid listening to my cries, my mother laid down my Eid outfit and new shoes on my grave.’
‘I have aged rapidly, as I watched them cruelly killing my father and two brothers at the checkpoint. I wish they didn’t leave me alive, wandering the cold streets alone. Oh God, why didn’t they just kill me, too! So I am no longer accused of insanity…’
‘I am an artist. I play the violin. I composed all the songs of rage for my beloved neighborhood. I planted seeds of hope in peoples’ hearts. And fought, with my melodies, misery and death; until my soul made a peaceful journey to heaven.’
‘I am still a young girl, but my rapist turned me into a grown woman—at the age of eight. He invaded my body in a small room at school. It is the room where I go to buy candies. He gave me candies and chips and told me, “Don’t worry, you can take them for free.”’
‘I am a fine young man. I took up arms to defend my country. I knew who my enemies and friends were. I never thought I would be murdered by my brother and camp-mate. As they were burying me in the Martyrs’ Cemetery near my hometown, I saw the face of my murder. He was crying; he was my brother; my own flesh and blood. He betrayed me, for a few dollars.’
‘I am a father, over 50 years old. I have no family or relatives left here. I often think of my son who fled across the sea. I talk to him every day, gently and fondly, as I sit at the bench in the Public Park. I sing to him: “I want to see you every day, my love.”’
‘I am an infant. My mother carried me away in a rotting boat to save my life. My parents, the passengers on the sea boat (the balam), and everyone else have died. The waves cast me back on to the shore, not too far from the place from where we were smuggled. The smuggler escaped. The entire world sympathized with me, but my story soon faded away; all that's left is an image of a drowned child called “Eilan” murdered by human savages.’
‘I am a fragile poet. They locked me up in a dark basement because I refused to glorify “the master.” They tortured me, electrified me, gouged my eyes out, and raped me. When I was released, I was able to see only through my heart and sensations. People saw me as a shallow being, senseless and insensate.’
‘I am an innocent child. They pulled me out of the rubble and filmed me. I don’t know who destroyed the house over my head. I don’t know who rescued me, and I don’t know how to deceive or act. Why have you made of me a movie star far too soon?!’
‘I am a wheat field, blowing in the wind, ready to harvest. I am awaiting my farmer to cut my corn with his noble sickle. I can see my ears of grain turning into bread for the hungry. But I was burned down by spiteful beings during the harvest season. They claimed someone threw a cigarette that burned down all of my country’s fields.’
‘I am the head of Abu al-’Ala’ al-Ma’arri, the temple of Bel, and the statue of Ibrahim Hanano on his horse. I was destroyed by men who came from all over the world; who came from the old ages of banners and conquests. They raised their black banners over my ruins. They destroyed the temple and statue, and killed the horse, claiming that they were idols worshiped instead of God.’
‘I am a sarcastic artist. I painted a picture of a spiteful leader. It was a nightmare. They burned my paintings and confiscated my pens and paintbrushes. They beat me and broke my fingers and said, “This is the penalty of one who insults our most gracious leader. The leader has now lost his patience, and it is time for you to stop painting him, or we will wipe you off the face of the earth.”’
‘I am the Syrian who stood against the world and shouted, “I am a human, not an animal.”  But what did I get in return? Talks from the “very seriously concerned” Ban Ki-moon, and a gentle tweet from Trump: “Yes, indeed! He (Al-Assad) is the animal—not you.”’
‘I am a baker. I make bread and bake cheese and zaatar pies. I dream of a Yafawi orange orchard or olives. They besieged me in “Al-Yarmouk camp” and deprived me of wheat, flour, and bread. They hang the bread on the fence of the siege to hunt me down, just like they would hunt a mouse with a few crumbs. Every time I starved and attempted to break the siege, they shot at me before I ever reached the bread.’
‘I am Syrian everywhere. I stood in the face of tyranny. I was attacked by the universe in the name of defeating terrorism although I am the first victim of it. I have been doomed by all nations and religions. But you will not defeat me. You will not weaken my determination or stop me from dreaming of a better tomorrow—in which the sun of rightfulness shines.’
Jihad Eddin Ramadan is a Syrian lawyer and writer from Aleppo, currently living in Vienna as a refugee. Tesbih Habbal is a Syrian researcher and editor, currently based at the University of Chicago.

April 12, 2019

I Stopped by Your House Today in Syria but You Weren’t There

The street where Hani lived (left). Hani’s house (center). Hani’s front doorway (right). ©UNHCR/Christopher Reardon

A man rides a bicycle through the Juret al-Shayah section of Homs in March 2019. ©UNHCR/Christopher Reardon

Eight years into the war in Syria, I paid a visit to the house where my friend Hani Al Moulia grew up. Like vast parts of his hometown, it was in a state of ruin.

That night, I wrote Hani a letter:

Dear Hani,
I stopped by your house today, but you weren’t home. No one was home. Your parents weren’t there to join us for tea, and there was no sign of your brothers or sisters. Your neighbors were away too.
I would have knocked, but your front door is missing. Not just the door, but also the hinges and the frame that once secured it to the wall. The floors were strewn with rubble.
I hate to say it, but the place was a wreck.

