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My decision to leave Syria came in a hurry, prompted by the sight of my mother after I was released from two weeks of detention.

Posted by African Press International on September 19, 2013

DAMASCUS, – The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Damascus from a well-to-do family belonging to a Syrian minority. For security reasons he prefers to stay anonymous. In this diary entry, he describes being arrested and his subsequent departure from Syria.

My decision to leave Syria came in a hurry, prompted by the sight of my mother after I was released from two weeks of detention.

I had been politically active for some time, but because I belong to one of Syria’s many religious minorities, I was left alone, aside from a few inquiries by the authorities. They contacted my grandfather, a high-ranking regime party member, and asked him to “put me in line”.

That was the extent of it – until one day in July 2012. I was arrested at a demonstration in the Rukn el-Deen neighbourhood of the capital, where singing and chanting protesters were dispersed with live ammunition. I spent two weeks in solitary confinement in a basement, immune to the maltreatment others have suffered because of my minority status. Still, my stint at the department of state security’s branch in Kafar Souseh ended with a clear warning. “I know you want to go to Spain to study,” one officer told me. “I suggest you go now.”

I didn’t care much for what he said until I got home and saw my mother. She was not the elegant mid-40s woman I knew. After two weeks of not knowing where I was or how long they would keep me, she was barely alive. Her lips were cracked, her eyes swollen from crying, her already thin frame 15kg lighter. I knew she would not survive another bout of her only son in prison, or worse, killed.

I decided then and there to pack my bags. But I wasn’t psychologically prepared to leave so much history behind with little time to say goodbye. I was overwhelmed with emotion as friends streamed through a café to wish me off. So many friendships, built over years, were about to come to an end.

I spent my last hours in Damascus with a friend and my sister, visiting the sites one last time. First stop was the spice market in the old city of Damascus. At night, it is a magical place, its scent a breeze of paradise. You can stand there for hours without saying a word, just taking it in. Then we watched the sun rise from the Omayyad Mosque, also a unique Damascus experience.

I packed my bags with clothes, books and a few souvenirs, then sat down for a last morning coffee with my parents, telling jokes to try to make them laugh.

My mother tried to stay resolute, but because she and I do not have a convention mother-son relationship – instead we are good friends – I could sense her deep feelings of injustice. She felt I was being kicked out of my country. But she did not say a word. Instead, she wished me luck, told me to take care of myself, instructed me to come back as soon as possible, and insisted I not worry about anything else.

I resisted getting into the cab that would take me to Lebanon. My departure was now more real than ever. Within the hour, I would be out of Syria.

It amazes me how much taxi drivers can yap. It upset me at first. I needed a little peace to brood as I took one last look at Damascus. But by the time we crossed the Damascus-Beirut Highway, I found myself grateful for his distracting conversation.

It took us a long time to cross the border because there were so many people there, entire families that had packed all they could carry and delved into the unknown completely unprepared. I saw one woman wearing shoes that did not match. She must have left in an even bigger hurry than I had. I was about to enter a life of refuge.



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Norway condemns terrorist attacks in Lebanon

Posted by African Press International on August 24, 2013

The terrorist attacks in Tripoli this week and in Beirut last week have killed dozens of people and wounded several hundred more. “Norway condemns the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Lebanon over the past weeks. Our thoughts go to those who have been affected and their families,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide.

The civil war in Syria has placed great strain on Lebanon and other countries in the region, in the form of large numbers of refugees, rising sectarian tensions and an increased risk of violent conflict.

“I am deeply concerned by the increase in violence in Lebanon. It will be a tragedy if the conflict in Syria takes hold in Lebanon too. Lebanon has a recent history of sectarian violence. It is now crucial that all parties refrain from acts that could heighten tensions in Lebanese society,” Mr Eide said.




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Syrians are accused of taking part in pro-Morsi demonstrations

Posted by African Press International on July 23, 2013

CAIRO,  – A thin wall was all that separated Syrian refugee Ahmed Al Hemsi from his 62-year-old father at Cairo International Airport when immigration officers told his father he would not be allowed into Egypt.

“He was crying when he talked to me on the phone,” Al Hemsi, 26, told IRIN. “This was the first time in my life I heard my father crying.”

Al Hemsi’s father, who had just arrived from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is one of thousands of Syrians affected by a new set of security measures enacted by Egyptian authorities following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and bloody clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents.

Government supporters accuse Syrian refugees of participating in the clashes and taking part in attacks against anti-Morsi demonstrators in several Egyptian cities.

The new security measures include the requirement that Syrian refugees and asylum seekers get entry visas to Egypt from an Egyptian embassy, as well as security approval.

But many Syrians say, given that Egypt severed its diplomatic relations with Syria, getting an entry visa to Egypt from Damascus is impossible, and that the process is difficult at embassies in other countries.

“Our understanding of the new measures is that we are no longer welcome in Egypt,” said Arkan Abulkheir, a Syrian community leader in Cairo. “The fact that some Syrians had committed violations by getting involved in Egypt’s politics does not mean that Egypt should punish all Syrians.”

There are between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt now, according to the Egyptian government.

“He was crying when he talked to me on the phone. This was the first time in my life I heard my father crying.”

The conflict in Syria has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said this week, noting that more than 6,000 people were fleeing every day.

Nearly 1.8 million refugees from Syria are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Tighter checks in Egypt

The government’s new tougher line includes tighter security checks for Syrian refugees in Egypt, with the threat of deportation for Syrians who do not have residence permits.

Previously, Syrians were able to get a three-month visa when they entered Egypt for the first time. After that visa expired, the Syrians could then apply for a one-year residence, but this is no longer the case.

A security official told the newspaper Al Watan on 11 July that police have orders to arrest Syrians and check them.

Abulkheir was stopped by a policeman on the street a few days ago. The policeman asked about his passport and his residence permit.

“He told me that he would have sent me back to Syria if my residence permit was not valid,” Abulkheir said. “Thanks are to God, the permit was valid for six more months.”

Syrian refugees say they are afraid to go out lest they be arrested or deported.

Before the change of government and these new security measures, Syrian refugees already faced a variety of challenges, but the new measures are making life even harder.

When they came to Cairo two months ago, Al Hemsi, his mother and his younger brother had to leave their father behind in the Syrian city of Daraa because they did not have enough money to buy him a plane ticket.

He finally travelled to Cairo on 8 July after the family raised US$250 for the flight. Since he was refused to entry to Egypt, he has been living in a mosque in Beirut.

“We do not know how he eats or lives his life,” Al Hemsi said. “He does not have any money. He is also too frail to work.”

School’s out

Another change has come in the education sector. Syrian refugees were previously allowed to enrol their children in state-run schools and universities, and were given equal treatment with Egyptians when it came to fees. This is no longer the case.

Abu Mustafa, a Syrian refugee in his mid-forties, went to a school in 6 October, a neighbourhood southwest of Cairo, a few days ago to enrol his three children for the new academic year, which is expected to start in September. He was told by the headmaster that Syrians are no longer allowed at state-run schools, which have lower fees than private schools.

“He said I should enrol them in a private school,” Abu Mustafa said. “But this is very difficult for me to do.”

To enrol his children in a private school, Abu Mustafa would have to pay a minimum of 7,000 Egyptian pounds (US$958) for each of them. Unemployed and living on charity, this is too much money for him, and for the tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees in the country.

Political tension

The new measures against Syrians coincide with a fierce campaign against them by some of Egypt’s politicians and opinion-makers, who accuse them of harbouring support for the deposed president and of contributing to Egypt’s current turmoil.

An Egyptian politician recently called for the execution of Syrians and Palestinians if they are arrested while taking part in protests or fights on the streets.

UNHCR in Egypt has called for refugees to receive proper protection.

