Syria: Family of 11 clung together in death

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew

The entire Bakrieh family in Douma were found in a heap on the bathroom floor. After a gas bomb tore through their building, the parents had tried to scrub the chemicals off their children’s skin. But the toxic cloud overwhelmed the family of 11 before they could protect them.

Abdullah Abu Homam, a local volunteer, said that all of them had damp clothes and foam on their mouths. Three of the children were toddlers in nappies. One of the women was still cradling her child by the sink.

“When I entered the flat they were all in the bathroom, their clothes were still wet so we believe they tried to rinse themselves in vain. Eventually they must have realised it was over so they drew closer together and died,” Abu Homam said.

At 7pm on Saturday a metre-long gas bomb had punched through the roof of their four-storey block of flats in the last rebel-controlled enclave near Damascus. Video footage showed that it had landed on a bed in a top-floor room.

As many as 70 people died, the majority women and children, and 500 were injured, according to the Syrian American Medical Society. The worst hit were families who had hidden in basement shelters to escape airstrikes.

If confirmed, Saturday’s gas attack would be the deadliest in Syria since warplanes dropped nerve gas on the rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing 89 people a year ago.

Just hours after Saturday’s killings, the Syrian government confirmed that rebels had agreed to withdraw from Douma and allow full regime control of the area. Yesterday, 20 buses carrying fighters, their relatives and civilians left the area for rebel-held districts in the north. There was speculation that Saturday’s attack was a ploy to speed up the withdrawal deal. As many as 50,000 residents are expected to leave.

Everyone in the Bakriehs’ building and a nearby block of flats was killed, according to Abu Homam. He described following a trail of foam up the stairwell to the bodies of a woman hugging her two daughters.

“It seemed that they tried to reach the top of the building after running from the basement because I saw the foam trail all over the stairs to the fourth floor,” he said.

The gas was so strong that one man whose sister died in the building said he passed out hours after the attack when he found her body. “I tried to hug her but the smell of the gas was so intense I couldn’t. I fell to the ground, could not move and blacked out,” he said.

More than 1,745 people, including 400 children, have been killed since the onslaught against the rebel stronghold started in February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

For full story click: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/syria-family-of-11-clung-together-in-death-9gqmzmdjv

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HALIL EL-ABDULLAH/GETTY IMAGES

 

Refugee teenager Hennessy dreams of Europe after brutal 6,000-mile odyssey

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew, Cairo

His journey began eighteen months ago and took him 6,000 miles across Africa. It is not, however, the distance covered in his quest to reach Europe that is the most remarkable aspect of Hennessy’s odyssey but the horrors he survived along the way.

Hennessy, aged 19, has endured death threats in Juba, torture in Tripoli and crippling poverty in Cairo.

He fled his home in Juba, South Sudan in June 2016 after his family discovered that he was gay and threatened to kill him. He headed for Egypt in search of safety and a new life but quickly found himself penniless, begging in the streets of Cairo among other refugees. They convinced him that his dreams lay in Europe, that he should try to reach Libya and chance the treacherous sea crossing to Italy.

It was a risk that almost cost him his life, a life that began, improbably, in Chingford, Essex and Hackney, east London where his father had practised as a dentist before returning home to South Sudan in 2011. “I was kidnapped and tortured twice in Libya by militias,” he said from Cairo, where he is now camping on sofas.

“The first was immediately after I was smuggled in a jeep to east Libya. I had to be rescued by the smuggler who paid my ransom. When I flew to Tripoli to try to get to Italy I was taken at the airport and held in an underground prison,” he said.

Every morning his kidnappers lined the migrants up on the ground and whipped them with pipes until their families paid a ransom. He was eventually saved by the Libyan security forces and taken to the filthy Tariq al-Siqqa migrant centre under Tripoli airport, which he said was almost worse. It was there that The Times first met Hennessy, crammed in with 1,300 migrants.

Read full story: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/refugee-hackney-teenager-hennessey-dreams-of-europe-after-brutal-6-000-mile-odyssey-from-south-sudan-to-libya-67w6697fm

Laura Plummer convicted over painkillers is sent to notorious Egyptian jail

The TimesBel Trew, Beirut

A British woman sentenced to three years in jail for taking painkillers into Egypt has been moved to the tough Qena prison, where her family fear that she will not survive.

Laura Plummer, 33, was arrested at Hurghada airport in October when she was found with 290 tramadol tablets, a prescription drug in Britain. The shop assistant from Hull said that she did not know they were banned in Egypt.

