At Raqqa ‘roundabout of hell,’ Syrian lovers find new meeting spot

At Raqqa ‘roundabout of hell,’ Syrian lovers find new meeting spot
An aerial view of the ‘Paradise’ roundabout in Syria’s northern city of Raqqa. (AFP)
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Updated 12 November 2021

At Raqqa ‘roundabout of hell,’ Syrian lovers find new meeting spot

At Raqqa ‘roundabout of hell,’ Syrian lovers find new meeting spot
  • The roundabout is central and ringed by cafes and restaurants, making it a popular spot for families and couples alike

RAQQA: RAQQA: Only a few years ago, Al-Naim square was the grim stage for Raqqa's public executions. Today, Nader Al-Hussein sits in its new arched design, waiting for his date to arrive.
"This is the best meeting point for lovers, families and friends," the 25-year-old says, sitting on one of the rare public benches in the bustling, war-ravaged north Syria city.
"Before, we used to avoid passing near it so that we wouldn't see blood and horror," Hussein says.
The Al-Naim (Paradise) traffic circle was anything but heavenly when Daesh reigned over Raqqa, its former de facto Syrian capital, between 2014 and 2017.
Residents dubbed it the "roundabout of hell."
Extremists flaunted their implementation of Shariah law in the square, carrying out flagellations, crucifixions and even decapitations on those deemed apostates or criminals.
Their marauding morality police made it impossible for lovers to meet, even in private, without risking death.
"I never dared to meet with my girlfriend in person; we used to speak only over the phone, out of fear that we may be stoned as punishment," Hussein says.
Two years after Daesh was declared defeated in Syria, the revamped square is a far cry from the barren dirt mound that hosted some of the jihadist group's most repulsive acts.
Arched columns have been built around a new central fountain, replacing the metal fence on whose spikes a Daesh executioner once impaled the heads he had just severed before posing for a picture.
Benches have been placed near elliptical side pools.
At night, multicolored laser lights turn the square into a rare attraction amid the drab and ghostly concrete jumble of the city, four years after Daesh left.
The roundabout is central and ringed by cafes and restaurants, making it a popular spot for families and couples alike.
"Al-Naim square has turned from hell into paradise ... even lovers come here now," says 24-year-old Manaf, declining to provide his surname and adding that he visited it often.
Around him, children dash between benches while men and women chat and snap photos. Laughter rises from a picnic spot as street vendors selling red heart-shaped balloons mill about.
In a scene unimaginable just four years ago, Mohammad Al-Ali, 37, and his wife sit side-by-side, looking out for their three children as they play around one of the empty pools.
"We never brought the kids here so that they wouldn't see decapitated heads hanging," he said.
"But today, the square is a space for families and children."
Life is slowly picking up in Raqqa, where leveled buildings and traces of Daesh insignia provide stark reminders of the dark era of jihadist rule.
It was here that Daesh stoned people to death and auctioned off women from the Yazidi minority as slaves.
A few kilometers away from Al-Naim square, another infamous yet smaller roundabout used by Daesh for executions has also regained its bustle, largely owing to its location near a popular market.
For some, however, a shadow still hangs over the place known as "clock-tower square."
"This roundabout reminds us of the tragedy we lived ... it reminds us of death and suffering," says Ahmad Al-Hamad, who was passing the square on his wheelchair on the way to the grocer's.
"We used to see the severing of heads and hands, and executions carried out using swords," he says.
Several of Hamad's own relatives were beheaded in the square.
"We used to be scared of even passing near it," he says.
The situation is similar at the nearby Al-Dallah roundabout, named after a large-scale reproduction of a traditional Arabic coffee pot that adorns its centre.
Also a former Daesh punishing ground, Raqqa residents have since dubbed Al-Dallah as "the workers' square," in reference to the day laborers who usually dot its sidewalks in the hope of being picked up for odd jobs.
Abdel Majid Abdallah, one of the workers, says he could never forget how Daesh used to display prisoners in cages at the roundabout.
"But today it's a place where we come to earn a living," the 35-year-old says.

Two years of stalemate show a military solution in Syria is an illusion, says UN envoy

Two years of stalemate show a military solution in Syria is an illusion, says UN envoy
Updated 11 sec ago

Two years of stalemate show a military solution in Syria is an illusion, says UN envoy

Two years of stalemate show a military solution in Syria is an illusion, says UN envoy
  • Geir Pedersen also told the Security Council that the humanitarian tragedy in the country is “only deepening,” with 14 million people now in need of aid to survive a harsh winter
  • America’s ambassador said her country is frustrated with the stalled efforts of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the ‘unwillingness’ of the Assad regime to make progress

NEW YORK: The strategic stalemate in Syria makes it clear that no warring faction has the ability to decisively affect the outcome of the decade-long conflict, and so the idea that there can be a military solution is “an illusion,” the UN’s special envoy to Syria told the Security Council on Thursday.

“Despite the continued violence and suffering, (there have) been no shifts in the front lines for nearly two years,” Geir Pedersen said.

“It is clear that no existing actor or group of actors can determine the trajectory or outcome of this conflict, and indeed that the military solution remains an illusion.”

The envoy highlighted the precarious security situation that exists in several parts in the country, where “Syrians continue to suffer deeply.”

He said the violence continues unabated, including airstrikes on Idlib that kill civilians and damage infrastructure, mutual shelling across the front lines, hostilities in the northeast, improvised explosive device attacks in the north, and the Israeli shelling of the main commercial port of Latakiah. There have also been security incidents involving drug smuggling and Daesh attacks in the northeastern and central Syria, he added.

On a humanitarian level, Pedersen said the tragedy of the Syrian people is “only deepening,” exacerbated by the freezing winter conditions.

“14 million civilians now need humanitarian assistance,” he said. “More than 12 million remain displaced. Tens of thousands are detained, abducted or missing. The economy of Syria has collapsed. Criminality and smuggling are flourishing. And there are reports of young people seeking any opportunity to leave the country, sometimes falling prey to traffickers and warlords.

“Education is fragmented and severely degraded, as indeed are institutions and infrastructure across the board. The country remains de facto divided and society is deeply fractured. Syrians see no concrete progress toward a political solution.”

Having established this backdrop, the Norwegian envoy briefed the 15 members of the Security Council on his most recent efforts to advance the diplomatic process. He updated them on his meetings in recent weeks with officials from Germany, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Qatar and the UK to discuss the status of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, the most recent meeting of which took place in October last year.

In December, Perdersen’s deputy, Khawla Mattar from Bahrain, attended an Astana-format meeting in Kazakhstan where she met senior officials from Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian government and opposition.

She also met with representatives of the Working Group on the Release of Detainees and Abductees and the Handover of Bodies and the Identification of Missing Persons. Pedersen said good proposals emerged from that meeting “but what is absolutely needed is for these ideas now to be followed up on, as we are urging all stakeholders to do.”

Pedersen said he has also held a series of bilateral meetings with officials from Russia, the EU, Turkey, Qatar, the Arab League, Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US. He described these consultations as a “rolling process where it will be necessary to revert to interlocutors repeatedly over time.”

He added: “My question to all interlocutors is the same: Can you identify not only what you demand, but also what you are prepared to put on the table in exchange for steps from the other side?”

The envoy said he seeks “fresh ideas from any quarter that could bring about action” on issues such as detainees and missing persons; the safe and “voluntary” return of refugees; restoring an economy that has “collapsed after more than a decade of war, corruption, mismanagement;” establishing calm throughout Syria; cooperation in fighting terrorism; and thoughts on the financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

Pedersen also highlighted the plight of civilians at Al-Ghuwayran prison in Al-Hasakah, northeastern Syria, which was the scene of an attempted jailbreak by hundreds of Daesh insurgents last week that left at least 300 detainees dead.

According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 45,000 civilians have been displaced by the clashes that followed and retaliatory airstrikes from the US-led global coalition in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground.

Fionnula Ni Aolain, a UN human rights expert, expressed serious concern for the well-being of more than 700 children locked up the prison.

She said boys as young as 12 are living “in fear for their lives amid the chaos and carnage in the jail (and) are tragically being neglected by their own countries through no fault of their own except they were born to individuals allegedly linked or associated with designated terrorist groups.”

Pedersen said: “UNICEF drew attention to reports of (Daesh) members being holed up in dormitories for minors, putting hundreds of children in detention at risk.

