Displaced huddle in a basement as winter grips Syria

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A year and a half ago, the basement was a temporary station for displaced people from Deir Ezzor province fleeing the fighting against Daesh, but over time it became home to dozens of people who cannot afford the high living costs in the city. (AFP)
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Fourty displaced families live in a basement, which has been divided into small rooms separated with sheets, in the city of Al-Bab under difficult humanitarian conditions. (AFP)
Updated 16 December 2018
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Displaced huddle in a basement as winter grips Syria

  • Some 40 families have found their way to Al-Bab after fleeing from their homes, a rebel-controlled area near the border with Turkey
  • Their food and other basic needs are provided for by local charities

AL-BAB, Syria: After washing up her family’s dishes over a plastic basin, 11-year-old Cedra sits on the floor of the dank basement in Syria to tackle her day’s studies.
A dark staircase leads from a street in the town of Al-Bab to the gloomy space the young girl, her blind father and some 40 other families have the misfortune of calling home.
“There’s a single room which we use as a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom,” said Cedra.
She scribbled in her notepad, while crouched against a wall of bare cinder blocks and under a line of laundry trying to dry in the humid cellar.
The residents of this underground camp were displaced by the Syrian war, sometimes several times, mostly from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Cedra’s family fled the city of Deir Ezzor in 2012, in the early stages of Syria’s conflict.
They took refuge in Raqqa, further west, but the city soon became the Syrian capital of the Daesh group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
The subsequent bombardment of Raqqa, which was almost completely levelled, killed her mother and brother.
The girl and her father fled once more and eventually found their way to Al-Bab, a rebel-controlled area near the border with Turkey.
Cedra does not go school because she needs to help her blind father, but one of the other adults living in the basement has organized classes for her and a few other children.
The war has set her back years in her education.
“I’m learning how to write the letters, it’s only been a few days,” said the girl, wearing a thick, red sweatshirt and a black headscarf.
Each morning, Cedra makes the bed, tidies the room, makes tea and prepares breakfast before studying.
Then it’s time to prepare lunch, after which she plays with the other children before getting to work on dinner.
Blankets are piled up near a flimsy foam mattress in one corner of the small room. A handful of cooking utensils and a plastic broom are tucked away nearby.
“Life in this basement is not easy,” said her father, Mohammed Ali Al-Hassan, who hopes to return to Deir Ezzor.
“There is nothing to do here and no money,” said the greying father, who used to sustain his family by selling fruit and vegetable from a street cart.
A resident of Al-Bab made his basement available to the displaced in mid-2017. The space is now divided in 42 tiny “studios,” one for each family.
Their food and other basic needs are provided for by local charities.
“The initial idea was to have a temporary shelter for people while they look for a housing solution,” said Abu Abdel Rahman, who was also displaced from Deir Ezzor and acts as a kind of supervisor.
The place soon filled up and few of the families ever moved out for lack of affordable options.
“The smallest possible accommodation involves a rent of 100 dollars. Those you see here are those who can’t pay that amount.
“Here, everyone is experiencing a disastrous situation,” said the 59-year-old, who used to work in a textile factory.
Kneeling in front of a white board, a woolly hat pulled tightly down on his head, Abu Omar forms the letters of the Arabic alphabet, which his pupils recite in unison.
He lost a hand and the bones in his left leg were smashed to pieces after an air strike hit his home in Deir Ezzor.
Abu Omar’s disabilities left him unable to work but he teaches 13 of the basement’s children.
He said that number has dropped steadily.
“Many of them just have to go out and work. Because of their social condition, many families have to interrupt their children’s education,” he explained.
Umm Ghassak’s childhood came to an abrupt end when the war erupted and now, at 23, she is already a widow.
Her husband died of injuries sustained two years ago during bombardment on Albu Kamal, a former IS stronghold on the border with Iraq.
“We didn’t have enough money to treat him,” she said.
The young woman and her four-year-old daughter are totally reliant on the assistance they receive. “If nobody helps us, we just don’t eat.”


US clinches strategic port deal with Oman

Updated 1 min 12 sec ago
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US clinches strategic port deal with Oman

  • The accord is viewed through an economic prism by Oman, which wants to develop Duqm while preserving its Switzerland-like neutral role in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy
  • The deal could also better position the United States in the region for what has become a global competition with China for influence

WASHINGTON: The United States clinched a strategic port deal with Oman on Sunday which US officials say will allow the US military better access to the Gulf region and reduce the need to send ships through the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke point off Iran.
The US embassy in Oman said in a statement that the agreement governed US access to facilities and ports in Duqm as well as in Salalah and "reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals."
The accord is viewed through an economic prism by Oman, which wants to develop Duqm while preserving its Switzerland-like neutral role in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy.
But it comes as the United States grows increasingly concerned about Iran's expanding missile programs, which have improved in recent years despite sanctions and diplomatic pressure by the United States.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deal was significant by improving access to ports that connect to a network of roads to the broader region, giving the US military great resiliency in a crisis.
"We used to operate on the assumption that we could just steam into the Gulf," one US official said, adding, however, that "the quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns."
Tehran has in the past threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route at the mouth of the Gulf, in retaliation for any hostile US action, including attempts to halt Iranian oil exports through sanctions.
Still, the US official noted that the agreement would expand US military options in the region for any kind of crisis.
Duqm is an ideal port for large ships. It is even big enough to turn around an aircraft carrier, a second official said.
"The port itself is very attractive and the geostrategic location is very attractive, again being outside the Strait of Hormuz," the official said, adding that negotiations began under the Obama administration.
For Oman, the deal will further advance its efforts to transform Duqm, once just a fishing village 550 km (345 miles) south of capital Muscat, into a key Middle East industrial and port center, as its diversifies its economy beyond oil and gas exports.
The deal could also better position the United States in the region for what has become a global competition with China for influence.
Chinese firms once aimed to invest up to $10.7 billion in the Duqm project, a massive injection of capital into Oman, in what was expected to be a commercial, not military, arrangement.
"It looks to me like the Chinese relationship here isn't as big as it appeared it was going to be a couple of years ago," the second official said.
"There's a section of the Duqm industrial zone that's been set aside for the Chinese ... and as far as I can tell so far they've done just about nothing."
Still, China has in the past shown no qualms about rubbing up against US military facilities.
In 2017, the African nation of Djibouti, positioned at another geostrategic choke-point, the strait of Bab Al-Mandeb, became home to China's first overseas military base. The US military already had a base located just miles away, which has been crucial for operations against Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.