Light at the end of the tunnel for Syria’s war-ravaged railways

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A Syrian railroad technician works on the restoration of the railway in the Syrian capital Damascus on August 9, 2018. (AFP)
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Syrian railroad workers and technicians work on the restoration of the railway in the Syrian capital Damascus on August 9, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 09 September 2018

Light at the end of the tunnel for Syria’s war-ravaged railways

  • After seven years of war, the government is now back in control of nearly two thirds of Syria’s territory
  • Locomotives had chugged across Syria for over a century, carrying passengers, construction materials, oil and gas over hundreds of kilometers

DAMASCUS: Abu Abdo eases himself into the driver’s seat, itching to try out freshly laid train tracks between two suburbs of Syria’s capital, Damascus.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for six years,” the 42-year-old says, drumming excitedly on the train’s control board.
He prepares for a test drive on a stretch of tracks leading from Qadam station — until May a pocket of Daesh resistance — to grounds hosting the annual Damascus International Fair.
After seven years of war, the government is now back in control of nearly two thirds of Syria’s territory, after seizing large swathes back from myriad rebel and extremist groups.
The regime views reviving the railways as crucial to its reconstruction policy.
And the week-long fair, which started on Thursday, is being serviced by 28 trains each day, according to state media.
Abu Abdo begins the trial run.
“When I drive a train, I feel like I’m flying,” he says, happy to be back behind the wheel after six years stuck behind a desk and largely idle at the Public Transport Authority.
Before the war, he had driven trains for 20 years.
Locomotives had chugged across Syria for over a century, carrying passengers, construction materials, oil and gas over hundreds of kilometers.
The trains linked Damascus to the second city, Aleppo, and other urban centers in Homs, Latakia on the western coast, Deir Ezzor in the east, and elsewhere.
But train traffic came shuddering to a halt in 2012, a year into the civil war.
Of the 2,450 kilometers (1,500 miles) of train tracks that cross Syria, some 1,800 kilometers will be repaired, according to the transport ministry.
Stretches of track survive intact in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus, areas relatively insulated from the violence.
Routes that will be revived include those running north-south between Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, as well as lines between the coast and the country’s east, bordering Iraq.
Many lines even lack tracks.
“Some tracks were stolen and others were damaged because of the war,” says Radwan Tikriti, the railway chief for the Damascus region.
He has worked with locomotives for 30 years and once lived near Qadam station, where he grew accustomed to waking each morning to the sound of train whistles.
That changed in early 2013, when rebels overran the district and Tikriti fled, ahead of Qadam then falling into Daesh’s clutches.
“We’re working now to link the cities (back) together,” Tikriti tells AFP.
Seven years of war have destroyed towns and cities, including infrastructure, from water pipes to power stations.
The United Nations estimated last month that the conflict has cost Syria close to $400 billion (350 billion euros).
“We’re in a race against time to rehabilitate the railway. We all really want to hear the sounds of trains” again, says Tikriti.
In July, President Bashar Assad earmarked rebuilding Syria as his “top priority,” and reviving the railways is a big part of that task.
The authorities aim to have most lines back up and running by the end of the year, says Transport Minister Ali Hammud.
“The railways will play an essential role in reconstruction,” Hammud tells AFP.
Cargo trains carry construction materials “faster and cheaper” than lorries, he says.
Repairing the railways could also revitalize land trade and jump-start Syria’s collapsed economy, Hammud says.
“We’re the gateway to the Mediterranean for the Gulf, Jordan, and Iraq,” he says, pointing to a map of Syria.
“The objective is to link Syrian ports to neighboring countries,” he adds, referring to the maritime posts at Tartus and Latakia.
“We’re going to reconnect all the borders.”
For driver Abu Abdo, the railway’s revival is personal.
The lifelong driver comes from Idlib in the northwest, the only province still in rebel hands and the next military target for regime forces.
“I hope the day will come when I can go back to my hometown,” he says.
“Only then can we say that Syria has become what it was before the war.”


Suspected arson at East Jerusalem mosque

Israeli border policemen take up position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators at a protest against Trump's decision on Jerusalem, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank March 9, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 January 2020

Suspected arson at East Jerusalem mosque

  • The attack had the appearance of a “price tag” attack, a euphemism for Jewish nationalist-motivated hate crimes that generally target Palestinian or Arab Israeli property

JERUSALEM: Israeli police launched a manhunt on Friday after an apparent arson attack, accompanied by Hebrew-language graffiti, at a mosque in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
“Police were summoned to a mosque in Beit Safafa, in Jerusalem, following a report of arson in one of the building’s rooms and spraying of graffiti on a nearby wall outside the building,” a police statement said.
“A wide-scale search is taking place in Jerusalem,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. “We believe that the incident took place overnight. We are searching for suspects.”
The spokesman would not say if police viewed it as a hate crime. The graffiti, on a wall in the mosque compound and viewed by an AFP journalist, contained the name Kumi Ori, a small settlement outpost in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Times of Israel newspaper said on Friday that the wildcat outpost “is home to seven families along with roughly a dozen extremist Israeli teens.”
“Earlier this month security forces razed a pair of illegally built settler homes in the outpost,” it reported.
All settlements on occupied Palestinian land are considered illegal under international law, but Israel distinguishes between those it has approved and those it has not.
The paper said: “A number of young settlers living there were involved in a string of violent attacks on Palestinians and (Israeli) security forces.”
Police said that nobody was injured in the mosque incident.
The attack had the appearance of a “price tag” attack, a euphemism for Jewish nationalist-motivated hate crimes that generally target Palestinian or Arab Israeli property in revenge for nationalistic attacks against Israelis or Israeli government moves against unauthorized outposts like Kumi Ori.
“This is price tag,” Israeli Arab lawmaker Osama Saadi told AFP at the scene.
“The settlers didn’t only write words, they also burned the place and they burnt a Qur’an,” said Saadi, who lives in the area.
Ismail Awwad, the local mayor, said he called the police after he found apparent evidence of arson, pointing to an empty can he said had contained petrol or some other accelerant and scorch marks in the burned room.
“The fire in the mosque burned in many straight lines which is a sign that somebody poured inflammable material,” he said.
There was damage to an interior prayer room but the building’s structure was unharmed.
In December, more than 160 cars were vandalized in the Shuafaat neighborhood of east Jerusalem with anti-Arab slogans scrawled nearby.
The slogans read “Arabs=enemies,” “There is no room in the country for enemies” and “When Jews are stabbed we aren’t silent.”
The attackers were described by a local resident as “masked settlers.”