Syrians dig, cook, fill sandbags in war with Bashar Assad

A volunteer uses a shovel to dig a trench in the town of Salqin, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 30 June 2019

Syrians dig, cook, fill sandbags in war with Bashar Assad

  • Volunteers at work in Atarib are preparing 2,000 meals a day for fighters as part of the campaign

ATARIB, SYRIA: Away from the frontlines, volunteers are helping in the war against Syria’s Bashar Assad by cooking, filling sandbags, collecting old tires and digging trenches, aiming to help ward off his assault on northwestern Syria.

It is part of the civilian effort to help defend the last major opposition stronghold from Assad and his Russian allies who have been pounding it for weeks.

Abu Abdo, 51, says he is playing his part by collecting old tires to be burned by fighters to create a smoke screen from hostile warplanes.

“We go to places where tires are repaired, collect them and take them to the fighters,” said Abu Abdo, 51, as he piled tires into the back of a truck with the help of his sons in the town of Salqin.

“These tires have no value but protect (the fighters) and keep the enemy busy,” said Abu Abdo, as two of sons sat atop the pile of tires in the back of the truck.

In recent years, Assad’s opponents have poured into northwestern Syria from other parts of Syria that have been taken from opposition. The region, which includes Idlib province and parts of neighboring provinces, has an estimated 3 million inhabitants, about half of whom had already fled fighting elsewhere according to the UN.

With nowhere else for these people to flee, many have a stake in fending off the attack on the northwest. To this end, activists and religious leaders launched a campaign in May called “fire an arrow with them.”

Volunteers at work in a kitchen in the town of Atarib are preparing 2,000 meals a day for fighters as part of the campaign. Yellow rice is spooned from large vats into polystyrene trays and lentil soup is poured into bags ready for delivery to fighters.

“The car leaves from here to the frontlines under airstrikes and surveillance sometimes,” said a 40-year-old man at work in the kitchen who gave his name as Abu Wael. “God willing we continue so these meals reach the fighters.”

At a nearby quarry, sacks that once contained rice were being filled with grit for use as sandbag defenses.

“We are filling according to the demand of the frontline. The command center, for example, requests 200 bags or 1,000 bags for one position,” said Khaled Al-Jamal, 26, at work with a group of other volunteers.

He finished his high school education but was unable to register at university once the war began in 2011. He hopes his effort will help fighters so “all their effort is directed at repelling the regime.”

In Salqin, men use shovels, pick axes and pneumatic drills to dig a trench in an olive grove as part of another civilian campaign, this one called “the Popular Resistance Battalions.”

A long way from the frontline, Yehya Al-Sheikh, 38, says the trench he is digging with others will provide protection from airstrikes for a family living nearby.

“We came to dig trenches to defend ourselves and our people and to support our Mujahideen brothers against Bashar Assad.”

Some 300,000 people in the northwest have been uprooted since late April and local sources have reported that hundreds of civilians including women and children have been killed, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.

The territory is largely controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham, a militant group representing the latest incarnation of the Nusra Front, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, though groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army also have a presence.

The Syrian regime, which has vowed to recover “every inch” of Syria, says it is responding to attacks by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.


Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

Updated 43 min 52 sec ago

Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

  • Death of three-year-old from injuries caused by August 4 explosions has brought grieving nation together
  • Outpouring of online tributes to Alexandra testified to the despair and anguish of Lebanese across the world

LONDON: In an ideal world, Alexandra Najjar should have been able to enjoy the rest of a pleasant Mediterranean summer with her family. Once the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon had been tamed, she should have been able to experience her first day of school.

She would have made many new friends and begun to absorb all the knowledge that a three-year-old is capable of when they first enter kindergarten.

And as the days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years, Alexandra’s parents would have watched her grow into a young girl, enjoy life, dream big and perhaps achieve greatness in some field.

Alas, in the harsh real world of a crisis-wracked Lebanon, the dreams of Alexandra’s parents will remain just that.

Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded as Alexandra was playing with a friend on the evening of August 4, leaving her severely injured.

Shockwaves from that blast devastated Beirut, leaving its streets blanketed in debris and shards of glass — and many of its residents caked in grey dust and crimson-red blood.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters )

Three days later, after being in a critical condition in a hospital and suffering internal bleeding in her brain, Alexandra succumbed to her wounds.

“You killed us in our own home, in a place where I thought I could leave my family, protect my family . . . where if crimes are happening and we don’t have anything in this country, then at least we have our home where we can be safe,” said Paul Najjar, Alexandra’s grief-stricken father, in a TV interview on Saturday evening, assailing Lebanon’s leaders.

“What you did is a crime at the cost of our family that is so very united and this for me, at the most, is a crime at the cost of love because if there’s anything I should believe in, it’s this  — which was the foundation of our family, it still is and will continue to be so.”

As the pain of the Najjar family’s loss sank in, photos and videos of Alexandra — or “Alixou,” the name by which parents called her — began to be shared widely via social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, both in Lebanon and outside it.

Tributes poured in online, testifying to the despair and anguish Lebanese across the world felt in the aftermath of the explosions. Alexandra’s untimely death had put a human face on Beirut’s horrible tragedy.

 

In one of the pictures, Alexandra is seen sitting atop her father’s shoulders as he took part in a march during last year’s October 17 “revolution,” demanding an end to Lebanon’s twin bane of corruption and sectarianism.

The protesters were calling for a better world for all Lebanese — and a brighter future for Alexandra.

The captions accompanying the photos point to the impact of the Najjar family’s tragedy on the Lebanese people and diaspora.

“This is a photo of Alexandra protesting for a better Lebanon to remove the corrupt government and no one listened and now she’s in heaven,” former Miss USA Rima Fakih wrote below a post on Instagram.

Another caption says: “Alexandra, you are in each of our hearts and prayers today and always. Your death will not be in vain . . . we will make sure of it!”

Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut explosions, whose human cost so far includes 150 deaths, nearly 6,000 injured and another 300,000 homeless.

After citizens and residents independently organized and cleaned up the streets and homes of the areas most affected by the blast’s impact, shock turned to anger.

 

 

“My message to the Lebanese is a message of unity,” Paul Najjar said in the interview. “They killed us — they didn’t kill Christians or Muslims or politically-affiliated or not politically-affiliated. There is none of this anymore — a message to all the people who are still following these people.

“Please, enough. We need to stand together. We need to stand united so that we can make the change, so we can revolt for the sake of Alexandra and every child and every family that wants to live in this country like we had hope for.”

Paul Najjar said he and his wife returned to Lebanon and set up a company in an effort to help the country.

“We had hope that we would help the country. We also hoped that Alixou would grow up in Lebanon,” he said.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese made their way to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square demanding accountability for the explosions, and the resignation of all government officials. Many of them carried nooses, which they used for symbolic hangings of Lebanon’s principal political actors, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The government responded by deploying riot police and the army, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue similar protests in front of the parliament in Riad Al-Solh Square and the nearby Beirut Souks.

Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency and Relief Corps figures showed that the clashes left 728 more Lebanese injured, of whom 153 were taken to hospital and 575 treated on site.

“For your information, rubber bullets could kill and cause permanent damage. If necessary, it should be aimed at legs only. Yesterday, and in one hospital, there were seven open surgical eyes and a ruptured abdominal spleen,” Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, a former Minister of Health, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, little light has been shed by the government on why such a huge quantity of a highly combustible chemical was stored next to the Beirut Port Silos building after being confiscated from a Russian-leased ship six years ago.

“The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb,” President Michel Aoun said on Friday.

Whatever the truth, UNICEF has warned that almost 80,000 of those displaced by the “incident” are children whose families are in desperate need of support. 

One children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.

Across Beirut, at least 12 primary health care facilities, maternal, immunization and newborn centers have been damaged, disrupting services for nearly 120,000 people.

Against this grim backdrop, Paul Najjar and his wife are hoping that Alexandra’s death will not be in vain but will have a positive impact when the nation rebuilds itself.

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad