Syrian father who lost twins to poison gas uprooted again

In this April 4, 2017 photo, Abdel Hamid Al-Yousef, holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack, in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. (AP)
Updated 03 September 2019

Syrian father who lost twins to poison gas uprooted again

  • I want to send a message to Western countries to shoulder their responsibility and protect the lives of remaining civilians, says Abdel Hamid Al-Yousef

BEIRUT: When Abdel Hamid Al-Yousef lost his nine-month-old twins in the poison gas attack that hit the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, the world witnessed his heartbreak and grief in the video of him cradling their lifeless bodies in his arms, bidding them farewell in the chaotic aftermath of the attack.

Determined to continue with his life despite the pain, he has since remarried, and now has a one-year-old daughter who brings much needed joy to what remains of the family. But tragedy keeps chasing the 31-year-old former shopkeeper.

As Syria’s civil war edges toward a bloody end, many displaced persons like Al-Yousef fear that a Syrian regime win will bring little relief — or sense of closure.

Al-Yousef recently fled Khan Sheikhoun again, joining tens of thousands fleeing heavy airstrikes and bombardment as regime forces swept into the town, on the southern edge of the country’s last rebel stronghold in the province of Idlib. He now lives among thousands of other internally displaced Syrians in a settlement near the Turkish border, worried he will never be able to go back to the hometown he left behind.

“I buried the most important thing I have in my life there, my children and my siblings. I used to find some relief by visiting them twice a week at the grave,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I cannot do that anymore.”

Most of all, Al-Yousef fears the takeover by Assad’s forces of Khan Sheikhoun means that any leftover evidence from the April 2017 toxic gas attack will now be erased forever.

“The biggest fear now, after regime forces and the Russians and allied militiamen took over Khan Sheikhoun is that they will tamper with the evidence with regards to the chemical weapons attack and distort the facts,” he said.

The attack in opposition-held Khan Sheikhoun in the early morning of April 4, 2017 left residents gasping for breath and convulsing in the streets and overcrowded hospitals. Nearly 90 people were killed in the attack, one of the deadliest in years.

At the time, the US, Britain and France pointed a finger at the Syrian regime, saying their experts had found that nerve agents were used in the attack. Days later, the US fired 59 US Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in central Syria, saying the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched from the base. It marked the first Western airstrikes on targets of Assad’s regime since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

The Syrian regime and its Russian allies denied there was a chemical attack, while Syrian officials later said the air force bombed an opposition arsenal that had chemical weapons stored inside.

From his tent in the displaced settlement near the Turkish border called “Mokhayyam Al-Karamah,” Arabic for “Dignity Camp,” near the town of Atmeh, Al-Yousef recalls that fateful day when he lost his twins, Aya and Ahmed, his wife Dalal and 16 other relatives.

It is a story he has told dozens of times, about how Khan Sheikhoun residents woke up at half-past six in the morning to the sound of explosions. How people started running out of their homes and onto the street, trying to help each other. How he told his wife to take the twins to safety outside. The people he saw foaming at the mouth and nose.

He recalls how he ran to his brother’s house to find him and his family dead. His other brother and nephew, also dead. His niece who was around 13, also dead. He lost consciousness and woke up four hours later to be told that his twins and wife had died. They were among the 89 people who died from what experts have determined was an attack using sarin, an outlawed nerve toxin.

In footage filmed by his cousin that was widely circulated later, Al-Yousef, 29 years old at the time, is seen seated in the front seat of a van cradling his twins, holding them in each arm. He stroked their hair and choked back tears, mumbling, “Say goodbye, baby, say goodbye.”

Al-Yousef keeps photos and videos of the attack’s aftermath on his phone that he flips through from time to time.

He sits on the floor and plays Lego with his 11-month-old daughter, whom he named Aya, after his first daughter. Her hair is in curly pigtails and she is wearing a sleeveless yellow T-shirt with the words “Love” printed on it and a heart in the middle.

Al-Yousef said that after spending some time in Turkey for treatment after the gas attack, he then chose to return to Khan Sheikhoun, held by opposition.

He decided to try and build a new life and a new home. He got married and had Aya. He gradually found some happiness.

But then regime troops began an assault on Idlib and the nonstop bombardment of Khan Sheikhoun returned. A new wave of civilian displacement began. As the bombardment got unbearable and the troops encircled the town, he decided to leave, fleeing with the masses to safer areas near the Turkish border.

“The final days felt like I was saying goodbye to everything I hold dear to my heart. I had already lost my children and now I’ve lost my country. My situation has become very, very tragic,” he said.