You realize, of course, that I’m not talking about your family’s new home in central Canada, eight time zones away. I mean the two-story house where you grew up in Syria, the one you were forced to flee six and a half years ago, when you became a refugee.
I’m here in Homs, your hometown. I remember you telling me about this place when I first met you in Lebanon, camped out with a thousand other Syrians in some farmer’s field. The war was raging here, and you spoke of how, before you fled, your mother would beg you not to go to school. She was afraid you might get shot, or get your throat slit just like your uncle, your aunt, your cousin. You told me about the friends you missed, the rap music you used to make together, the poems you used to write. You were desperate to continue your education, and my colleagues and I felt your story needed to be told.

This is UNHCR’s first piece about Hani. We published it in March 2014, as the war turned three years old.

Now I’m here to interview people who are slowly returning from other parts of the country after struggling for years to stay out of harm’s way. Mostly they are coming home to ruins. The epic scale of the destruction reminds me of West Mosul, where I encountered a similar mood last summer: people weary of war, scarred by all they have endured, and eager to start anew.
One family I met today spoke of their struggle to find work and shelter the past few years. Returning to their apartment in the Al-Qusour district several months ago, they were crushed to see that everything they left behind had been looted, burnt or blown up. Debris filled the place from floor to ceiling.
Slowly they are putting the pieces back together. With help from my colleagues, Jihad and his sons have installed windows and doors to keep the family warmer and safer. A blacksmith and handyman by vocation, he’s itching to do more. “I’ll fix every one of these houses for you,” he said, gesturing with his calloused hands at the crumbling facades up and down his street. “Just give me the tools.”
Afterwards, he and his boys took me up to the roof to see their pigeons. Abdelmalek, who’s 12, unlocked the cages and soon their flock of 40 was circling overhead, sweeping over the broken cityscape with enviable ease.

Zahra Mackaoui made this award-winning documentary about Hani with support from UNHCR. It chronicles the family’s time in Lebanon and resettlement to Canada. Earlier versions aired on Channel 4 and Al Jazeera.

After watching the birds return to their roost, I got a ride to your neighborhood and walked down your street. There wasn’t one parked car. It looks as if everyone has packed up and gone on holiday at the same time. But I know this has been no vacation for any of you.
After eight years of conflict, half your nation has left home. You have been displaced, often multiple times. Today, 5.6 million Syrians are still living as refugees in neighboring countries. Millions more remain displaced inside Syria. It’s a relatively small number who, like you, have gotten a second chance in another part of the world.
On your street, there were no stray cats or dogs. Not even any birds. The only sound was the distant whirr of a saw cutting through metal. Your neighborhood, Hani, is a ghost town. 

When I got to your house, I stood at the entryway and gazed right in, like a superhero with X-ray vision. I thought of that nerdy old icebreaker: If you could choose a superpower, would you rather have the ability to see through walls, or to fly? After what I’ve seen today — the graceful arc of Abdelmalek’s pigeons, the grim view into your empty living room — I will always choose to fly.
The interior doors are also gone, even the one to the bathroom with the blue and white tiles, which now faces right onto the street. The kitchen ceiling has collapsed, so I could see through to one of the bedrooms on the second floor—perhaps the one where you used to make your music and write your poetry. Outside your living room window, with a pile of shattered glass at my feet, I stood and stared at the emptiness.

This is what happens in a war zone. Any time the fighting ebbs, scavengers come and take what’s left behind. Not just appliances and furniture and pots and pans. They strip the lighting fixtures, the electrical outlets, the wiring. They take the doors and windows, and the wood or metal frames that hold them in place.
The wood they might burn for heat or as cooking fuel. The rest they barter or sell to the scrap man, who sells it to someone else who melts it down. Some of them, no doubt, seek to profit from other people’s misfortune. But most, I imagine, are as desperate as those who flee, just doing what they can to survive.

My boss spoke about the importance Hani places on education in this TED Talk, which has 1.2 million views.

Even in its current state, Hani, your house in Homs is a lot nicer than that place where you were living when we first met five winters ago. Remember that makeshift shelter in Lebanon, wrapped in plastic sheeting, with just the wood stove to keep you all warm? Your mother poured us tea, and later we stood outside and looked at Syria, that snowy ridge so close we could have walked there in an hour or two.

I considered going inside your old house, thinking I might find something you left behind: an item you once treasured or an everyday object that I could give you as a memento. Then I recalled how you had made sure to grab the most important thing before you fled: your school certificates, which let you to continue your education in exile.
In the end, I never stepped past the threshold. I’ve done enough security training to know there might be structural damage or live explosives inside, like the mortar my colleagues and I came across a few hours earlier. Or maybe I’d just step on a rusty nail. But mostly it felt wrong, like poking through the wreckage after a ghastly accident.

Hani and his brother Ashraf horse around outside their shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in March 2014.
It’s that time of year again when the media remind us that the conflict in Syria began on March 15, 2011, but we both know that wars seldom start or stop with such precision. We also know that this date has another meaning for your family: it’s the day your youngest brother was born. It’s amazing how fast these eight years have flown by, and how slowly. How much pain they have brought your family, and also some joy.