Qena prison is 100 miles from the court where Laura Plummer was sentenced. Her family fears that she will not survive her stay there
Qena prison is 100 miles from the court where Laura Plummer was sentenced. Her family fears that she will not survive her stay there

She claimed that she was bringing them in for Omar Caboo, her 31-year-old Egyptian boyfriend who suffers from back pain.

On Boxing Day a court in Safaga, a Red Sea town 300 miles from Cairo, sentenced Ms Plummer to three years in jail for possession of an illegal substance.

Her family tried to visit her yesterday morning at Safaga prison. However, officials had already moved her to Qena, 100 miles to the west, without telling them.

Ms Plummer’s sister, Rachel, said: “The conditions [in Qena] are disgusting. We are so worried about her. Who will feed her? We don’t even know how to get food to her now. We’ve been told nothing.”

She said that their mother, Roberta Synclair, tried to deliver supplies to her daughter at Qena prison but was not allowed to enter. Inmates of Egypt’s prisons have to rely on family visits for clothes, food and medicines because jail supplies are scarce.

 

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/laura-plummer-convicted-over-painkillers-is-sent-to-notorious-egyptian-jail-k6n83jbls

Coptic Christians forced to flee from Isis’ river of blood

The Times
Bel Trew, Ismailia

William had just returned home to north Sinai when masked militants came for him at his corner shop at dusk. They shot him in the head, dragged his body outside and, screaming “apostate”, beat his corpse in the street.

The Christian shopkeeper had fled the town of Arish months earlier after seven Copts had been shot by jihadists. Yet despite death threats from Islamic State, the authorities told him to return to the city to collect his sons’ school certificates, so they could sit their exams.

William, 43, is one of at least 115 Coptic Christians killed in Egypt by suspected Isis militants in a year. Isis has warned the estimated nine million Christians living in Egypt that they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons”.

Isis militants have stormed Christian homes, businesses, churches and cathedrals and have fired on buses of Coptic pilgrims. More than 300 Christian families fled north Sinai in February after jihadists drew up a hit-list of 40 and started working through it. William was murdered in May.

His widow Mariam, 35, said: “The situation in Arish is getting harder. After William was killed Christians there realised they would never be safe.” She was speaking from Ismailia beside the Suez Canal, where she is living with her two sons, aged ten and 12. “Some families go back to check on their homes but it’s usually only women. They have to be extra careful, they always take supplies with them so they don’t risk going to the shops. They keep their doors and windows bolted. Some just stay in the church there.”

Last month Isis militants stormed a Sufi mosque near Arish killing more than 300 people, the single largest terrorist attack in Egyptian history. President Sisi vowed to crush Isis in Sinai within three months. “You can use all brute force necessary,” he told his security forces.

The interior ministry cancelled annual leave for its employees and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect more than 2,900 religious buildings over Christmas, but Mariam has seen little change.

 

Read full article here: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coptic-christians-forced-to-flee-from-isis-river-of-blood-0dj3g0sr7

Syrian rebels starving in Eastern Ghouta, the last Damascus enclave

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Conditions in the last rebel-held suburb of Damascus have reached a critical point with food in desperately short supply amid plunging temperatures, aid agencies and locals have warned.

Youths in Damascus show solidarity with Kerim
Youths in Damascus show solidarity with KerimAMER ALSHAMI/ANDALOU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb northeast of the Syrian capital, has been pummelled by hundreds of airstrikes and artillery shells since mid-November, when the Assad regime stepped up its air campaign to finally crush the opposition’s longest-surviving enclave.

The Red Cross expressed alarm at the humanitarian crisis faced by the 400,000 civilians estimated to be in the area. There is a “frightening food shortage” and temperatures have fallen close to freezing at night.

“The humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta has reached a critical point . . . Some families can afford to eat only one meal a day,” Robert Mardini, the middle east director, said.

Doctors in the area told The Times that the medical situation was catastrophic because life-saving medicines and supplies were no longer available.

“We have a list of 572 patients who need to be urgently evacuated because their treatment is not possible in Ghouta,” said one doctor. “So far the authorities have allowed only 12 cases to be evacuated to the capital’s hospitals via the Red Cross. We have 138 children who need to be urgently evacuated . . . 16 have already died.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/syrian-rebels-starving-in-eastern-ghouta-the-last-damascus-enclave-jwt6qprd2

 

Photo: AMER ALSHAMI/ANDALOU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES