From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

Syrian child Luay drinks milk before boarding a bus with his family on Sept. 17, as they return to Syria after living as refugees in Lebanon for years. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

  • Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced
  • Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally

BEIRUT: Syrian toddler Luay happily explores his grandfather’s modest house near Damascus for the first time. After years as refugees in Lebanon, the three-year-old and his family have returned to their homeland. They are among several thousand Syrians who have made an emotional journey home from Lebanon, where they sought safety from the war that has ravaged their native country since 2011. Worn down by tough economic conditions in Lebanon and seeing regime victories back home as bringing stability, they have taken advantage of return trips coordinated by Lebanese and Syrian authorities.
Last month Luay’s father Rawad Kurdi, 30, his mother, and his baby sister Luliya decided to make the trip themselves. As the sun was rising, they lined up with dozens of other refugees to board buses that would whisk them out of Beirut. With them were more than a dozen suitcases and boxes — everything they could carry from their five years in Lebanon. During a nine-hour wait for the buses to move, Rawad was anxious to end his family’s long exile. “This return is definitive. I will never leave Syria again,” he told AFP.
In 2012, Rawad and his 35 relatives were forced to flee their hometown of Babila southeast of Damascus after fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.
They came to Lebanon. Three years later, some of the elderly family members including Rawad’s father Ahmad returned to Syria, and more have hit the road home since.
Rawad’s return to Babila meant Ahmad, now 70, could finally meet the two grandchildren born in Lebanon after he left. A content look on his face, Ahmad sits with one-year-old Luliya in his lap, as Luay scrambles over the couch in the dimly lit living room. “My home is not worth anything without my children and grandchildren. Now, both I and my home feel alive again,” said Ahmad, his hands stained black from picking eggplants on his nearby land. Although six of his children have already returned to Syria, another three are still living as refugees in Lebanon. One day, he hopes, they can all be reunited back home. “I’d much rather live with my children and grandchildren in war, than them being safe but far away,” he said. Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced.
But back-to-back military victories this year have put more than two-thirds of Syria under regime control, including Babila and other areas around the capital in the spring.
These wins prompted host countries, like Lebanon, to encourage refugees to move back home. Just under 1 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, although the number is likely higher.
This year, Beirut and Damascus began coordinating weekly convoys taking Syrians back home, only if their names are cleared by Syrian security services.
Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally. Others have remained in exile, fearing Syria’s compulsory military service or stuck in too much debt to leave Lebanon. Rawad said he is exempt from the army because he is overweight.
He wanted to leave in 2015 with his father, but said he was unable to cross the border because he could not afford paying fines he had accrued for overstaying his residency in Lebanon. This September, the Lebanese authorities waived these penalties for those taking part in the coordinated returns, and Rawad decided to bring his family home.
Back in Babila, he gazes at old photos hanging on the wall. “War has changed us so much, and then came emigration, also leaving its marks on our faces and in our eyes,” said the portly tailor in a gray T-shirt and sleeveless black jacket. The fabric workshops he owned in Babila have been looted, but he remains optimistic.
“For now, the future is uncertain — but however long it takes, goodness will only come from this land,” he said. The dream of returning home also kept Rawad from seeking asylum in Europe. “As beautiful, quiet and safe as those countries were, they could never be a substitute for the one where my family, my memories and my neighbors are,” he said. He spends his days with family or wandering the streets of Babila, eager to get to know its streets and homes again. During such a stroll, his phone rings. It is his brother Ayman, who still lives in Lebanon and is hesitating to return. “There is no reason to stay in Lebanon. The war is over,” Rawad reassured him.


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.