How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children

How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children
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Rebel-held Jindires, in Aleppo province in northwest Syria, was relatively more fortunate in the sense that it received humanitarian aid fairly soon after the February 6 earthquakes. (AFP file photo)
How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children
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A view of Jableh town in Syria's Latakia on February 10, 2023, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake. (AFP)
How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children
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Displaced Syrians living in war-damaged buildings, are pictured in Syria's rebel-held northern city of Raqa on March 1, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 07 August 2023
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How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children

How Feb. 6 earthquake compounded the misery of northwest Syria’s children
  • Scale of suffering of separated or orphaned children in impoverished region called “multifaceted and concerning”
  • NGOs say humanitarian situation is complicated by loss of documentation during both conflict and earthquake

LONDON: Rescued from under rubble six months ago, Hiba, who has not yet turned six, lost her entire family and part of her foot in Syria’s deadly earthquakes in February. In need of constant care, she now lives with distant relatives in an overcrowded displacement camp.

Hiba, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of thousands of children orphaned by two temblors that struck southern Turkiye and northern Syria on Feb. 6, which upended the lives of at least 2.5 million children in Syria alone, according to UNICEF.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake near the Turkiye-Syria border in the early hours of the morning was followed by another one almost as strong, resulting in one of the biggest humanitarian disasters to strike the region in recent times.

Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more injured. Innumerable buildings, including homes, schools and hospitals, collapsed, leaving large swathes of the local population exposed to harsh winter conditions.




Rebel-held Jindires, in Aleppo province in northwest Syria, was relatively more fortunate in the sense that it received humanitarian aid fairly soon after the February 6 earthquakes. (AFP file photo)

Children who lost all adult family members in the earthquakes either moved in with distant relatives, many of whom had themselves been displaced by the devastation, or had to fend for themselves.

The repercussions of the natural and humanitarian disasters in northwest Syria have been especially harmful to orphaned children with no adult relatives in the area. They are vulnerable to various forms of abuse, trafficking and mental-health disorders.

The scale of the suffering being endured by separated or orphaned children in northwest Syria “is vast, multifaceted and deeply concerning,” said Hamzah Barhameyeh, advocacy and communication manager at World Vision, an international child-focused charity.

“The situation was already dire owing to the conflict, but the earthquakes have significantly compounded the hardship faced by these children, affecting various aspects of their well-being and development.”




A volunteer from the humanitarian organization Space of Peace attends to children at a refugee center for people displaced by the February earthquakes in northern Syria. (Supplied)

The challenges, according to Barhameyeh, include “trauma and psychosomatic problems” as well as “physical injuries and disabilities, inadequate health support and disrupted education.”

Additionally, there are concerns over heightened risks of child marriage and child labor, not to mention recruitment by armed groups in a war-torn region.

“(Boys) are at higher risk of becoming separated, unaccompanied, or ending up living on the streets,” Barhameyeh told Arab News. “Adolescent boys face the substantial danger of being recruited into armed groups.




A photo taken on May 23, 2023 shows Syrian kids getting ready to board a bus turned into a traveling classroom for children left homeless and school-less in Jindires, Aleppo. Aid groups are worried that many orphaned children are vulnerable to recruitment by rebels. (AFP file photo)

“There is also a noticeable trend of child labor and violent behavior, increase in substance abuse and run-ins with the law. These experiences are predominantly common in the case of boys.”

Diana Al-Ali, founder of a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Suriana, says that during her encounters with children in displacement camps, many rush forward to hold her hand, seeking comfort and safety.

Apparently, even children who have not been orphaned often endure beatings by parents who themselves are under a lot of stress.




The Turkiye-Syria earthquake has orphaned many Syrian children against a backdrop of mass displacement, destroyed schools and limited access to water and sanitation. (Supplied)

“Many children are in urgent need of emotional support,” Al-Ali told Arab News, citing cases of young people attempting suicide owing to untreated trauma-related mental illness.

Among the children she regularly supports is a girl who refuses to step on the ground and is terrified of ants, convinced that, just as in children’s cartoons, the crawling creatures shake the ground when they move.

Similarly, Hiba, who needs regular medication and trips to the hospital, is terrified of walls and ceilings; the shock she suffered during the earthquake was so severe that she still shows no reaction when spoken to.




A volunteer from the humanitarian organization Space of Peace attends to children at a refugee center for people displaced by the February earthquakes in northern Syria. (Supplied)

Al-Ali says her charity has been providing children and their guardians with cash, foodstuffs, medicines, diapers and even entertainment activities, but she describes the unmet humanitarian needs in the quake-hit region as enormous.

