Refugees face death camped out in bitter Lebanon winter

The Times

Bel Trew, Bekaa Valley

For the first time since they fled Syria five years ago, many refugees fear they will not make it through another bitter Lebanese winter.

Raya, 97, begs for scraps in the Bekaa Valley to survive. “We are barely eating at the moment,” her daughter, Khaldia, 63, said as she tended her sick mother on the ground. “We have to beg neighbours for a bit of stew or vegetables.”

Their tent, made from wood and scraps of plastic fabric, is leaking: they cannot afford the materials to patch it up before the predicted snowstorms.

“These last few months have been the worst,” Khaldia said. “We sleep without eating sometimes. My mother needs medicine, we need money for heat and monthly rent for the tent. We are in massive debt.”

The UN offers refugees a £20 monthly food allowance but Raya, who has a lung condition, and Khaldia have received nothing since October. Raya’s infirm son Mohamed, 67, and his wife, who live in the same tent, have not had UN assistance in a year. For the first time since they fled the Homs countryside, the family fear they will not make it through the winter.

Officials at the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told The Times that 2017 had been the hardest year yet for the million Syrians who fled the civil war to Lebanon. Nearly 60 per cent of Syrian refugee households are living in extreme poverty, according to a UNHCR report last week. They exist on £2 a day; not enough to ensure their survival. The same report said that 87 per cent of refugees were also in debt. Most, like the Khalil family, rely on aid, which is drying up after seven years of war.


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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.

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Obituary: Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The TimesBoutros Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations, was a strong-willed third world intellectual whose brusqueness and plain speaking brought him into frequent conflict with Washington. As a result, the United States vetoed a second term in office, making him the only head of the world body not to be re-elected.

He clashed repeatedly with America, not only over Bosnia and Somalia, but over the leading role that he wanted the UN to play in global politics, with few concessions to the interests of the big powers. During the long Bosnian conflict, he refused to accept the US proposal to bomb the Serbs, and at a time of growing tensions between Europe and America over the break-up of former Yugoslavia, President Clinton lost patience with him.

Boutros-Ghali came to the job with strong credentials. As a senior official in the Egyptian foreign ministry, he had been one of the architects of the Camp David peace accords. He stuck to the proposals amid rising criticism in the Arab world. Yet as a Copt, and especially because his wife Leia (née Adler) was born Jewish, his chances of reaching the top in an overwhelmingly Muslim country were limited. Neither President Anwar Sadat nor his successor Hosni Mubarak appointed him as foreign minister, although he was eventually made a deputy prime minister. Still, Cairo saw the appeal that this cultured former academic had in the West, and, when it was Africa’s turn to nominate a candidate as secretary-general, the Egyptian government promoted his candidacy forcefully.

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The Battle for Damascus: Syrian activists speak out

The battle for Damascus continues after a bomb blast killed three top Syrian officials Wednesday afternoon, including President Bashar Al-Assad’s own brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and the defence minister Daoud Rajiha. Senior military official General Hassan Turkmani also died in the attack on the heavily-guarded National Security building in the capital.


Thursday saw Al-Assad finally make a televised appearance on Syrian state networks as he swore in his new minister of defence, after much speculation that the premier had fled Damascus. Russia and China, meanwhile, vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution to hit the war-torn country with further sanctions as violence escalated.


“This is the zero hour. Wednesday was a very powerful morale boost to the Free Syrian Army [FSA] elements and people across the country,” explains well-known Syrian activist Rami Jarrah, whose organisation Activists News Association (ANA) continues to coordinate and support citizen journalists on the ground in Syria, from Cairo.


“We had a problem in Syria of how to declare the decisive moment but this is it. Everyone in the activist community has dropped everything to prepare for the ongoing assault.”


For the last four days, in what revolutionaries are calling a “desperate attempt” by the regime to quell dissent, the Syrian army started shelling the heart of Damascus in central areas like Mezzah and Midan. The Shabiha (death squads) have allegedly been committing door-to-door massacres in Al-Shaghour district.


The Syrian military on Thursday gave residents of certain parts of the capital 48 hours to evacuate, as they prepare for an expected, brutal counter-offensive.


“Everyone is thinking how long these areas can continue to sustain these attacks, be subject to ongoing shelling or be isolated from other areas. How long before they run out of bullets and it turns into Baba Amr?” Jarrah adds, referring to the besieged Homs suburb, where journalist Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were killed.


As violence and rumour mount, one of the biggest struggles in Syria is getting accurate information and quality footage out of the country.


“Anyone with a camera is targeted,” explains Damascus-based video activist Youssef* who lost two colleagues, journalists Mazhar Tayara and Adam El-Homsy whilst reporting around Syria.


Around 70 per cent of the media, Youssef says has left the country because it is so dangerous.


“The fate of a photographer or filmmaker in Syria is either to become a martyr or a prisoner. In Homs specifically, most of those who have filmed for us or those we have coordinated with have been attacked or killed.”


Adding to the problem is the fact that international media, unable to get their correspondents or cameramen into the country, are forced to cite activists or broadcast clips with no means of being able to verify the reports.


As Jarrah explains, government infiltrators do on some occasions pose as activists and feed information to large media channels such as Al-Jazeera.


“It tends to be the more extreme information. After the unverified ‘opposition’ source relays the story, the government can then, for example, counter it on state TV de-legitimizing our work. It is very important that we don’t give them these tools to amplify their propaganda.”


The Syrian government is a known entity, if a statement is made on behalf of the regime, officials can say whether it represents the state or not. For activists this is much harder to do.


“This is why we want to create a media association that does the same, but for the opposition.”


The ANA are setting up a community-based radio station that intends to broadcast programs from Cairo over the Internet, satellite channels, and, in the future, FM radio.


