Uprooted by war, Syrians settle in ruins of Roman temple

An aerial view shows the makeshift camp of Syrians displaced by war at the UNESCO-listed site of Baqirha in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey. (AFP)
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Updated 11 November 2020

Uprooted by war, Syrians settle in ruins of Roman temple

  • Northwest Syria is home to 40 UNESCO-listed villages from the first to the seventh centuries

BAQIRHA, Syria: Abdelaziz Al-Hassan did not want to live in an overcrowded camp after fleeing war in northwestern Syria, so instead his family pitched a tent in the ruins of a Roman temple.

He, his wife and three children are among almost 1 million Syrians who fled their homes last winter during a Russia-backed offensive on Syria’s last rebel stronghold of Idlib.

In the UNESCO-listed site of Baqirha, near the Turkish border, they are now among dozens of Syrians uprooted by war who have settled among centuries-old Roman and Byzantine ruins.

Hassan and his family have set up a tunnel-shaped tent between the three surviving walls of a second-century Greek temple, on a site strewn with broken columns and a plinth.

Behind their tent, laundry hung on a rope strung between the ancient walls. Propped up over the centuries-old stones, solar panels soaked in the sun near a blackened pot on a small wood-burning stove.

Hassan says the site is a far better option than living in one of the numerous informal displacement camps that have sprouted up along the frontier, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I chose this place because it provides peace of mind, far from overcrowded places and those riddled with disease,” said the middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard.

Syria is filled with archaeological sites, from Roman temples and Crusader castles to Ottoman-era caravanserais.

Many have been damaged, bombarded or plundered throughout a nine-year-old conflict that has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions.

Northwest Syria is home to 40 UNESCO-listed villages from the first to the seventh centuries that, the UN cultural body says, provide insight into “rural life in late Antiquity and during the Byzantine period.”

Dotted with the remains of temples and churches, the sites illustrate “the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity,” it says.

In Baqirha, Zeus Bomos, or Zeus of the Altar, was built almost two millennia ago, historians say, in a wider area that later prospered from olive oil production.

Maamoun Abdel Karim, the head of Syria’s antiquities authority, said Baqirha was exceptional for its well-preserved buildings, also including two churches from the sixth century.

But for all the grand architecture, Hassan admitted there were a few inconveniences to living where he does, including a long walk for his children to the village school.

He also said the area is crawling with poisonous snakes and insects.

“Two days ago, near the tent’s opening, I killed a viper,” he told AFP. And “every other day, we have to kill a scorpion.”

“But we haven’t found anywhere better than here yet.”

Hassan’s brother-in-law, Saleh Jaour, and his dozen children have also made the ancient ruins of Baqirha their new home, after fleeing bombardment last winter that killed his wife and a son.

“I chose this region because it’s close to the Turkish border. If anything happens, we can flee to Turkey on foot,” said the portly 64-year-old wearing a long dark robe.

As the crow flies, the Turkish border lies just four kilometers (2.5 miles) away.

“This place is far from the crowds and the noise,” he added, saying he too was taken aback by how many people were living at close proximity in the camps.

Both Hassan and Jaour’s families escaped their homes further south during a government-led offensive between December last year and March on the jihadist-dominated stronghold of Idlib.

A cease-fire deal reached by rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia has since largely stemmed the fighting, but less than a quarter have returned.

Local officials have asked families living on the archaeological site in Baqirha to leave, but they have refused until they are provided with alternative shelter.

“We’ve gotten used to this place,” said Jaour, reluctant to uproot the family again at the start of the rainy winter season.

“Where else can we go?”

End the political deadlock, support group tells Beirut

Updated 26 November 2020

End the political deadlock, support group tells Beirut

  • UN leads calls for “urgent action” to halt downward spiral  
  • The ISG called on Hassan Diab’s caretaker government to “fully implement its immediate responsibilities”

BEIRUT: The International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) has voiced its dismay over delays in the formation of a government in the crisis-racked country and called on Lebanese authorities to implement urgent reforms.
In a statement on Wednesday directed at Lebanon’s leaders, the group warned that as the political stalemate in the country drags on, “the social and economic crisis is getting worse.”
The ISG called on Hassan Diab’s caretaker government to “fully implement its immediate responsibilities,” adding that the “overriding need is for Lebanon’s political leaders to agree to form a government with the capacity and will to implement necessary reforms without further delay.”
Pragmatic legislative steps are needed to alleviate the “economic stress faced by Lebanese families and businesses,” it said.
The ISG was launched in 2013, and includes the UN, along with China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Britain and the US, the EU and the Arab League.
In its statement, the group welcomed France’s plan to hold an international conference in support of the Lebanese people by the early December. The forum will be co-chaired by the UN.
However, the summit “did not detract from the urgent need for government formation and reforms,” it said.
On Wednesday, Reuters quoted “an official source” who claimed that Lebanon’s central bank is considering reducing the level of mandatory foreign exchange reserves in order to continue supporting basic imports next year, with the already low reserves dwindling.
According to the source, Riad Salameh, the central bank governor, met with ministers in the caretaker government on Tuesday to discuss cutting the mandatory reserve ratio from 15 percent to 12 percent or even 10 percent. Foreign exchange reserves are currently about $17.9 billion, leaving only $800 million to support imports of fuel, wheat and medicine until the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Lebanese political leaders are seeking to shift blame for the parliamentary deadlock in a dispute illustrated by the exchange of accusatory letters between Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc and President Michel Aoun.
Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, tweeted on Wednesday: “We are in a vicious circle under the slogan of conditions, counter-conditions, names and counter-names, electoral and presidential bids, and flimsy regional bets, amid a tremendous change in the region.”
At a meeting of the joint parliamentary committees on Wednesday to discuss a draft law for the parliamentary elections, representatives of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces party voiced their objections, claiming the project presented by the Berri parliamentary bloc “fuels the political, sectarian and doctrinal divide because it is based on the idea that Lebanon is one electoral constituency.”
Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan said that “what is being discussed today is a change in the political system, not just an electoral law.”
The Lebanese Parliament is due to hold a plenary session on Friday to discuss a letter sent by Aoun “to enable the state to conduct a forensic accounting audit of the Bank of Lebanon’s accounts.”
Alvarez & Marsal, which was carrying out a forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts, said last week it was halting the investigation because it was not being given the information needed to carry out the task.
The company’s decision came after the central bank invoked a banking secrecy law to prevent disclosure of information.
Aoun had insisted on the forensic audit “so that Lebanon is not seen as a rogue or failed state in the eyes of the international community.”
Families of the victims of the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion staging a sit-in near the parliament building demanded “a decree equating our martyrs with the martyrs of the army.”
Bereaved mothers, some carrying pictures of children killed in the blast, accused former and current heads of state of being responsible for the explosion.
Mohammed Choucair, head of the Lebanese Economic Organizations, said that Lebanese authorities “are dealing with this devastating event as if it were a normal accident.”
He said that “the only way to save Lebanon and rebuild Beirut is to form a capable and productive government that responds to the aspirations of the citizens.”