The UN Security Council failed in July to renew authorization for UN humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria’s rebel-held northwest through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, cutting off a vital lifeline for more than four million aid-dependent people.

On July 11, a day after Resolution 2672 expired, two rival resolutions to allow the continuation of UN aid flow from Turkiye were vetoed by Russia on the one hand, and the US, the UK and France on the other.

Compounding the suffering in Syria’s northwest is a searing summer heatwave, which has seen temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius and fires break out in displacement camps in Idlib and northern Aleppo, according to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

INNUMBERS

58,000 Deaths in southern Turkiye and northwest Syria in Feb. 6 earthquakes.

200,000 Buildings damaged or destroyed, including schools and hospitals.

2.5 million Children impacted by earthquakes in Syria alone (UNICEF).

Mental health support remains inaccessible for most, said Al-Ali, recounting the plight of a child battling epilepsy while living in a tent. “He needs costly medication every month, and his father was killed in the conflict,” she said.

Al-Ali added that many of the tents in question are so cramped that there is no space to lie down, forcing individuals to remain seated in one spot for long periods of time.

“Organizations operating in the region did not provide mental health support when the quake struck,” she said, adding that the humanitarian focus on the two cities of A’zaz and Jindires meant that other areas failed to receive adequate attention.




Children's needs in NW Syria are soaring & more, not less, humanitarian access is needed. (World Vision)

“There were not many organizations (operating) here when the quakes struck, so we relied on personal efforts alongside the NGOs Violet and Shafak, which provided bread.

“There is not enough funding dedicated to children’s well-being. We are the only ones providing recreational activities for children, and mental health support sessions.

“We have programs dedicated to helping minors feel safe and each child is assessed to identify their needs.”

Among the many factors militating against the protection of orphaned and separated children, according to World Vision’s Barhameyeh, is the loss of civil documentation during the conflict and the earthquakes.

Describing the situation as “highly complex and challenging,” he said that the absence of the documents poses “a significant barrier” to the achievement of a normal life by these children.

Elaborating on the problem, Barhameyeh said that while there are nongovernmental organizations providing protection against trafficking and other threats, “these services are not fully integrated or collaborative with local councils,” with the “absence of formal child-protection mechanisms” also playing a role.




With limited funding allocated for child protection, millions of children remain not only vulnerable, but also in a state of politico-bureaucratic limbo. (AFP)

A lack of proof of legal identity “severely hinders” children’s “ability to exercise their rights,” he said, adding that the documentation problem is becoming alarmingly “multi-generational” as more children are born in displacement to parents “who themselves lack proper documents.

“An additional layer of complexity is being introduced by various authorities issuing their own documents, leading to a proliferation of documentation.”

According to Barhameyeh, there may be short-term benefits for the holders of the documents in areas under the control of the issuing authorities, but they could cause serious security problems in the long run, “including arbitrary arrest and detention by the government of Syria, particularly outside northwest Syria.”

With limited funding allocated for child protection and the risks greatly outweighing the resources available, millions of children remain not only vulnerable, but also in a state of administrative limbo.

The broad consensus of NGOs and charities active in the region is that unless efforts to protect children are intensified, what awaits them is a grim and uncertain fate.

 


Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 28 February 2024
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Rocket fire reported off Yemen in Red Sea in a new suspected attack by Houthi rebels

A ship is docked at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A rocket exploded late Tuesday night off the side of a ship traveling through the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, authorities said, the latest suspected attack to be carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The attack comes as the Houthis continue a series of assaults at sea over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and as the US and its allies launch airstrikes trying to stop them.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center, which oversees shipping in the Mideast, reported the attack happened about 110 kilometers (70 miles) off the coast of the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida. The rocket exploded several miles off the bow of the vessel, it said.
“The crew and vessel are reported to be safe and are proceeding to next port of call,” the UKMTO said.
The private security firm Ambrey reported that the vessel targeted appeared to be a Marshall Islands-flagged, Greek-owned bulk carrier in the area at the time. Another ship, a Panama-flagged, Emirati-owned chemical tanker was nearby as well, Ambrey said.
The Associated Press could not immediately identify the vessels involved.
The Houthis typically take several hours to claim their assaults and have not yet done so for the assault late Tuesday.
Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over the Israel-Hamas war. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor, and an aid ship later bound for Houthi-controlled territory.
Despite over a month of US-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. Last week, they severely damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition.