“This episode brings back terrible memories of the prison breaks that fueled the original rise of (Daesh) in 2014 and 2015.

“I see this as a clear message to us all of the importance of uniting to combat the threat of internationally-proscribed terrorist groups — and to resolve the broader conflict in which terrorism inevitably thrives.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the permanent representative of the US to the UN, said that the ongoing situation in Al-Hasakah “a stark reminder” that Daesh “remains a real threat.”

She also reiterated her country’s support for the diplomatic process in Syria and lamented the “less than constructive comments” by some states about Pedersen’s effort to advance the dialogue.

She singled out Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, quoting his public statement that Pedersen’s “steps-for-steps model as a way to resolve the crisis in Syria is unacceptable for us.” 

Thomas-Greenfield said her country shares Pedersen’s frustration with the lack of progress by the Syrian Constitutional Committee, and expressed disappointment “with the Assad regime participants’ unwillingness to make progress toward this end.”

Ambassador Mohammed Abushabab, the UAE’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, expressed support for Pedersen’s efforts and told the council that his country’s vision of a peaceful solution in Syria involves “opening channels of communication and building bridges, creating opportunities to support and reinvigorate the Constitutional Committee and ending foreign interference.”

He added: “Creating an appropriate environment to achieve peace and stability in Syria requires an end to foreign interference in Syrian affairs. We stress here the importance of preserving the unity, independence and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.

“In this context, the UAE supports the call of the United Nations secretary-general and the special envoy for Syria to reach an immediate ceasefire throughout the country, and we stress the importance of maintaining and sustaining it.”

Dozens of armed Daesh militants still hold corner of Syria prison

Dozens of armed Daesh militants still hold corner of Syria prison
Updated 59 min 42 sec ago

Dozens of armed Daesh militants still hold corner of Syria prison

Dozens of armed Daesh militants still hold corner of Syria prison
  • Two sides clashed a day after the SDF announced they had regained full control of the facility
  • The weeklong assault on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria has turned Hassakeh into a conflict zone

BEIRUT: Dozens of armed Daesh militants remained holed up in the last occupied section of a Syrian prison, US-backed Kurdish-led forces said Thursday. The two sides clashed a day after the Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had regained full control of the facility.
Fighting between the armed extremists and SDF troops left at least two Daesh extremists dead Thursday, the SDF said in a statement. It said between 60 and 90 militants were hiding out in the northern section of the prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.
The SDF claimed Wednesday it had regained full control of the prison — a week after scores of militants overran the facility. The attackers allowed some to escape, took hostages, including child detainees, and clashed with SDF fighters in violence that killed dozens.
The weeklong assault on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria has turned Hassakeh into a conflict zone. The Kurdish-led administration declared a curfew and sealed off the city, barring movement in and out.
Thousands have been displaced because of the violence that began with a bold attack on the prison last Thursday. There were overnight celebrations in the city, including fireworks, after news that the prison had been recaptured.
It was the biggest military operation by Daesh since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019 and came as the militants staged a number of deadly attacks in both Syria and Iraq that stoked fears they may be staging a comeback.
The SDF said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered since its operation to retake the prison’s northern wing began three days ago.
The militants had used child detainees as human shields slowing down the effort. There are over 600 child detainees in the facility that houses more than 3,000 inmates. The Kurdish officials have not provided specific numbers of the facility’s population.
Kurdish officials said a large number of children were freed Wednesday but their fate remained unclear. Rights groups and at least one child detainee from inside the prison say many children were killed and injured in the clashes. Rights groups have criticized the SDF for keeping the children in adult facilities or holding them without trials in the first place.
In a statement, SDF said the children had been kept in separate dormitories from the adults, and were detained as an “interim measure” for their safety and the safety of the community until a solution for them is found.
The Kurdish-led SDF appealed to the UN and member states to “search for genuine solutions by repatriating non-Syrian children, rehabilitating them.”
At least 300 foreign child detainees are believed to be held in the Gweiran facility. Thousands more, mostly under the age of 12, are held with their mothers in locked camps in other parts of northeastern Syria on suspicion of being families of Daesh members. Most countries have refused to repatriate them, with only 25 out of 60 countries taking back their children, some without their mothers.
In the week of fighting, dozens of fighters from both sides have been killed, the US-led coalition has carried out nearly a dozen airstrikes and thousands of civilians living nearby have been displaced.
Siamand Ali, a spokesman for SDF, said the militants were hiding in the basement of the northern section.
A coalition official said Thursday that detainees of the prison known as Gweiran or Al-Sinaa are being secured in a “new, hardened facility” nearby where biometrics will be used by the SDF to enroll them. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the coalition continues to advise and assist the SDF in the operation. The militants had also targeted the new facility in their initial assault but failed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll from the struggle at over 200, including over 150 militants and more than 50 fighters from the Kurdish-led force. At least seven civilians were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said. The SDF said preliminary information put the force’s death toll at 35.
The SDF, backed by US-led coalition Bradley Fighting Vehicles and air support, had been closing in on the prison wing still controlled by the militants for a few days. Fighters from the SDF and other security teams used loudspeakers to call on the militants to surrender.
Kurdish officials said about 200 militants attacked the prison with car bombs and suicide belts while activating sleeper cells hiding in residential areas around the prison. In one video released by Daesh, the militants rammed vehicles against the prison walls. At one point, a car bomb was detonated in a petroleum warehouse near the prison, sparking a fire that lasted a couple of days.

Rights experts, jurists, politicians urge UN to probe 1988 Iran massacre

Rights experts, jurists, politicians urge UN to probe 1988 Iran massacre
Updated 27 January 2022

Rights experts, jurists, politicians urge UN to probe 1988 Iran massacre

Rights experts, jurists, politicians urge UN to probe 1988 Iran massacre
  • Letter: ‘Mass executions, enforced disappearances of thousands of political prisoners constitute ongoing crimes against humanity’
  • Many were sent to their death by current President Ebrahim Raisi

LONDON: Hundreds of international lawyers and human rights scholars have penned an open letter to the UN’s Human Rights Council urging it to open an investigation into Iran’s 1988 massacre of political prisoners.

Dozens of rights groups also joined more than 450 individuals, many of them former world leaders and prosecutors in the International Criminal Court, in signing the letter, which was released to the public on Thursday.

“We urge the UN Human Rights Council to urgently challenge the impunity enjoyed by Iranian officials by mandating an international investigation into the 1988 mass executions and enforced disappearances of thousands of political prisoners which constitute ongoing crimes against humanity,” the letter said.

“We believe it’s long overdue for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to investigate the 1988 massacre.”

The letter was organized by a London-based association of victims’ families called Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran.

In the immediate aftermath of the war with Iraq and on orders of then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranian authorities executed thousands of political prisoners accused of betraying the state during the conflict.

By some estimates 30,000 were killed, many of them members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a revolutionary group that later fell out of favor with the regime.

Many of those prisoners were sent to their death by Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi, who served as a deputy prosecutor in Tehran at the time.

The US placed him on a sanctions list in 2019, citing the executions and other alleged rights abuses. He has denied involvement in the executions.

Among the letter’s signatories is Sang-Hyun Song, president of the ICC from 2009 to 2015; Jacques Santer, former prime minister of Luxembourg; Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium; and hundreds of former UN officials and human rights professionals.

Other signatories include former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and 18 Nobel Laureates.

The letter is the latest in a series of calls by rights groups and others urging the UN to take action on the 1988 massacre, which remains controversial internationally as well as in Iran.

Snow carpeting Jerusalem’s holy sites, West Bank adds to refugees’ misery

Snow carpeting Jerusalem’s holy sites, West Bank adds to refugees’ misery
Updated 27 January 2022

Snow carpeting Jerusalem’s holy sites, West Bank adds to refugees’ misery

Snow carpeting Jerusalem’s holy sites, West Bank adds to refugees’ misery
  • Jordanian authorities urge people to stay home, keep off roads as heavy rain swells major dams
  • In Syria, days of heavy snowfall blanketed camps housing displaced people in the country’s northwest

AMMAN: Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean were on Thursday left carpeted in snow after a winter storm hit the region.

And in neighboring Jordan, heavy snowfall closed roads in Amman and made driving conditions treacherous throughout much of the country.

Jordan’s Meteorological Department forecast more snow on higher ground with temperatures again expected to fall below freezing.