“We call on the government to ensure that any precautionary measures in the light of the current security situation do not infringe on humanitarian principles and Egypt’s responsibilities to provide asylum and protection to refugees,” Edward Leposky, an associate reporting officer at UNHCR Egypt, told IRIN.

He said the Syrian community had expressed anxiety over the current environment, with some Syrians subjected to verbal threats, heightened scrutiny and temporary detentions.

“All this has led to a notable increase in the number of Syrians approaching UNHCR for registration,” Leposky said.

As of 16 July, around 75,000 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR in Egypt.

ae/jj/rz source


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Lebanese farmers at risk due to Syrian crisis

Posted by African Press International on June 15, 2013

On the outskirts of El Qaa village


  • Border fighting leads farmers to abandon fields
  • Traditional migration patterns disrupted
  • Influx of Syrian animals poses disease risk
  • FAO urges more funding for agriculture

EL QAA, 13 June 2013 (IRIN) – The livelihoods of dozens of farmers just outside this small village, in a remote area of Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley near the Syrian border, hang in the balance.

Local farmers say many in the no-man’s land between the Syrian and Lebanese frontier posts, known as Mashari El Qaa, have abandoned their farms in recent months, in some cases leaving their equipment and running when they see Syrian rebels approaching. Others have stopped planting because of landmines or reduced their visits to their fields.

“We don’t go there every day like before,” said Joseph, a local farmer. “We go once or twice a week, and we harvest or plant whatever we can. We’re harvesting a bit but we have a lot of losses. We don’t [have] the time to harvest properly. We do it in a rush.”

The border between Syria and Lebanon, blurry to begin with, has become increasingly so in recent months, as both Syrian rebels and regime soldiers cross into Lebanese territory to fight.

Up to 60 percent of the border area’s population depends on agriculture and raising livestock, which have come under growing strain as cross-border fighting has increased between forces supporting and opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the conflict next door.

Syrian anti-government rebels have used Lebanese farms to launch rockets into Shia villages in Hermel District 17km from El Qaa, allegedly aiming at villages controlled by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has been fighting in support of al-Assad’s forces inside Syria. Syrian government forces have also chased rebels into Lebanese territory.

Dwindling marketplace

Those farmers who do manage to harvest despite the insecurity struggle to sell their products, as they are competing with cheaper products smuggled in from Syria.

“The situation is bad in Syria,” said Pierre Saad, another farmer in El Qaa, “so they smuggle and sell their fruits here, where they are still going get a better price than in Syria. It’s heavy competition for us. The local people… just go for the cheapest product.”

That’s partly why in Firzil, one of the biggest fruit and vegetable markets in Lebanon’s fertile Beka’a Valley, most of the trucks leaving the market are three-quarters full.

“Last week, I sold the basil for 2,000 Lebanese lira [US$1.33] per kg,” merchant Mohssein Taleb said during a visit in May, displaying his unsold fruit and vegetables. “This week, I sell it for 800 LL per kg. And before, I was even selling it for 3,000 LL per kg.”

Part of the problem, he said, was an absence of big buyers for export.

According to Lebanese customs, bilateral agricultural exports from Lebanon to Syria decreased by 37 percent between 2011 and 2012, from 234,725 to 148,414 tons. In dollar figures, however, the drop was much more modest, from $95,279 to $93,578, or a drop of 1.8 percent.

Before the conflict began, 20 percent of Lebanese products were exported to Syria, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In addition, Syria is the only land trade route to Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf, by far the largest market in the region.

But the border crossing in Mashari El Qaa is now closed. For much of April and May, all transit of agricultural goods between Syrian and Lebanon was blocked, according to FAO. Some crossings reopened late last month, but moving goods to and through Syria remains extremely risky.

Many agricultural goods are now exported through the ports of Beirut and Tripoli. But not all merchants can afford exports via ship or plane. 

Barely living

A recent assessment by FAO of the impact of the Syrian crisis on food security and agricultural livelihoods in neighbouring countries found that it has become extremely difficult for Lebanese farmers to sustain their livelihoods.

“One coping mechanism that we have noticed is selling animals, and thereby livelihood opportunities”

“We’re not starving, but we will end up planting only for ourselves since we can’t export or sell easily on the local market,” said Saad.

Those most affected along the border are the poorest and most vulnerable to begin with; larger-scale farmers do not take the risk of settling in the more insecure border area, said Lisbeth Albinus, humanitarian policy officer at FAO in Lebanon.

Many of these small-scale farms survived from smuggling things like tobacco, fuel, food, or even electronics to Syria – something that has become more complicated due to the conflict.

FAO worries this combination of factors could leave farmers much more vulnerable in the long-term.

“One coping mechanism that we have noticed is selling animals, and thereby livelihood opportunities,” Albinus said.

In a 7 June press release, FAO warned that without further support, more farmers would ultimately have to abandon their land and sell their livestock.

Cross-border movement

The conflict has also interrupted migration trends.

According to the FAO assessment, some 30,000 poor smallholder Lebanese who had been farming in Syria for generations have now had to return to Lebanon.

The Lebanese returnees are in “panic”, the assessment found, selling their dairy cattle at one third of the market price due to high animal feed costs, lack of winter grazing land and a need to finance immediate household living costs.

Many Syrian farmers have also relocated to the Lebanese side of the border, first seeking refuge in Mashari El Qaa and now, for some, being displaced once again.

Some came empty-handed, “have lost everything and live in very difficult conditions”, FAO’s Albinus said.

Others brought animals with them, and have rented abandoned farms for their animals to graze.

According to FAO, hundreds of cows, as well as 12,000 Syrian mountain and Shami goats have crossed into northern Lebanon, bringing the added threats of overgrazing, land degradation and potential desertification.

At Firzil vegetable market, many merchants go home with their trucks nearly full

Adding more stress to the land, shepherds who used to spend summer on the Lebanese side and winter on the Syrian side, where it is dryer, have not been able to travel to Syria for the last two years.

The price of cattle, FAO said, has dropped by 60 percent.

Potential diseases

Before the Syrian crisis, agricultural inputs, such as vaccinations, farm machinery, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed and medicines were heavily subsidized in Syria. But veterinary services in Syria have weakened because of the conflict; animals coming from the Syrian market are not subject to any control, and some are not vaccinated, FAO said.

“One of our main concerns is the diseases that non-vaccinated animals could bring,” Albinus said.

Without proper checks, the increasing amount of smuggled agricultural commodities from Syria also significantly increases the risk of animal and plant diseases, including Foot and Mouth Disease and PPR, a viral disease also known as goat plague, the two most common transboundary animal diseases in the region, as well as the spread of plant pests.

The last outbreak of a transboundary animal disease in Lebanon occurred before the Syrian crisis in March 2010. Since then, the Ministry of Agriculture has been able to contain the threat. But “there is a sincere worry… that we will have another outbreak of these or other transboundary diseases in Lebanon,” Albinus said.

There is, however, a silver lining. Lebanon, which normally imports 60 percent of its dairy, could benefit from newly arrived Syrian shepherds in boosting local milk production. With the right support, “Lebanese and Syrian farmers working together could make a better livelihood, despite the Syrian crisis, Albinus said.


Farmers in Mashari El Qaa say government officials have visited them to assess their losses, “but until now, we haven’t received any concrete help,” Saad said.

Due to funding constraints, FAO has only been able to target the most vulnerable farmers in Lebanon, including the poorest smallholders, female-headed households and homes with disabled family members.

FAO has called for urgent financial support to establish farmers’ cooperatives and more milk collection centres; to implement a vaccination campaign to prevent the spread of animal diseases; and to establish food safety controls at the border.

As part of a regional UN-coordinated appeal for $4.4 billion launched on 7 June to help people in need inside Syria and in the affected neighbouring countries, FAO is requesting $8.5 million for proposed projects in Lebanon.

ar/ha/cb  source


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