Christmas joy missing in rubble of Syria town

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Despite the return of relative calm to the capital and its surroundings, Arbin residents are still hesitant to come back. (AFP)
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Rubble from razed buildings spills out into deserted streets lined with burned-out cars. (AFP)
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Retaken in the spring by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad during a brutal offensive to capture the Eastern Ghouta area, Arbin is everything but festive. (AFP)
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The town looks more apocalyptic than merry. (AFP)
Updated 24 December 2018
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Christmas joy missing in rubble of Syria town

  • Before the war, Arbin was home to some 3,000 Christian residents
  • The mood is gloomy is Arbin, but just a few kilometers away, bright colored lights illuminate the streets of Damascus

ARBIN, Syria: With Christmas approaching, Nabil Al-Aash dusts off religious books as he attempts to tidy up the war-scarred Saint George Church in the town of Arbin, northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus.
Retaken in the spring by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad during a brutal offensive to capture the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, Arbin is anything but festive.
Rubble from razed buildings spills out into deserted streets lined with burned-out cars and twisted scraps of metal. The town looks more apocalyptic than merry.
Arbin’s only church, Saint George’s flame-scorched walls and empty nave are a testament to the seven-year conflict that has left more than 360,000 people dead and displaced millions.
“There’s no celebration here. Christian homes are destroyed and their church is destroyed,” says Aash.
The restoration of the Greek Orthodox church, built in 1873, “will take a lot of time, money and effort,” he adds.
“There’s not a single icon left — all of them were either burned or stolen,” said the 55-year-old, approaching the altar.
“We also found broken crosses.”
Aash fled Arbin in 2012 as fighting engulfed the town, plagued afterwards for years by violence and a crippling siege imposed by Damascus.
But after regime forces retook the area, he decided to return home.
“I grew up in this church, I spent all of my Christmases here... it was once overflowing with joy,” he remembers.
“I almost collapsed when I saw it.”
For him, the festive spirit “won’t return until the residents and parishioners do.”
After a blistering offensive backed by Russian air power, government forces in April retook Eastern Ghouta, a key rebel foothold at the gates of Damascus.
The military push and years of shelling flattened large swathes of the area and forced most of its pre-war population to flee.
Before the war, Arbin was home to some 3,000 Christian residents, according to Mayor Khalil Tohme.
But despite the return of relative calm to the capital and its surroundings, Arbin residents are still hesitant to come back.
“We are only five Christians who regularly visit the town, the others go from time to time... most of their homes are destroyed,” says Aash.
A few dozen meters away from the church, Joseph Hakimeh directs a worker on a ladder as he puts the final touches to a freshly painted wall of a restored home.
The contractor is getting ready to hand the keys back to the owner, and is working on three other homes in addition to his own.
“We’re preparing to return as soon as services and infrastructure are ready, but that needs time,” he says.
Sitting on a can of paint, the 39-year-old yearns for the way things once were.
“I hope that next year everything will return to the way it was before — Christmas trees, decorations, carols and prayers,” he says.
The mood is gloomy is Arbin, but just a few kilometers away, bright colored lights illuminate the streets of Damascus.
A giant tree decorates Abbasiyyin Square, long avoided due to its proximity to the frontline with the former rebel stronghold.
Festive lights and garlands also decorate homes in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Kassaa in eastern Damascus.
But not everyone is in the Christmas spirit.
Since Riad Rajiha’s family arrived to the area after fleeing Arbin in 2012, they have not had the heart to celebrate.
“We left our Christmas tree behind, so we missed out on decorating,” says Rajiha, his eyes brimming with tears.
“What’s the meaning of decorating a tree in a house that’s not yours?“
Leafing through an old photo album, he revisits pictures of the Saint George Church in all its former glory.
Large chandeliers hang from its high ceilings, its wooden pews packed with parishioners.
“Our roots are there and our memories are there,” says the 66-year-old, who dreams of celebrating the holiday in Arbin with his grandchildren.
“I was born in Arbin, I lived in Arbin, and I hope to be die and be buried there.”


Iran starts Gulf war games, to test submarine-launched missiles

Updated 22 February 2019
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Iran starts Gulf war games, to test submarine-launched missiles

  • More than 100 vessels taking part in the three-day war games in an area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean
  • Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles

DUBAI: Iran on Friday began large-scale naval drills at the mouth of the Gulf, which will feature its first submarine cruise missile launches, state media reported, at a time of rising tensions with the United States.
More than 100 vessels were taking part in the three-day war games in a vast area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, the state news agency IRNA reported.
“The exercise will cover confronting a range of threats, testing weapons, and evaluating the readiness of equipment and personnel,” navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said in remarks carried by state television.
“Submarine missile launches will be carried out ... in addition to helicopter and drone launches from the deck of the Sahand destroyer,” Khanzadi said.
State media said Iran would be testing its new domestically built Fateh (Conqueror) submarine which is armed with cruise missiles and was launched last week.
Iranian officials in the past have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile US action, including attempts to halt Iranian oil exports through sanctions.
US President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program last May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.
Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles.
Iran launched its domestically made destroyer Sahand in December, which official say has radar-evading stealth properties.
The USS John C. Stennis entered the Gulf in December, ending a long absence of US aircraft carriers in the strategic waterway.
Iran displayed a new cruise surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,300 kilometers earlier this month during celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Western experts say Iran often exaggerates its weapons capabilities, although there are concerns about its long-range ballistic missiles.