Hounded by war planes, Syrians dig Idlib graves in advance

Syrians prepare a common tomb for the victims of an aerial bombardment in the country's northern Idlib province on June 5 in the village of Kafr Uweid. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2019

Hounded by war planes, Syrians dig Idlib graves in advance

MAARET AL-NUMAN/SYRIA: Sitting inside his bulldozer in embattled northwest Syria, civil defense worker Bassel Al-Rihani quietly maneuvers a giant shovel through red earth to dig a grave for whoever is killed next.

The Idlib region of some 3 million people has suffered increased regime and Russian airstrikes in recent weeks, with hundreds of civilians killed since late April.

To keep up, civil defense workers known as the White Helmets are digging graves in advance, to ensure funerals are swift and the few who attend are not killed at the cemetery.

“We’re digging graves, preparing them, we don’t even know for who,” said the gravedigger in the town of Maaret Al-Noman, which has been repeatedly hit by bombardment in recent weeks.

“We could be digging one for me, my brother, my father, my friend — God only knows,” said the 25-year-old father of five.

Using a bulldozer allows him to finish a grave in less than 10 minutes, he explained, instead of toiling away for up to three hours at risk from jets in the sky.

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Idlib, one of the last regions in war-torn Syria to resist regime control, is supposed to be protected by a September buffer zone deal co-signed by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

“We get them ready so when there are war planes all over, we can bury people as fast as possible, because often cemeteries are targeted,” Rihani said.

Idlib, one of the last regions in war-torn Syria to resist regime control, is supposed to be protected by a September buffer zone deal co-signed by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

But a spike in air raids, shelling, and rocket fire by the regime and Russia has since late April hit the region.

Idlib has been dominated since January by an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The violence has killed more than 360 civilians, including 80 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes.

On Monday, Mohammad Turman, 21, buried his two-year-old daughter Fatima.

The young father was out buying vegetables when a regime air raid hit his family home in the village of Maar Shureen.

He rushed home and extracted Fatima from the rubble, but she died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Turman brought her home to clean her body, and allow the family to say a prayer.

“We buried her quickly. We weren’t even able to say goodbye properly,” he said. “There were very few of us. People were too scared of the planes.”

Back in Maaret Al-Noman, Rihani said funerals today are much simpler and smaller than before the eight-year war.

Today, there is little money to spend on proper tombs and hardly anyone dares venture out to pay their respects.

“Before the war, half the town would turn up if someone was buried, but now it’s just four to five relatives,” the rescue worker said.

Victims are sometimes unrecognizable — burned, or torn to pieces — and often buried en masse, different generations of the same family together.

Rihani said he was once burying a close friend’s nephew after he was killed in an airstrike, when someone ran up urging him to stop. The nephew’s father had died of his wounds and should be buried with him, he was told.

“I’d been digging a single grave, but then I had to make it wider to fit both father and son,” Rihani said.

Outside the village of Kafr Aweid last week, a dozen men gathered to bury their loved ones on the edge of a field of tall dry grass.

Residents were supposed to mark the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, but instead airstrikes and shelling by regime forces had hit the town, killing 10 civilians.

By a deep burial pit, one man comforted another, his face contorted with emotion and his long robe streaked with dried blood.

Under a tree, one family cradled a small, blood-stained cardboard box.

Inside lay the scant remains of four-year-old Yamen, including the little boy’s dust-covered head.

Yamen’s grandfather sat legs sprawled on the ground, stooped over the precious package.

“Where is humanity? Have they no conscience?” he cried, gesturing toward the sky.

Nearby, men interred bodies wrapped in blankets, each grave sealed off with slim concrete blocks.

The large metal blade of a bulldozer then dropped mounds of fresh earth over their tombs, laying them to rest.


Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

Updated 4 min 5 sec ago

Tunisia heads to polls for keenly fought presidential contest

TUNIS: Rarely has the outcome of an election been so uncertain in Tunisia, the cradle and partial success story of the Arab Spring, as some seven million voters head to the polls Sunday to choose from a crowded field.
Key players include media mogul Nabil Karoui — behind bars due to an ongoing money laundering probe — Abdelfattah Mourou, who heads a first-time bid on behalf of his Islamist inspired Ennahdha party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living, and he has found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August is politically inspired.
The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes, albeit one with few clear political differences, brought forward by the death in July of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi.
He had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July, but one thing appears sure — many voters remain undecided, due to difficulties in reading a shifting political landscape.
“I am undecided between two candidates — I will decide in the polling booth,” smiled one citizen, Sofiene, who added “honest candidates don’t have much chance of winning.”
Some hopefuls have tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials in a bid to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels.
One key newcomer is Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs, who has avoided attaching his bid to a political party.
Instead, he has gone door-to-door to drum up support for his conservative platform.
Another independent candidate is Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who is running for the first time.
However, he has the backing of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.
The crowded field of 26 has been narrowed slightly by the last minute withdrawal of two candidates in favor of Zbidi — former political adviser Mohsen Marzouk and businessman Slim Riahi, just ahead of Saturday’s campaign blackout.
But it is Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of the campaign, which has been one of the biggest talking points.
Studies suggest his arrest boosted his popularity.
A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.
But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.
On Friday, an appeal to have the Tunisian mogul released from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said, two days after he began what his defense team said was a hunger strike.
The polarization between the different camps risks a derailment of the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarizing candidate,” such as Karoui.
Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living of close to a third since 2016.
Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), although overseas voting stations for Tunisia’s sizeable expatriate population have been open since Friday.
Some stations will remain open until 6:00 pm, while others will close two hours earlier, for security reasons.
Some 70,000 security agents will be deployed on Sunday, including 50,000 focused solely on polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Exit polls are expected overnight Sunday into Monday, but preliminary results are not expected from the electoral commission until Tuesday.
The date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known, but it must happen by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls — October 6.
Those polls are supposed to be more significant, as Tunisia is an emerging parliamentary democracy.
But several candidates have called for presidential powers to be beefed up, despite years of dictatorship under Ben Ali.