 


Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
Updated 28 February 2024
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Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood

Israelis vote for municipal councils in test of public mood
  • Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament

JERUSALEM: Israelis voted Tuesday in twice postponed municipal elections that could offer a gauge of the public mood nearly five months into the war against Hamas in Gaza.
Soldiers had already cast their ballots over the past week at special polling stations set up in army encampments in Gaza as fighting raged.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and closed at 10:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Tuesday, at which point turnout stood at around 49 percent, according to election authorities.
That was down from 59.5 percent in 2018.
Turnout in Jerusalem was 30.8 percent and in Tel Aviv it was 40 percent, the authorities said.
More than seven million people were eligible to vote in the elections for local councils across most of Israel, in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in Jerusalem and in parts of the annexed Golan Heights.
No major incidents were reported.
The vote, first scheduled for October 31, has been pushed back to November 2024 in towns and villages bordering the besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where Hamas ally Hezbollah has fired rockets at Israel almost daily since the start of the Gaza war.
Nearly 150,000 Israelis have been displaced by hostilities in those areas.
Amit Peretz, 32, a Jerusalem city council candidate, said Jerusalem’s diverse make-up demands that “all voices are heard in the city in order to make everything work, because it’s very complex.”
Gita Koppel, an 87-year-old resident of Jerusalem, said she turned out because voting was “the only way you can have your voice heard.”
“I hope the right people come in and do the right thing for Jerusalem,” she said.
The elections were delayed after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of at least 1,160 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 29,878 people in Gaza, most of them women and minors, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Two candidates for council chief in Gaza border areas were killed in the October 7 attack: Ofir Libstein in Kfar Aza and Tamar Kedem Siman Tov, who was shot dead at her home in Nir Oz with her husband and three young children.
In Jerusalem and other major cities, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish candidates aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies were running against government critics and more moderate candidates.
Netanyahu has faced increasing public pressure over the fate of hostages still held in Gaza, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.
Tel Aviv’s mayor of 25 years, Ron Huldai, is seeking re-election in a race against former economy minister Orna Barbivai, who could become the first woman in the job.
Lawyer Amir Badran, an Arab candidate who had initially announced he would run for Tel Aviv mayor, quit the race before election day but was still vying for a city council seat.
In Jerusalem, another Arab candidate, Sondos Alhoot, was running at the head of a joint Jewish-Arab party. If elected, she would be the first Arab woman on the city council since 1967.
The elections for municipal and regional councils are largely seen as local affairs, though some races can become springboards for politicians with national ambitions.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who had a brief stint as prime minister before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, said Tuesday’s vote shows “there is no problem” holding elections even during the war.
In a post on social media platform X, Lapid called for a snap parliamentary election “as soon as possible” to replace Netanyahu.
Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, have the right to vote in municipal elections but not for parliament.
Palestinian residents make up around 40 percent of the city’s population, but many of them have boycotted past elections.
Second round run-offs will be held where necessary on March 10.


One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
Updated 27 February 2024
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One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says

One quarter of Gaza’s people one step away from famine, UN says
  • One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition
  • WFP “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau said

UNITED NATIONS: At least 576,000 people in the Gaza Strip — one quarter of the population — are one step away from famine, a senior UN aid official told the Security Council on Tuesday, warning that widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.
One in six children under 2 years of age in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting and practically all the 2.3 million people in the Palestinian enclave rely on “woefully inadequate” food aid to survive, Ramesh Rajasingham, director of coordination for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the council.
The World Food Programme “is ready to swiftly expand and scale up our operations if there is a ceasefire agreement,” WFP Deputy Executive Director Carl Skau told the 15-member council.
“But in the meantime, the risk of famine is being fueled by the inability to bring critical food supplies into Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the almost impossible operating conditions faced by our staff on the ground,” he said.
The war in Gaza began when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza has since killed around 30,000 Palestinians, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.


US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
Updated 27 February 2024
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US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning

US calls for ‘diplomatic path’ on Lebanon after Israel warning
  • “We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters
  • “The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path”

WASHINGTON: The United States called Tuesday for a focus on diplomacy to resolve tensions over Lebanon, after Israel warned it would pursue Hezbollah even if it achieves a ceasefire in Gaza.
“We do not want to see either side escalate the conflict in the north,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
“The government of Israel has said publicly, and they have assured us privately, that they want to achieve a diplomatic path,” he said.
“That’s what we’re going to continue to pursue and, ultimately, that would make military action unnecessary.”
Miller added that Israel faced a “real security threat” with thousands of people who have fled their homes near Lebanon, calling it a “legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.”
Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement which is backed by Iran, have been exchanging fire since October 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out a major attack inside Israel.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Raising fears of all-out war, Israel this week struck Hezbollah positions deep into Lebanese territory.
On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in Israeli action against Hezbollah even if ongoing diplomacy succeeds in reaching a Gaza ceasefire and the release of hostages seized on October 7.
France, with US support, has been pushing a plan in which Hezbollah and allied fighters would withdraw to around 12 kilometers (eight miles) from the border and Israel would halt attacks.


Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers
Updated 27 February 2024
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Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

Oil spills pile on pressure for Iraq’s farmers

AL-MEAIBDI, Iraq: Iraq enjoys tremendous oil wealth but many hard-scrabble farmers in the north say crude spills have contaminated their lands, piling on pressure as they already battle drought.

Amid the hills of Salaheddin province, puddles of the viscous black liquid pollute the otherwise fertile and green fields, rendering vast swaths of farmland barren.

“The oil has damaged all that the land can give,” said one farmer, Abdel Majid Said, 62, who owns six hectares (15 acres) in the village of Al-Meaibdi.

“Every planted seed is ruined. This land has become useless.”

Oil spills in Iraq — a country ravaged by decades of conflict, corruption and decaying infrastructure — have contaminated farmland in the northern province, especially during the winter rains.

Authorities blame the militants of the Daesh group who overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and were only defeated in Iraq three years later.

The group blew up oil pipelines and wells and also dug primitive oil storage pits, causing crude to seep into the ground, from where annual rains wash it out again.

But the local farmers also complain that the state has been too slow to clean up the mess.

In Al-Meaibdi and the nearby hills of Hamrin, authorities are struggling to find a sustainable solution to the problem, which adds to a litany of environmental challenges.

Iraq, also battered by blistering summer heat and severe drought, is ranked by the United Nations as one of the five countries most vulnerable to key impacts of climate change.

In Hamrin, layers of sludge pile up as excavators build up dirt barriers — a temporary measure to stem the flow of contaminated water onto farmland below.

The oil not only damages the soil and crops but can also pollute groundwater in the water-scarce country.

Said, the farmer, said “the soil is no longer fertile — we have not been able to cultivate it since 2016.”

Some other farmers had already abandoned their lands, he added.

He pointed to a green plot of land so far untouched by the spills and said: “Look how the crops have grown there — but not even a grain has sprouted here.”

Oil spills have contaminated 500 hectares of wheat and barley fields in Salaheddin, said Mohamed Hamad from the environment department in the province.

Hamad pointed to the reign of Daesh, which collected revenues from oil production and smuggling by building makeshift refineries and digging primitive oil storage pits.

He said the group blew up the pipelines and wells of the oil fields of Ajil and Alas, causing crude oil to flood and collect in the Hamrin hills’ natural caves.

Earlier this month, due to heavy rain, oil remnants again poured into agricultural lands, Hamad said, and “unfortunately, the leak damaged land and crops.”

Authorities have buried the group’s makeshift storage pits, Amer Al-Meheiri, the head of the oil department in Salaheddin province, told Iraq’s official news agency INA last year.

Yet during the heavy rains, the oil continues to seep out.

Iraq’s crude oil sales make up 90 percent of budget revenues as the country recovers from years of war and political upheaval, leaving it overly reliant on the sector.

The country boasts 145 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, amounting to 96 years’ worth of production at the current rate, according to the World Bank.

But for many farmers, oil has been a scourge.

Abbas Taha, an agriculture official in Salaheddin, said “oil spills have been occurring frequently since 2016.”

“Farmers suffer a great loss because they no longer benefit from the winter season to grow wheat,” he said.

Some farmers have filed complaints against the state demanding compensation, only to find themselves lost in Iraq’s labyrinthine judicial system, tossed from one court to another.

But Taha insists that authorities plan to compensate those affected in a country where agricultural lands are shrinking as farmers are abandoning unprofitable plots hit by drought.

Due to the severe water scarcity, authorities are drastically reducing farm activity to ensure sufficient drinking water for Iraq’s 43 million people.

Hamad said his department had contacted the relevant authorities to remove oil remnants that would eventually seep through the soil to contaminate groundwater and wells.

The soil also needs to be treated by removing the top layer and replacing it, he said.

“We urged the prime minister, the agriculture minister and the oil minister to compensate the farmers suffering from this environmental disaster,” said 53-year-old farmer Ahmed Shalash.