Syrians Abandon Babies at Mosques, Under Trees as War Grinds On

In Syria's Idlib province, workers at the main center for abandoned children tend to babies in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP
In Syria's Idlib province, workers at the main center for abandoned children tend to babies in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP
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Syrians Abandon Babies at Mosques, Under Trees as War Grinds On

In Syria's Idlib province, workers at the main center for abandoned children tend to babies in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP
In Syria's Idlib province, workers at the main center for abandoned children tend to babies in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons. OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP

One cold winter night, Syrian Ibrahim Othman went out to pray and came home cradling a baby girl, abandoned at the doorstep of the village mosque just hours after she was born.

"I took her home and told my wife, 'I brought you a gift'," said the 59-year-old resident of Hazano, in opposition-held northwest Syria.

He named the baby Hibatullah, meaning "gift of God", and decided to raise her as one of the family.

Officials say babies are being left outside mosques, hospitals and even under olive trees in war-torn Syria as more than 12 years of grinding conflict fuel poverty and desperation, AFP said.

"Only a few cases of child abandonment" were officially documented before the war broke out in 2011, according to the Washington-based group Syrians for Truth and Justice, which records human rights abuses in the country.

But between early 2021 and late 2022, more than 100 children -- 62 of them girls -- were found abandoned across the country, it said in a March report, estimating the real figure to be much higher.

"The numbers have increased dramatically" since the start of the conflict along with "the social and economic repercussions of the war" affecting both government-controlled and opposition-held areas, the group said.

It pointed to factors including poverty, instability, insecurity and child marriage, along with sexual abuse and pregnancy out of wedlock.

While adoption is forbidden across Syria, Othman has asked the local authorities for permission to raise Hibatullah.

"I told my children that if I die, she should have part of my inheritance," even though she can never officially be part of the family, he said, breaking into tears.

The three-year-old, her hair pulled back loosely into pigtails and tottering around in shiny pink sandals, now calls him "grandpa".

"She is just an innocent child," Othman said.

'Victims'

Syria's war has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the country's infrastructure.

Health department official Zaher Hajjo told AFP that 53 abandoned newborn babies had been registered in government-controlled areas in the first 10 months of last year -- 28 boys and 25 girls.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this year issued a decree creating dedicated facilities for the children, who would be automatically registered as Arab, Syrian and Muslim, with the place of birth as the location they were found.

In opposition-held Idlib province, social workers at the main center for abandoned children tended to tiny babies wrapped tightly in blankets in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons.

In the bare-walled room with a brown-and-beige carpet, one woman rocked a baby to sleep with one hand while feeding another milk with the other.

Faisal al-Hammoud, head of programs at the center, said one baby girl they took in was found under an olive tree after being mauled by a cat.

"Blood was dripping down her face," he said, adding that the orphanage had since entrusted her to a family.

Workers follow up to make sure such babies are well treated and "that there is no child trafficking", Hammoud added.

The center has taken in 26 babies -- 14 girls and 12 boys -- since it opened in 2019, and nine this year alone, said Abdullah Abdullah, a civil affairs official with Idlib's opposition authorities.

More than four million people live in areas controlled by armed men and Turkish-backed groups in Syria's north and northwest, 90 percent of whom depend on aid to survive.

"The war is to blame and families too" for child abandonments, Abdullah said.

"These children are victims," he added.

 



One Year Later, Migrants Who Cheated Death Off Greece Seek Justice

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
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One Year Later, Migrants Who Cheated Death Off Greece Seek Justice

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo
A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean. Reuters file photo

