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

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.”


Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

Updated 3 min 59 sec ago

Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

  • “Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Al-Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father said
  • Twenty-four hours later, hei was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home”

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi blogger resurfaced Friday a day after he was seized by masked gunmen, his father said, as Amnesty International denounced a “climate of fear” in the country after protests and deadly violence.
Shujaa Al-Khafaji’s family said armed men had snatched him from his home on Thursday without identifying themselves or showing an arrest warrant.
Khafaji’s Facebook page, Al-Khowa Al-Nadifa (Arabic for “Those Who Have Clean Hands“), carries posts on political and social issues and has some 2.5 million followers.
“Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father, Fares Al-Khafaji, told AFP.
He said they seized his son’s phones and computers, but were not violent.
Twenty-four hours later, Khafaji was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home,” his father added.
The report of Khafaji’s seizure sparked an outcry from activists and influential political leaders.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault against activists in Iraq” by authorities.
“The Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in the security forces and dismantle the climate of fear they have deliberately created to stop Iraqis from peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, the group’s Middle East research director.
The group said other activists, including a doctor and a lawyer, were “forcibly disappeared more than 10 days ago,” and called on Iraqi authorities to reveal their whereabouts.
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr wrote on Twitter that “any act of aggression (against journalists or activists)... by the state constitutes an attack on freedom of speech.”
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s parliamentary bloc called on the government “to stop abuses of free media.”
Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces.
During the protests, unidentified armed men in uniforms raided several local television stations in Baghdad, destroying their equipment and intimidating their staff.
Journalists and activists also reported receiving threats, mostly by phone, from unidentified callers accusing them of having sided with the protesters.
Khafaji faced online harassment last month after a string of attacks on bases of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups.
The group on Thursday denied any involvement in the disappearance of activists, threatening legal action against anyone making such accusations.
But according to Amnesty, the Hashed was involved in at least one abduction — that of lawyer Ali Hattab, who represented protesters and was seized on October 8 in the southern city of Amara.
He was snatched by “suspected members of a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed),” Amnesty said quoting Hattab’s relatives.
It happened two days after “two armed men from the PMU came to (his) home to warn him to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill him,” Amnesty added.