Hani, please wish Ashraf a happy eighth birthday for me. And before he blows out his candles, remind him to make a wish of his own. The biggest wish he can imagine. Make one for yourself too.
Christopher Reardon is Chief of Multimedia Content for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. He and his team have been following Hani’s story since 2013.
Chris Reardon
Chief of Multimedia Content at UNHCR, the UN @Refugees Agency. Hooked on human rights, journalism and @TeamRefugees.

February 26, 2018

"I Joined Jihadis Fighting a Holy War by Holy Accident!"

More than 300 people from Kosovo went to join Islamists fighting "holy war" in Syria and Iraq - per capita the highest number in Europe. But not all of them match the popular image of a jihadi, as Helen Nianias discovered when she met a hipsterish young man for coffee in the Kosovan capital, Pristina.
A man with a short beard, a dark pea coat and a bemused expression weaves towards me between the tables of this smart cafe. Sitting down, he looks slightly embarrassed as a tall glass of coffee topped with a huge quiff of whipped cream is put in front of him. 
This is Albert Berisha. He's 31 years old and five years ago he went to Syria to fight. 
"I know it's hard to believe, but it happened," Albert says about his nine days with different extremist groups. Articulate and focused, he says his primary reason for going to Syria was to oppose the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. 
Al-Nusra front
Image captionAl-Nusra front fighters help a wounded man after a barrel bomb was dropped on Aleppo in November 2014
To misquote the film Withnail and I, Albert went to fight "by mistake", ricocheting between uncomfortable and frightening experiences. During this brief but eventful period, he says al-Nusra Front - a group once affiliated to al-Qaeda - tried to enlist him, before letting him go. Then he went to stay with a group of fellow ethnic Albanians - before finding out they were trying to join so-called Islamic State, which he didn't want to do. Albert says he escaped while they were busy fighting Kurds, and went to join Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist and Salafist groups that is not classified as a terrorist organisation. He was taught how to take apart, clean and reassemble a Kalashnikov, but maintains that he never fought. After just five days, he realised life in Syria didn't match the romantic ideas he'd had of joining a revolution to liberate the oppressed. 
"It would be easy for me to lie like many others have done - saying they just wanted to offer humanitarian aid," he says. "I really thought I would complete my training and be included in the battlefield right away. What I never intended to do was become a member of a terrorist group."
Having grown up in Kosovo, which was at war with Serbia for two years during Albert's childhood, taking up arms for a cause did not seem such a strange idea. The way he tells the story he was not radical, but naïve - before he got there, Albert's knowledge of Syria was mostly gleaned from online videos.
"I had imagined this opposition to Assad didn't have people with criminal backgrounds in the ranks," he says. He thought it would, in his words, "only have people of goodwill who want to help the population".

What he found instead was brutal and petty squabbling between different Islamist factions, more harmful than helpful to Syrian civilians. After explaining to his unit commander that he had contravened a crucial rule - he hadn't asked his mother for permission - Albert was discharged from Ahrar al-Sham, and went home. He was away from Kosovo for barely two weeks. His mother didn't even know he had been to Syria. 
Well, not until Albert was arrested early one morning at his family home in 2014. He has since been convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, which he is now appealing against. If the appeal fails he will go straight to jail. 
Explosion caused by Ahrar al-Sham
Image captionAhrar al-Sham, the group that trained Albert Berisha to assemble a Kalashnikov, said it planted this bomb under a Syrian military outpost in Idlib province in 2014
Because of the number of fighters it has exported, Kosovo has been referred to as "Europe's capital of jihad". It's a tremendously sensitive subject here. When I broach it with one government official, he abruptly ends the interview, saying that the question is "all about Russian and Serbian propaganda".  As IS's caliphate has crumbled in the Middle East, the question is what will happen to the fighters who have started trickling back home. Kosovo's Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, has said he is willing to have the fighters back, in sharp contrast to some countries, such as the UK, which are stripping jihadists of their nationality.  
Albert and his friend Arber have set up an organisation called the Institute for Security, Integration and Deradicalisation. They hope to dissuade people from going to fight, and try to counter the jihadist narrative on social media. They also offer help to returnees to stay on the right path, but admit they aren't sure how many of the fighters who come home will want to give up their radical ways. 
As for Albert, he thinks he will be 34 by the time he gets out of prison.
"When I was young, everyone thought I would go far in politics - and my first media appearance was as a suspected terrorist," he says ruefully.
Albert was right, his story is hard to believe. Who knows what happened in Syria in 2013, but today it's hard to imagine him holding a gun, let alone fighting for an al-Qaeda affiliate, or for Islamic State. 

Fatos Bytyqi

Two weeks after the end of hostilities in Kosovo, three young Albanian-Americans who had joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were arrested by Yugoslav police, tortured and killed. Eighteen years later, the conflict has been largely forgotten, but the men's youngest brother continues a lonely fight for justice.


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