Desperate hands clutched at Ali Elwan's arms, legs and neck, and screams misted his ears, as he spat out saltwater and fought for three hours to keep afloat in the night, dozens of miles from land.
Although a poor swimmer, he lived — one of just 104 survivors from the wreck of a dilapidated old metal fishing boat smuggling up to 750 migrants from North Africa to Europe.
“I was so, so lucky,” the 30-year-old Egyptian told The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, where he works odd jobs while he waits to hear the outcome of his asylum application. “I have two babies. Maybe I stay(ed) in this life for them.”
Thousands have died in Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks in recent years as migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seek a better life in the affluent European Union.
But the sinking of the Adriana a year ago Friday in international waters 75 kilometers (45 miles) off Pylos in southern Greece was one of the worst. Only 82 bodies were recovered, so that hundreds of families still lack even the grim certitude that their relatives are dead.
Elwan, a cook whose wife and children are in Cairo, says he still gets phone calls from Egypt from mothers, brothers and wives of the missing.
“We (left) home to get the best life for the family and until now (their families) know nothing about them,” he said.
And after a year there are only hazy answers as to why so many lives were lost, what caused the shipwreck and who can be held answerable.
Migrant charities and human rights groups have strongly criticized Greece's handling of the sinking and its aftermath.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Thursday “a credible process for accountability” was needed.
“It is unconscionable that one year since this horrific tragedy, the investigation into the potential liability of (Greece’s) Coast Guard has barely progressed,” HRW official Judith Sunderland said in the groups' joint statement.
The Greek coast guard, migration ministry and other officials did not respond to AP requests for comment ahead of the anniversary.
Authorities had a coast guard boat on the scene and merchant ships in the vicinity during the trawler's last hours. They blame smugglers who crammed hundreds of people into an unseaworthy vessel — most in an airless hold designed to store a catch of fish — for a nightmare voyage from Libya to Italy.
They also say the Adriana capsized when its passengers — some of whom wanted to press on for Italy after five dreadful days at sea, others to seek safety in Greece — suddenly surged to one side, causing it to lurch and turn turtle. And they insist that offers to take the migrants off the ship were rebuffed by people set on reaching Italy.
Elwan — who says he was on deck with a clear view of what happened — and other survivors say the lurching followed a botched coast guard attempt to tow the trawler. He claimed the coast guard hurriedly cut the towline when it became evident the Adriana would sink and drag their boat down with it.
“If you find the ship (at the bottom of the sea), you will find this rope” still attached to it, he said.
But the logistics make such a feat nigh-on impossible, Greek authorities say, as the ship rests some 5 kilometers (more than 3 miles) down, at one of the Mediterranean's deepest points.
The coast guard has denied any towing attempt, and allegations that its vessel tried to shift the trawler into neighboring Italy's area of responsibility.
A naval court began investigating last June, but has released no information on its progress or findings.
Separately, in November Greece's state ombudsman started an independent probe into authorities' handling of the tragedy, bemoaning the coast guard's "express denial” to initiate a disciplinary investigation.
Last month, a Greek court dropped charges against nine Egyptians accused of crewing the Adriana and causing the shipwreck. Without examining evidence for or against them, it determined that Greece lacked jurisdiction as the wreck occurred in international waters.
Effie Doussi, one of the Egyptians' defense lawyers, argued that the ruling was “politically convenient” for Greek authorities.
“It saved the Greek state from being exposed over how the coast guard acted, given their responsibility for rescue,” she said.
Doussi said a full hearing would have included testimony from survivors and other witnesses, and let defense lawyers seek additional evidence from the coast guard, such as potential mobile phone data.
Zeeshan Sarwar, a 28-year-old Pakistani survivor, said he's still waiting for justice, “but apparently there is nothing.”
“I may be looking fine right now, but I am broken from the inside. We are not getting justice,” he told the AP. “We are not receiving any information about the people of coast guard ... that the court has found them guilty or not.”
Elwan, the Egyptian, said he can still only sleep for three or four hours a night.
“I remember every second that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t forget anything because (I) lost friends in this ship.”
The journey that preceded the wreck was also horrendous.
Survivors said Pakistanis were confined in the hold and beaten by the crew if they tried to stir. But Arabic-speaking Egyptians and Syrians enjoyed the relative luxury of the deck. For many, that spelled the difference between life and death when the ship capsized.
“Our condition was very bad on the first day because it was the first time in our life that we were traveling on the sea,” Sarwar said.
“If a person ... tried to vomit, then they used to say that you have to do it right here on your lap, you can’t get (outside),” he said. “On the fifth day, people were fainting because of hunger and thirst. One man died.”
Elwan said he left for Europe secretly, telling his wife he would be away for months, working at an Egyptian Red Sea resort.
He's upset that he's still to be granted asylum, unlike many Syrian survivors who, he said, have moved on to western Europe.
“Only people from Egypt can't get papers,” he said. “I've been working for 10 months to send money for my family ... If someone says come and move rubbish, I will go and move this rubbish, no problem for me.”
If he gets residence papers, Elwan wants to work in Greece and bring his family over.
Otherwise, “I will go to Italy, maybe Germany. I don't know.”