More than 150,000 displaced in northwest Syria in one week: UN

Syrian government forces recaptured most of the territories from the rebels since 2015. (AFP/File)
Updated 07 May 2019

More than 150,000 displaced in northwest Syria in one week: UN

  • More than 152,000 women, children and men have been displaced in Aleppo and Idlib governorates over the past week
  • The uptick in strikes and shelling on the region dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate has also knocked 12 hospitals and 10 schools out of action

KAFR NABL, Syria: Violence in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib has displaced more than 150,000 people in the past week, the UN said Tuesday, as the regime and Russia upped deadly bombardment of the militant bastion.
The uptick in strikes and shelling on the region dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate has also knocked 12 hospitals and 10 schools out of action, it said.
The militant stronghold has since September been protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal inked by Damascus ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But the region of some three million people has come under increasing bombardment since the militant Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group took full control of it in January.
On Tuesday, air strikes and shelling killed 13 civilians in an eighth day straight of bombing, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“We are alarmed by ongoing reports of aerial attacks on population centers and civilian infrastructure,” said David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“More than 152,000 women, children and men have been displaced in Aleppo and Idlib governorates over the past week alone,” he told AFP.
The recent surge in attacks has raised new fears a government offensive is imminent, prompting thousands to hit the road.
“This is the third time we have been displaced but this time is the scariest,” said Abu Ahmad, a 40-year-old from southern Idlib who was fleeing Tuesday with his family toward areas near the border with Turkey.
“Overflights by warplanes and shelling have been relentless,” said the father of three, his blue pick-up truck stacked with mattresses and household appliances.
The Idlib region includes a large part of the province of the same name, as well as adjacent parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces.
President Bashar Assad’s regime is in control of around 60 percent of the country eight years into the civil war, but Idlib is among the areas still outside government control.
Battles between militants and pro-government forces raged overnight around a hilltop in the northern countryside of Hama province, following an advance by Assad’s forces.
Twenty-four pro-government fighters and 29 militants were killed in fierce fighting, the Britain-based Observatory said. The militants were members of HTS, and of the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur-dominated militant group.
State news agency SANA said Syrian troops launched rocket attacks on armed groups in northwestern Hama province on Tuesday, killing several fighters, but it did not provide any toll.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has called “for an urgent de-escalation of the situation as the holy month of Ramadan begins” and urged “the parties to recommit fully to the cease-fire arrangements” of the September deal.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter demanded “a halt to the violence and support to the UN in backing a necessary political solution.”
OCHA said that bombardment on the Idlib region since April 28 had also killed three health workers.
To the west of the region on Tuesday, the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras Al-Deen militant group attacked pro-government positions, killing nine loyalists and three militants, the Observatory said.
It remains unclear whether the Syrian government and its Russian ally are planning to launch a full-scale assault.
Aron Lund, from the US think tank The Century Foundation, said “a limited offensive into Idlib, peeling off a few areas, should be easily within their capabilities.”
He said the recapture of two key highways running through Idlib — the M4 and the M5 — could be among the “many goals” behind such an operation.
Under the September deal, hard-liners were supposed to withdraw from the planned buffer zone, allowing traffic to once again flow along the two strategic highways, which connect government-held areas with the Turkish border.
Turkey has failed, however, to secure the militants’ withdrawal, prompting government forces to take matters into their own hands, Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche said.
Taking the two highways would help Assad boost the recovery of Syria’s nearby second city Aleppo, which remains cut off from most of its countryside and poorly connected to the rest of the country, he told AFP.
“Restoring traffic on these two axes will reduce transport costs to Aleppo,” he said.
Retaking the road between the regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia and Aleppo in particular would cut the rebel-held region in two, making it easier for government forces to recapture its southern part and isolate the militants in the north, Balanche added.


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 21 November 2019

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.