Fleeing Turkish fire, Syrians seek refuge in Afrin city

Turkey and allied Syrian fighters have since Saturday been waging an offensive against the Kurdish militia. (Reuters)
Updated 26 January 2018
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Fleeing Turkish fire, Syrians seek refuge in Afrin city

AFRIN: Trapped in a basement for three days with his family as Turkey shelled their northern Syrian hometown, Merhi Hassan fled just in time to escape bombardment that almost killed his elderly father.
The family piled into a rusted pickup truck with whatever they could scavenge from their demolished home and drove north to Afrin, the city at the heart of the Kurdish-held enclave by the same name.
Blinking tears out of his eyes, Hassan clambered out of the small truck in Afrin after the drive from his native Jandairis, a border town.
“The bombardment wouldn’t let us sleep. We spent three nights in the basement,” said Hassan, a red-and-white scarf wrapped around his head.
The man in his late forties had left the underground shelter to try to convince his elderly father to flee the town with his family.
“He wouldn’t accept,” Hassan said, until a new round of Turkish bombing hit their neighborhood and “I had to pull him out from under (shattered) glass.”
Turkey and allied Syrian fighters have since Saturday been waging an offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls the Afrin region.
As part of the push, Ankara has been pounding the canton’s border towns with artillery fire and thousands of people have reportedly fled, many of them to Afrin city.
“The shells hit every neighborhood, they hit the generators and the bakery. Nothing is left,” said Hassan.
“Our house is gone. Our neighbor’s house is gone. If I hadn’t left, I would have died.”
According to the UN, more than 300,000 people live in the Afrin canton, including more than 120,000 who have already been displaced at least once.
Those arriving in the city from battered border regions have struggled to find adequate shelter and have settled into squalid conditions.
In one half-finished building, women and children sat cross-legged on mattresses on the earth floor, surrounded by cinderblocks, shoes and camping stoves.
New families were still arriving outside, some pulling kitchen supplies, food and bags of clothes from pickup trucks.
But Zarifa Hussein and her children had no time to pack belongings.
“We didn’t bring anything with us. We fled our house barefoot and spent the night in a bomb shelter,” said Hussein, who was dressed in multiple layers.
The pregnant woman said a cinderblock even crashed on her back as she ran out of her home.
“In the morning, we went to get our things and found the house demolished,” she said.
Another woman came down from the pickup truck angrily waving a pointed sliver of metal in the air.
“As we fled Jandairis, this flew behind us,” she said, her hair wrapped in a green and brown scarf.
“May it strike them (attackers) right between the eyes.”
In Afrin’s main hospital, Arze Sido sat nervously by a hospital bed, where her adult son lay motionless and hooked up to an intravenous drip.
Early this week, Sido and her wounded son, two young daughters and mother-in-law escaped the border town of Midan Akbas and headed southeast to stay with relatives in Afrin.
“I was so scared for my daughters,” she said.
“My son wanted to grab bread but I told him, come, there’s shelling,” said Sido, wearing a pale floral headscarf.
“As he was getting it, the Turkish army shelled us. We had to pull him out and bring him to the hospital. He’s been here for more than three days now.”

Turkey has pressed its offensive despite global calls for de-escalation.
Jumaa Hassan Hassoun, a 56-year-old displaced from Jandairis, said it was time world powers stepped in.
“I left with my children: seven daughters, two boys, and my wife,” said the Jandairis native.
“We want our voices to reach the whole world — save us from this!” he cried.


In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

Raghad Hammadi, who is a member of a group of students campaigning to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, speaks with Reuters, in Mosul, Iraq on May 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)
Updated 28 May 2018
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In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

  • A group of students who launched a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact.
  • Among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City

MOSUL, Iraq: A group of Iraqi university students have found a cause in the ruins of Mosul.

They are salvaging what is left of its rich heritage, clearing rubble and distributing aid in a city crying out for help after the war against Daesh.

The project began when Raghad Hammoudi and a group of students decided to launch a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, burned and bombed in the war. Its vast contents had been all but lost.

But they found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact. Over 40 hot days, with the war still raging on the other side, the students moved the books one by one using holes made by rockets to carry them to safety.

“An entire city with a glorious past and ancient history lost its heritage and culture: The tomb of the Prophet Jonah, the minaret of Al-Hadba which is older than Iraq itself. It is great that we were able to save a part of this heritage,” said Hammoudi, 25, a nursing student. 

Both the leaning minaret of Al-Hadba , part of the 12th century Grand Al-Nuri Mosque, where in 2014 Daesh’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and the ancient tomb of what is believed to be the Prophet Jonah were destroyed in the military campaign to retake the city.

Hammoudi says among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City architecture.

 

Revolution within

Elsewhere, volunteers cleared rubble and garbage, opened roads, drilled water wells and distributed aid.

“The situation in Mosul is so much better now and this is because of the revolution that happened within Mosul, within its young people,” she said.

After living under Daesh’s strict rule and then the war to retake the city, young women feel as though they have been liberated.

The team that set out to rescue the books was mixed, a rarity in Mosul’s society, where mingling between sexes outside the family or university was limited even before Daesh.

“An unbelievable barrier has been broken, it might be a trivial thing for the rest of the world but for Mosul it is huge,” she said.

Months after Iraq announced full control of the city, life is back in many parts. But much of the Old City, where the last and the bloodiest battles were waged, is still in complete ruin.

Diyaa Al-Taher, a resident who is helping rehabilitate homes, says most people, despite being impoverished, have returned to neighborhoods where the rubble has been cleared. However, there are entire areas that are completely deserted. Corpses fester under debris.

“Poverty can do more harm than Daesh. If the city remains like this and the poor can’t find anything to eat, they will do anything,” said Taher, 30.

Taher says his target is to rehabilitate 1,000 homes and has so far finished rehabilitating 75, relying solely on donations from locals.

Taher is regularly stopped by locals asking for help. He points to a collapsed home where an entire family was killed.

“Their belongings were taken to be sold for charity,” he said, skipping over the stream of sewage that split the road.

 

Miracle escape

Marwa Al-Juburi,25, a divorcee, was one of the first to volunteer as soon as she and her family escaped the fighting.

“It was a miracle that we even made it. From then on I refused to accept to stay at home anymore. I refused to be silenced and I haven’t since,” she said.

She says she had to overcome stigma both as a woman and a divorcee to carry out the work.

She runs activities for children and helps coordinate access to medical care and equipment for families. Her team organized the opening of a park previously used as a military training ground for the fighters who ruled the city for three years.

Al Juburi, who is still haunted by images of the night of their escape, says even if Mosul is rebuilt, people need help to get over the mental toll.

“In the end, the city will be rebuilt, even if it takes 1,000 years. But if the mind is destroyed, then the city will be lost with no hope of resurrection.”