Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery and mortars. (AFP)
Updated 19 July 2018
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Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

  • Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus
  • After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March

HARASTA, Syria: Khaled’s delicate hands were accustomed to cutting and styling hair in his Syrian hometown Harasta. Now, they’re hauling concrete and sweeping floors to repair homes ravaged by years of fighting.
Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus held for nearly five years by armed rebels.
After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived.
Khaled, 35, watches them cross a security checkpoint and approaches to pitch his services: knocking down walls, clearing rubble, and sweeping up debris.
“I used to be a barber, but now I’m a laborer. I wait for families to enter and offer them my services in cleaning and restoration,” he says.
Khaled fled Harasta in 2012 to the nearby town of Al-Tal, where he still lives with his family. Every day, the father of three commutes to Harasta to find work.
His own house still stands, but he cannot return yet: temporary security measures dictate that people who live outside the town cannot stay past nightfall.
“I work with three other people. We use hammers, brooms, and buckets of water. Work is on and off,” he says.
“Clients pay us whatever they can afford.”
Harasta lies in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured this spring by Syrian troops with a deal that saw thousands of rebels and civilians bussed to opposition territory elsewhere.
Others, like 45-year-old Hassan, chose not to leave.
The former petrol station worker remained in Harasta throughout the rebel reign and decided to stay in its aftermath, too.
Hassan now works with Khaled, transporting rocks and other materials in his pick-up truck to construction sites.
“This is the only work in Harasta that pays right now,” says Hassan, wearing a dirty wool sweater despite the heat.
Harasta was once home to 250,000 people, most of them Syrians from elsewhere in the country who worked in the capital but sought cheap rent.
Now, just 15,000 people remain, town officials estimate, unable to leave until security forces clear their names.
With the use of personal cars banned, boys get around on bicycles while women and toddlers shuffle along on foot.
Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery, and mortars.
They stand like massive grey honeycombs overlooking dusty streets still stripped of signs of life, months after fighting has stopped.
Mohammad Naaman, 50, was terrified his home would be among those gutted by fighting — and can hardly contain himself when he finds it still standing.
“I was shocked to see most buildings collapsed. It’s true my house is devastated compared to before, but I’m happy it’s still there at all,” says Naaman.
He, too, fled to Al-Tal in 2012 and still lives there.
The doors and windows of his Harasta home have been blown out and cracks run up the walls, threatening collapse.
But in the living room, a layer of dust blankets plastic flowers still standing in their vases.
“Whatever happens, it’s still my house, and my house is so dear to me,” Naaman says.
Like his neighbors, Naaman’s first step was removing the rubble and debris from his home, dumping them into the main street nearby according to instructions by local authorities.
Vehicles provided by the public works ministry transport the rubble to a local dump, separating metal out so that concrete can be turned back to cement and reused.
“We removed 110,000 cubic meters of rubble from the streets, but there’s still more than 600,000 to go,” says Adnan Wezze, who heads the town council running Harasta since the regime’s recapture.
As he speaks, a demolition digger works on a two-story building. Its metal arm reaches up to the roof and picks off slabs of concrete precariously perched there.
Authorities are working fast to demolish buildings “at risk of collapse, because they present a public safety threat,” says Wezze.
Many urban hubs across Syria, particularly around Damascus, have been hard-hit by hostilities, and President Bashar Assad said this month rebuilding would be his “top priority.”
But Law 10, a recent decree which allows for the expropriation of property to redevelop an area, sparked fears that millions of displaced Syrians would not get the opportunity to make a claim to their land.
Wezze insists that Harasta’s modest efforts were fair.
“We only demolish after getting permission from the owners,” he says.
If they are not present, Wezze adds, “their rights are still protected. We’ve requested proof of property even before areas are designated as development projects.”
“No resident of Harasta will lose his rights — whether they’re here or in exile.”


UN Yemen envoy pushes Security Council for robust truce monitoring

Updated 14 December 2018
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UN Yemen envoy pushes Security Council for robust truce monitoring

  • Griffiths called for deployment of UN monitors to observe the implementation of a cease-fire in Hodeida and the withdrawal of Houthi militia
  • Saudi Arabia says it is committed to reaching a political solution that guarantees the security and stability of Yemen

JEDDAH: A robust monitoring regime is urgently needed in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah to oversee compliance by the warring parties with an agreed cease-fire in the region, United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Friday.
The Iranian-aligned Houthis and the Arab Coalition-backed Yemen government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi agreed on Thursday to stop fighting for Houthi-held Hodeidah and withdraw their troops, the first significant breakthrough for UN-led peace efforts in five years of conflict.
“A robust and competent monitoring regime is not just essential, it is also urgently needed and both parties have told us they would very much welcome it and indeed depend on it,” Griffiths told the 15-member council, adding that UN officials were already planning for such a deployment.
Such a monitoring mission needs the backing of the Security Council in a resolution, diplomats said.
Griffiths said in a video briefing that retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert had agreed to lead the monitoring component of the agreement, which took effect on Thursday when the deal was published. He said Cammaert could arrive in the region within days.
“Being present in the field soon is an essential part of the confidence that needs to go with the implementation of this agreement,” Griffiths said.
The council was already discussing a British-drafted resolution to enshrine five requests made by UN aid chief Mark Lowcock — one of which was for a truce around facilities needed for aid and commercial imports — and diplomats said that would now be reworked to endorse the agreement reached in Sweden.
“We hope to be able to work expeditiously with colleagues to bring about a Security Council resolution which will give the firmest possible support to what has been achieved so far,” British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce told the council.
“As requested we will of course want — with colleagues — to address the monitoring requirements,” she said.
“The UN will take on a leading role in supporting Yemen Red Sea Ports Corporation in management and inspections at Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa,” Griffiths said. “The UN ... has developed a plan seeking specific support from member states in the port.”
Meanwhile, in a statement by Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom backed “the agreements reached in Sweden in UN-sponsored talks between a delegation of Yemen’s legitimate government and the Houthi rebels,” the official SPA news agency reported.
“The Kingdom remains engaged in the search for a political solution in Yemen which guarantees the security and stability of the country,” the statement said.
The statement also called on the Iran-aligned Houthis to “embark on this path” toward a political solution.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry also said on Friday that it welcomed the agreement between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthi militia. 
The ministry said that the Kingdom was committed to reaching a political solution that guarantees the security and stability of Yemen.
The handing over of the port of Hodeidah to the control of the United Nations will help to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, the ministry stressed.