Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk
Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018

Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk
  • Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting
  • With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, there is still much work to be done

YARMUK, Syria: Not far from where he used to live, Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled watched as bulldozers rumbled back and forth scooping up smashed concrete from the devastated streets of Syria’s Yarmuk.
Once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, the camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.
But five months after regime forces expelled the last militants in the area, soldiers now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.
On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.
“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.
“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.
Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.
Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.
“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.
But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.
As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.
Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and government forces imposed a crippling siege on the then rebel-held camp a year later.
Since the latest round of fighting to expel the Daesh group ended in May, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.
Walking through the camp, Khaled pointed out his former home and the office where he used to work. The first had been damaged in fighting, while the second was completely destroyed.
With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, according to an initial estimate, Khaled said there is still much work to be done.
And although he estimates 40 percent of the buildings could be lived in, another 40 percent need major work before their residents can return.
When he visited the camp in May, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described it as lying “in ruins.”
Basic services such as water and electricity were so severely damaged, he said, that it was hard to imagine people returning any time soon.
Funded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrian government, the clearing operation has been ongoing for 20 days and is expected to take another month to complete.
But there are no clear plans yet for the reconstruction of the neighborhood or its ravaged infrastructure.
PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi said he hoped reconstruction would start “as soon as possible so that our people can return to the camp.”
“But the rebuilding is still awaiting a government decision,” he said.
Back in Yarmuk, Ibrahim Am Ali walked between the bulldozers, oblivious to the dust permeating his clothes.
“I was desperate when I saw how destroyed the building was where my brothers and I had gathered over the past years,” said the 74-year-old, also part of the team overseeing the clean-up work.
Now “we have started rebuilding the camp,” the Syrian-Palestinian said, wearing a light purple shirt.
“Perhaps I will never see it completely rebuilt, but it’s enough for me to have taken part in the very beginning.”


Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism

Updated 10 min 23 sec ago

Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism

Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism
  • Morocco is hoping to immunize 20 million adults against the Covid-19 illness within three months
  • It will use vaccinations from China’s Sinopharm and a UK-sourced shot developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University

RABAT: Morocco hopes to launch an ambitious vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus by year-end, but its efforts have sparked suspicion and rumors in the country, hard-hit by the pandemic.
The North African kingdom is hoping to immunize 20 million adults against the Covid-19 illness within three months, using vaccinations from China’s Sinopharm and a UK-sourced shot developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb told AFP that each country was free to “decree emergency use” of the vaccine of its choice.
Britain on Wednesday became the first country to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine for general use, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford University shot is expected to come onstream soon.
The launch date for the campaign in Morocco “will depend on when the vaccines are certified for use but also on the delivery schedule,” Ait Taleb added.
But even before the campaign began, rumors pushed by skeptics have flooded social media, including a fake “draft law” stating that vaccination would be mandatory in Morocco, forcing the health ministry to issue a denial last month.
And this week, a photo of a young man being hauled away by six police officers, with the caption “official: vaccination campaign launched in Morocco,” was denounced as “fake news” by the Twitter account of the DGSN security service.
Morocco in August signed a deal to take part in clinical tests of a vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinopharm, which has agreed to provide the kingdom with 10 million doses before the end of the year if results are successful.
Even as they await preliminary results of phase three tests, the Moroccan authorities are preparing a “viral retaliation,” Ait Taleb said.
The novel coronavirus has battered Morocco, where daily detected cases are running at above 5,000 per day and recorded deaths from the virus have topped 5,900, in a country of 37 million.
The death rate has been relatively low at around 1.7 percent of recorded cases.
But in the port city of Casablanca, the beating heart of the Moroccan economy, under-staffed hospitals are close to bursting.
Hard-stretched medical staff, on the front lines of the pandemic since March, are showing signs of exhaustion.
But the government is hoping that by mobilizing 12,750 medics from the public and private sectors, military doctors and the Moroccan Red Crescent, it will be able to hit its target for vaccinations.
The first jabs will be reserved for “front line” staff in the health and security services as well as people in vital sectors such as transportation, and at-risk groups including over-65s and those with chronic conditions, the health minister said.
But as the government steps up preparations for the campaign, public sentiment is divided between hope and anxiety.
On social media, “everyone has their own information,” said news website Hesspress.
The rumors began to swirl as soon as the November 9 announcement that King Mohammed VI had given the go-ahead for a “mass immunization operation,” without specifying the timeline or type of vaccine.
Criticisms voiced online have ranged from doubts over the effectiveness of the vaccines to the fear of being “guinea-pigs” — or that the jab could modify the receiver’s DNA.
Traditional media have been hosting experts every day to counter the wave of skepticism and refute what news website Media24 called “eccentric, fanciful criticisms.”
But the Economiste newspaper said news of the vaccine has blown “a gust of optimism” into an economy plunged into recession by the pandemic as well as a punishing drought that has hit the agriculture sector.
In late September, Morocco’s central bank downgraded its already dire forecasts, predicting GDP would shrink by some 6.3 percent in 2020 and forecasting “a slower recovery than expected.”
But for some in the vital tourism sector, facing disaster since the country closed its borders in mid-March, the vaccine finally brings hope of a relaunch.