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.

Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian chess referee seeking asylum reveals second reason she can’t go home

  • Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison
  • Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners after photos of her emerged from a match with her headscarf around her neck

LONDON: The Iranian chess referee forced to seek asylum in the UK after letting her hijab slip during a match in Shanghai this year has revealed another reason she may never be able to return to her country — her secret Jewish heritage.
Shohreh Bayat told The Daily Telegraph that she had to conceal her family background in her native Iran.
“If they knew I had Jewish background, I would never be general secretary of the Iranian chess federation,” Bayat told the British newspaper.
The leading referee said she had heard anti-Jewish remarks made by chess officials in Iran.
Bayat was declared a public enemy by Iranian hard-liners and received death threats after photos of her emerged from the Women’s World Chess Championship in January with her red headscarf around her neck rather than covering her head.
“All my life was about showing a fake image of myself to society because they wanted me to be an image of a religious Muslim woman, which I wasn’t,” Bayat said, speaking about the Iranian regime.
The 33-year-old said she is not a fan of the hijab, but felt she had to comply — even if that meant covering only a tiny amount of hair.
Women are required to wear the hijab in public in Iran, and those who refuse can face prison.
After being photographed at the world championship match with her hijab around her neck, Bayat said she was warned by family and friends not to return home.
“My mobile was full of messages saying: ‘Please, don’t come back, they will arrest you’,” she told the newspaper.
“I woke up the following day and saw that the (Iranian) federation removed my picture — it was like I didn’t exist,” she said.
Despite death threats, Bayat continued refereeing the second leg of the tournament in Vladivostok, ignoring calls from Iranian officials for a public apology.
At the end of January, she changed her return ticket and traveled to the UK —  the only Western country where she held a valid visa — and applied for asylum. She is waiting for her application to be processed.

Bayat's paternal grandmother was Jewish and moved to Iran from Azeraijan’s capital Baku during the Second World War. 
Last week, Bayat celebrated the Jewish New Year for the first time in her life.
“It was amazing. It was a thing I never had a chance to do,” she said.