Jordanians woke up on Thursday to a thick layer of snow covering homes and driveways. On Wednesday night, the region was affected by a depression coming from Greece and Turkey toward the eastern basin of the Mediterranean that coincided with a polar wave that hit Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and some parts of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq.

In Syria, days of heavy snowfall blanketed camps housing displaced people in the country’s northwest, forcing families to huddle together under canvas in freezing conditions.

Abu Hussan, who lives with his family in a makeshift camp outside the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, told AFP: “We’ve been trapped in the snow for four days.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that at least 227 displacement sites throughout the northwest had been hit by severe winter weather since Jan. 18.

The agency added that 545 tents had been reported destroyed and 9,125 tents damaged by snowfall, floods, and high winds, along with the belongings of displaced people.

Schools in Jerusalem and northern Israel were closed, leaving children free to play in the snow. Israel’s meteorological service reported that up to 25 centimeters of snow had fallen on Wednesday night. It took until midday for snow ploughs to reopen the main highways leading into Jerusalem from the north, south, and west.

Amman, and northern and southern regions were covered in several inches of snow on Thursday, with authorities urging the public to stay at home and keep off roads amid warnings of more falls over the next 24 hours.

While Jordanian farmers have been complaining of frost devastating their crops with freezing weather conditions prevailing some days before the polar depression, recent rain has increased depleted water levels in Jordan’s major dams.

The Jordanian Water Ministry said on Thursday said that recent deluges had raised overall rainfall volumes for the season to 45 percent of Jordan’s long-term annual average of 8.1 billion cubic meters.

A total of 2.4 million cubic meters of water had poured into Jordan’s 10 major dams by Thursday morning, raising their storage to 98.5 mcm, 29.3 percent of their total capacity of 336.4 mcm, said a ministry statement.

Meanwhile, the Jordanian National Center for Security and Crisis Management warned on Thursday that the Waleh Dam in Madaba governorate, which was empty in November last year, would likely reach full capacity over the next 24 hours. Center officials, who are monitoring the current snow situation, added that the dam was only 2 mcm off hitting its full capacity of 9 mcm.

Jordan recently warned of an expected water deficit of 45 mcm in 2022.

On Nov. 22, the country signed a declaration of intent with Israel and the UAE to explore the feasibility of a joint energy-for-water project.

Defending the deal, Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh warned of “unprecedented” levels of water scarcity, adding that resource-poor Jordan would receive 200 mcm of water a year under the proposed project.

Addressing the lower house on Dec. 15, the PM said that Jordan’s annual water resources were less than 80 cubic meters per person, below the international threshold of 500 cubic meters per person.

Six migrants drown off Tunisia, 30 missing

Six migrants drown off Tunisia, 30 missing
Updated 27 January 2022

Six migrants drown off Tunisia, 30 missing

Six migrants drown off Tunisia, 30 missing
  • Coast guard units rescued a further 34 passengers after the vessel sank off Zarzis near the Libyan border
  • Survivors had said 70 people had been aboard, including Egyptians, Sudanese and a Moroccan

ZARZIS, Tunisia: Six migrants drowned and 30 were missing Thursday off the coast of Tunisia after their boat sank during a bid to reach Europe, authorities and the Red Crescent said.
Coast guard units rescued a further 34 passengers after the vessel sank off Zarzis near the Libyan border, Tunisian defense ministry spokesman Mohamed Zekri told AFP.
Survivors had said 70 people had been aboard, including Egyptians, Sudanese and a Moroccan, when the boat set off from Libya headed for European shores, he added.
A search and rescue operation was underway for the remaining passengers, he said.
The survivors were taken to a port in Ben Guerdane, according to Tunisian Red Crescent official Mongi Slim.
Both Tunisia and Libya have served as launchpads for migrants making desperate bids to reach Europe, especially in the chaos in Libya that followed the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The Central Mediterranean route has become the world’s deadliest migration trail, according to humanitarian groups.
Departures surged rapidly in 2021, with almost 55,000 migrants reaching Italy in the first 10 months of the year compared with under 30,000 the previous year, according to Rome.
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights says that over the first three quarters of last year, the coast guard intercepted 19,500 migrants during crossing attempts.
The United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR says at least 1,300 disappeared or drowned over the same period.