The Syrian civil war, now it is in its ninth year, has left an estimated half-a-million people dead. Al-Yousef wants the bloodshed to end. As a well-known witness and survivor of the chemical weapons attack, he says he gets frequent threats from the regime side, but says he will never stop talking about what happened. He wants accountability.

“I want to send a message to Western countries to shoulder their responsibility and protect the lives of remaining civilians,” he said.

Egypt’s options dwindle as Nile talks break down

Updated 22 October 2019

Egypt’s options dwindle as Nile talks break down

  • Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
  • El-Sisi said he would “never” allow Ethiopia to impose a “de facto situation” by filling the dam without an agreement

CAIRO: The latest breakdown in talks with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam has left Egypt with dwindling options as it seeks to protect the main source of freshwater for its large and growing population.

Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is 60 percent complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people.

But Egypt, with a population of around the same size, fears that the process of filling the reservoir behind the dam could slice into its share of the river, with catastrophic consequences. Pro-government media have cast it as a national security threat that could warrant military action.

Speaking at the UN last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said he would “never” allow Ethiopia to impose a “de facto situation” by filling the dam without an agreement.

“While we acknowledge Ethiopia’s right to development, the water of the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” he said.

Egypt has been holding talks for years with Ethiopia and Sudan, upstream countries that have long complained about Cairo’s overwhelming share of the river, which is enshrined in treaties dating back to the British colonial era. Those talks came to an acrimonious halt earlier this month, the third time they have broken down since 2014.

“We are fed up with Ethiopian procrastination. We will not spend our lifetime in useless talks,” an Egyptian official told The Associated Press. “All options are on the table, but we prefer dialogue and political means.”

Egypt has reached out to the United States, Russia, China and Europe, apparently hoping to reach a better deal through international mediation. The White House said earlier this month it supports talks to reach a sustainable agreement while “respecting each other’s Nile water equities.”

Mohamed el-Molla, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, said Cairo would take the dispute to the UN Security Council if the Ethiopians refuse international mediation.

That has angered Ethiopia, which wants to resolve the dispute through the tripartite talks.

An Ethiopian official said the packages offered by Cairo so far “were deliberately prepared to be unacceptable for Ethiopia.”

“Now they are saying Ethiopia has rejected the offer, and calling for a third-party intervention,” the official added. Both the Ethiopian and the Egyptian official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with the media.

The main dispute is centered on the filling of the dam’s 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir. Ethiopia wants to fill it as soon as possible so it can generate over 6,400 Megawatts, a massive boost to the current production of 4,000 Megawatts. Ethiopia said earlier this year that the dam would start generating power by the end of 2020 and would operate at full capacity by 2022.

That has the potential to sharply reduce the flow of the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the river, which is fed by annual monsoon rains in the Ethiopian highlands. If the filling takes place during one of the region’s periodic droughts, its downstream impact could be even more severe.

Egypt has proposed no less than seven years for filling the reservoir, and for Ethiopia to adjust the pace according to rainfall, said an Egyptian Irrigation Ministry official who is a member of its negotiation team. The official also was not authorized to discuss the talks publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Nile supplies more than 90 percent of Egypt’s freshwater. Egyptians already have one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, at around 570 cubic meters per year, compared to a global average of 1,000. Ethiopians however have an average of 125 cubic meters per year.

Egypt wants to guarantee a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue Nile. The irrigation official said anything less could affect Egypt’s own massive Aswan High Dam, with dire economic consequences.

“It could put millions of farmers out of work. We might lose more than one million jobs and $1.8 billion annually, as well as $300 million worth of electricity,” he said.

The official said Ethiopia has agreed to guarantee just 31 billion cubic meters.

El-Sisi is set to meet with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, on Wednesday in the Russian city of Sochi, on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit. They may be able to revive talks, but the stakes get higher as the dam nears completion.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned earlier this year that the “risk of future clashes could be severe if the parties do not also reach agreement on a longer-term basin-wide river management framework.”

In recent weeks there have been calls by some commentators in Egypt’s pro-government media to resort to force.
Abdallah el-Senawy, a prominent columnist for the daily newspaper el-Shorouk, said the only alternatives were internationalizing the dispute or taking military action.

“Egypt is not a small county,” he wrote in a Sunday column. “If all diplomatic and legal options fail, a military intervention might be obligatory.”
Anwar el-Hawary, the former editor of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, compared the dispute to the 1973 war with Israel, in which Egypt launched a surprise attack into the Sinai Peninsula.

“If we fought to liberate Sinai, it is logical to fight to liberate the water,” he wrote on Facebook. “The danger is the same in the two cases. War is the last response.”