Its news will be based on reports submitted from a database of 350 Syrian-based certified and trusted citizen journalists and 28 paid professional reporters across the country: “We’ve filtered out thousands we don’t see as credible.” The aim is to have the informal journalists accredited, minimising unreliable sources.


Gone are the days of haphazard YouTube clips or emotive reports passed around on social media, ANA news agency will have a focus on professionalism and neutralism, Jarrah adds. Journalists are receiving proper training, loaded phrases like “martyrs”, for example, will not be used.


This drive for verified sources is reflected within the Free Syrian Army itself. Defected soldiers now reportedly sign up to join the FSA, which has known battalions with corresponding officers, Jarrah added, allowing the media to determine if these sources are legitimate too.


Filmmakers are also seeing a change. Creative ways to use technology and the Internet that were pioneered at the start of the Arab Spring are now being put to professional use. Al-Jazeera, for example, aired a 24-minute documentary on Syria filmed entirely on iPhone in March, earlier this year.


The current focus has shifted from just generating quantity of video content to quality.


“Initially most of the footage shot was amateur: it did not last more than two minutes long, was filmed on a mobile phone and was very unstable,” explains Youssef who has managed to produce three full-length documentaries during the ongoing fighting.  “However, there has been a progression in using HD handy-cams, as well as the building of an archive for the future.”


Youssef, who also produces in-depth news reports and is working on 90-minute documentary of marginalised areas lacking media coverage, described how training initiatives for filmmakers have meant that even in the most violent conflict zones, videos are less reactive. They are now properly edited, depict more than one scene and filmmakers collect testimonies and provide analysis, he explains.


The filmmaking networks in Syria are now placing an emphasis on creative support so that cameramen and editors have the space to create quality content.


“Filmmakers under such circumstances always have this pressing sense of urgency, that turns many of them into bad journalists,” explains Damascus-based producer and filmmaker Anas*, who runs a celebrated Syrian documentary film festival. “They feel like they cannot be slow and make a good film.”


This is why initiatives, as Anas explains, are now being launched offering financial support, advice, training, safety and also promotion.


Youssef agrees: “The has been a development in how the media is being disseminated.” The growing network of support has meant that documentaries produced within Syria, like Youssef’s, are able to reach international Arab news channels.


The writers and cameramen continue to work under intense shelling. Jarrah, the activist, lost a colleague on Wednesday afternoon during an attack in the Hajar Al-Aswad district of the capital. Anas described how one filmmaker friend has been missing since 9 July. All have lost co-workers over the course of the last year and a half.


Activists stubbornly and ingeniously found ways to report, such as smashing holes through walls separating houses, so they can travel two blocks without ever needing to go outside.


“The streets are under the watch of the snipers,” says Anas, explaining how in some areas, people have built tunnels to avoid bullets.


Nevertheless, it is the shelling, Anas adds, which makes Syria unique in the Arab Spring. With international backing, Libya became a war between two sides, he says. However, “in Syria it’s a huge army shelling civilian areas.”


Even if the FSA control large sections of Syria’s key cities on the ground, they cannot stop air attacks.


Areas like Anas’s hometown of Homs “the revolutionary capital,” he says, are bombed beyond repair: “It’s the third largest city in Syria and was supposed to be the new political heart. But  now it resembles [Chechen capital] Grozny.”


Youssef added that around 95 per cent of the population of the western city had been displaced and between 60-70 per cent of the city destroyed.


Jarrah, who visited Homs recently, described being trapped in the area for three days as the border had closed. The man who smuggled him over had been shot dead attempting a second trip, so Jarrah was stuck in a basement of a building with shelling just a kilometre away.


“All the FSA and armed civilians went out for their daily fight, I was kept in with the women and children underground,” Jarrah explains. They had to move the families, as the attacks got closer: “we had to walk in an open space, watching the shells falling on houses, the women with us were giving the names of their female friends who were still left in that area.”


The psychological cost is enormous. “We have to lose a bit of our humanity to survive – when someone dies you just have to flip the page,” says Anas, “The worst is the dead children – especially those killed by snipers. When you see a seven-year-old girl or boy killed by a bullet in the head you can’t believe it but when you see it 20 times it becomes normal.”


Lack of food and medical supplies is a growing problem. Although the rebels occupy cities, the roads leading to them are in the hands of the government.


Consequently, supply routes are cut. Whole areas like Baba Amr, Deraa and Idlib, have been under siege for months.


International aid, Anas says, is not reaching the people in the most need, as these groups will only channel relief through registered organisations that are consequently monitored by the regime. “We’re getting less than 10 per cent of the minimum requirements for survival,” he says.


When the UK had offered telecommunication equipment, it was so small Anas adds, that “there was a joke in Homs ‘now we know: the British told us what to do – if you see a tank coming, throw your mobile at it.’”


The delay in aid, Anas believes, is pushing the revolution into a civil war as well as elongating the lifetime of the regime, circumstances which are contributing to the rise of radicalism.


“Islamism is growing because when you are being shelled, you have nothing: you are hungry and you coming out of 50 years of poor education and real oppression – then you have no one but God to resort to.”


Syrian Christians, he added are, “paralysed with fear” that the Sunni majority rebels will oppress minority groups, a notion encouraged by the regime’s propaganda machine, which almost immediately denounced the uprising as sectarian-led.


The ongoing assault and expected crackdown on Damascus is being seen by the international community as the last-ditch endeavour of a regime to maintain its loosening grip on the country. A wave of recent mass defections has contributed to this: “we’ve got reports of tanks being left unattended on the streets,” Jarrah reveals.


But is this Assad’s final stand? The fight is not over, Jarrah answers: there is still a fair way to go but the revolutionaries are much closer than they ever imagined.


*names have been changed to protect their identity