4 years on, scars of Syria’s war still line girl’s face

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In this picture taken on Thursday, April 27, 2017, Hamida, 17, left, who was riddled with bullets and suffered a gaping hole in her back and stomach during a clash between the Syrian government forces and rebels, walks next of a Syrian man Adnan, 19, right, who also received a bullet in the spine from a sniper in Homs province, in Bebnine town, north Lebanon. Adnan, who is from the same area as Hamida and her sister Alaa in Syria, has made friends with the girls in Lebanon where they are all receiving treatment. (AP)
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In this picture taken on Thursday, April 27, 2017, Alaa, 19, who was shot in March 2013 in her jaw and other several injuries on her body during a clashes between the Syrian government forces and the rebels at al-Waer neighborhood in the Syrian province of Homs, looks in the mirror as she ties her veil in her bedroom at her home, in Bebnine town, north Lebanon. (AP)
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In this picture taken on Thursday, April 27, 2017, Alaa, 19, who was shot in March 2013 in her jaw and other several injuries on her body during a clashes between the Syrian government forces and the rebels at al-Waer neighborhood in the Syrian province of Homs, reads a book in her bedroom at her home, in Bebnine town, north Lebanon. (AP)
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In this picture taken on Thursday, April 27, 2017, Tahani, left, the mother of two Syrian girls who were riddled with bullets in March 2013 during a clashes between the Syrian government forces and the rebels at al-Waer neighborhood in the Syrian province of Homs, sits next of her daughter Hamida, 17, right, as she tells the story of her two daughters in how they get shot, at their home in Bebnine town, north Lebanon. (AP)
Updated 05 May 2017
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4 years on, scars of Syria’s war still line girl’s face

LEBANON: Alaa plays the horrifying video she kept on her phone that shows her moments after she was riddled with bullets, her jaw shredded, hand punctured, and chest bleeding. “Did you not see the video?” the Syrian teenager asks visitors, in defiance of its cruelty, to show how far she has come.
It has been a long road. And a missed childhood.
From Alan Kurdi lying dead face down on a Turkish shore, to a dust-covered Omran Daqneesh awaiting help in an Aleppo ambulance, images of Syrian children suffering some of the conflict’s worst horrors have become iconic. Countless others still relentlessly flood the media: children pulled from under bombed buildings, or convulsing after inhaling chemical gas or drowning after boats of fleeing families capsize in choppy seas.
Alaa is one of the many victims of Syria’s six-year civil war, which the UN children’s agency UNICEF says is getting worse for children.
UNICEF says the war has forced more than 2.3 million children, or nearly 10 percent of the total pre-war population of Syria, to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Save the Children says as of 2016, at least 3 million children are estimated to be living in areas with high exposure to explosive weapons.
UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Geert Cappelaere said every six hours a child was killed or seriously injured in Syria in 2016, calling it the worst period for children since the war began in 2011.
“Children have been facing true atrocities. The scars of six years of war upon children are multiple and are very very deep scars,” Cappelaera told The Associated Press.
Four years and 12 surgeries later, Alaa is still rebuilding her face and jaw. There is also the depression. For a long time she avoided looking in the mirror or walking past glass windows. She even avoided looking people in the eye, fearing she would catch the reflection of her maimed face.
Just days before the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising in March 2013, Alaa, at the time 15, was heading by car with her younger sister and toddler brother to their grandmother’s house in the central Homs province. She had a doctor’s appointment, and was preparing for end-of-year exams. Before their mother even stepped into the car, an hours-long gunfight broke out between Syria’s opposition and government forces. They were caught in the middle.
“I saw the person who fired at us with my own eyes. But I didn’t feel it or get it until something went straight for my mouth,” Alaa recalled.
Alaa’s full name was withheld for security concerns over relatives back home.
Her sister Hamida, now 17, was also badly wounded. Their 2-year-old brother was saved because Alaa took three bullets to the hand shielding his head and shoving him out of the car, apparently to safety. For hours, the mother tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the battle.
“No matter how hard I screamed, no one heard me because the shooting was so heavy,” said Tahani, their mother.
The girls were carried from the scene, at first presumed dead.
Alaa and her family traveled to Lebanon a month after the incident.
“For a month, I refrained from looking at myself in the mirror. Impossible. Impossible,” Alaa said, passionately, speaking at her home in the northern town where she settled with her mother, three siblings and step-father.
At first, doctors struggled to heal her wounds, shattering what little spirit she had remaining. One doctor said she would die any day, she recalled.
With her mouth and tongue stitched up, Alaa couldn’t speak for a month. She could only eat baby food. When briefly separated from her mother, she suffered anxiety fits. Seeing her killer in every approaching stranger, she was terrified of men.
To add to the family’s pain, Hamida, Alaa’s younger sister, also suffered complications from her multiple wounds. Bullets had riddled her body, puncturing her back and stomach, and costing her a kidney, half her liver and 12 centimeters of her intestine.
Hamida said she lost years of her childhood in hospitals, undergoing treatment and following strict diets. Now she aspires to be a child care worker.
“I want to return to those years and always be a child,” said Hamida.
In late 2014, a doctor and a local organization finally raised enough money for Alaa’s reconstructive surgery. After a 17-hour operation, she was once again able to look at herself in the mirror.
Last year, she stepped out of isolation, returning to school to study architecture.
But the blows kept coming. Alaa’s sweetheart back home was killed, also in the fighting.
Alaa’s repeated viewing of the incident reflects a deeper struggle with the scars of war. She keeps a small notebook in which she wrote to her mother when her tongue was stitched up. “Here I tell her, mom, I can’t sleep from the saliva. ... I am suffocating,” she read from the book, choking on her words.
Her mother refuses to revisit the notebook.
Alaa’s eyes light up when she remembers the nurse who introduced her to the doctor that raised the money for her major surgery.
Tight resources for over 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon have complicated even the simplest form of treatment.
“There are also lots of children who don’t have documents and their families are too scared to get them to Beirut to have medical assessments. That is a huge problem as well,” said Sam Gough of INARA, the organization that sponsored Alaa’s dental implants and other treatments.
Even curable diseases are a challenge to prevent among the refugee community, Gough said.
Alaa is still completing treatment to fix her dental implants. Shrapnel remains lodged in her chest. She watches a weekly plastic surgery TV program and dreams of the day the scar line framing her lips disappears.
“I want to finish my treatment. I am tired. It has been years,” she said. “The pain in my heart and what I lived through will not go away.
“In Syria, a girl grows up fast,” she said.


After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

Renowned Iraqi maestro and cello player Karim Wasfi performs in Mosul’s war-ravaged Old City on November 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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After years of silence, music fills streets of Iraq’s Mosul

  • The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond
  • Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province

MOSUL: For centuries, it was a magnet for artists across the region and churned out Iraq’s best musicians — but recent years saw Mosul suffer a devastating musical purge.
For three years until last summer, the sprawling northern city was under the brutal rule of the Daesh group.
In imposing a city-wide ban on playing or even listening to music, the jihadists smashed and torched instruments.
“It was impossible to bring my instrument with me whenever I left the house,” said city resident Fadel Al-Badri, who hid his precious violin from the rampaging fighters.
Foreshadowing IS’ repression, the 2000s saw Al-Qaeda and other groups impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam in several districts of the city.
But with Mosul freed from the grip of IS in July 2017, Iraq’s second city is embarking on a musical comeback.
“After the liberation, songs are back where they truly belong in Mosul,” said Badri, welcoming the return of evening celebrations and festivals.
The 45-year old violinist now has the pleasure of playing in public once more to an audience that claps hands and sings along to traditional local tunes.

Mosul has a rich musical history.
It is the home city of Ziryab, a musician who introduced the oud — the oriental lute popular across the Arab world — to Europe in the 9th century.
One of its more recent musical prodigies is Kazem Al-Saher, the Iraqi crooner-turned-talent judge known around the region.
The city even has its own special genre of Arabic ballads, recognized across Iraq and beyond.
From folkloric shows and philharmonic concerts to weddings and other national holidays, song and dance have traditionally filled the streets and surrounding air.
But that meant nothing to IS, which ravaged Mosul’s heritage — musical and otherwise — when it took the city as part of a lightning offensive across Iraq in 2014.
The jihadists began by destroying the statue of celebrated ballad virtuoso Mulla Uthman Al-Mosuli, and then turned their attention to destroying instruments across the city.
IS also forced musicians in Mosul to sign a pledge that they would never play or sing again, which was then posted in public places like mosques.
Singer Ahmed Al-Saher, 33, said it was humiliating.
“I couldn’t leave Mosul after they made me sign because of my sick mother. I had to stay here under all that pressure and fear of the unknown,” he recalled.
Ordinary residents, as well as musicians, are keen to celebrate the return of artistic freedom.
“Terrorism failed in killing Mosulites’ love for art in all forms. It’s been born again, despite the destruction,” said Amneh Al-Hayyali.
The 38-year-old brought her husband, son, and daughter to watch a late-night concert in a cultural center in east Mosul.
“Today, after the dark era of beheadings, lashings, beards and veils being imposed on us... we sing,” she said.

But bringing Mosul’s artistic scene back to its former heyday will not be easy.
Tahsin Haddad, who heads the local artists’ syndicate, said he is keen to support public arts across the province.
“But we are in huge need of support from the central government in Baghdad, especially because Mosul currently has no stages, movie theaters, or art spaces,” he told AFP.
Without these venues, artists play in local cafes and public squares.
Celebrated Iraqi musician Karim Wasfi recently performed in a Mosul park where IS once infamously trained its child soldiers.
Earlier this month, Iraqi artists from around the country swarmed to the city for a cultural festival at Mosul University.
Performers stomped the dabkeh — a traditional Arabic line dance — and painters brought their works to display on the campus.
Glamorous Iraqi artist Adiba traveled from Baghdad with an entourage of peers.
“I am so happy to be in Mosul, singing here after it was freed from the grip” of IS, she said, moments before stepping on stage.
“Artists — Iraqi, Arab, foreign — should all come play festivals here.”