Iraq's Sadr Confronted with Iran's Opposition to 'Tripartite Alliance'

Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a statement in which he backed early elections overseen by the United Nations, in an extremely rare press conference outside his home in Iraq's city Najaf, on February 10, 2021. (Getty Images)
Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a statement in which he backed early elections overseen by the United Nations, in an extremely rare press conference outside his home in Iraq's city Najaf, on February 10, 2021. (Getty Images)
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Iraq's Sadr Confronted with Iran's Opposition to 'Tripartite Alliance'

Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a statement in which he backed early elections overseen by the United Nations, in an extremely rare press conference outside his home in Iraq's city Najaf, on February 10, 2021. (Getty Images)
Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a statement in which he backed early elections overseen by the United Nations, in an extremely rare press conference outside his home in Iraq's city Najaf, on February 10, 2021. (Getty Images)

Head of the Sadrist movement, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is carefully wading through the Iraqi political ring against his rivals in the pro-Iran Coordination Framework.

Iraq has witnessed a turbulent past two weeks with former minister Hoshyar Zebari being barred from running for president and the Supreme Court's surprise ruling on the Kurdistan Region's oil policy.

The ruling by the court on Tuesday cast doubt on the legal foundations of the independent oil policy of Iraq's Kurdish-run region and threatened to drive a political wedge between the two governments. The Supreme Court struck down the legal justifications for the semi-autonomous region's oil policy, effectively calling into question the future of the region's oil contracts, exports and revenues.

Amid these two developments, it appeared as though Sadr has been luring his rivals into revealing their cards as they grapple with the fallout of these rulings, their impact on the country and the formation of the new government.

However, the current tussle in Iraq goes beyond these rulings and the formation of a government, but extends to the very heart of the political process that has been in place since 2003.

The Coordination Framework is meanwhile, trying to exploit the rulings, warning Sadr against forming a government that excludes former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki or of joining the opposition.

Over the past two days, members of the Framework have mulled what the coming weeks will bring. They believe the rulings have dealt a blow to Sadr, who has been seeking the formation of a "national majority" government. The Framework has been opposed to this and believes the country cannot support the fallout from such a move.

Sadr, on the other hand, has been maneuvering to come out of the crisis with the least losses compared to his rivals. The fact that the judiciary has become involved in politics brings in a new factor into the equation, forcing the political powers to realize that they are being forced to form a new political system, even if it comes at a heavy price.

The rivals are now vying to come out on top during this critical time, with Sadr likely to emerge in the driving seat because he has the practical tools to set a new course alongside his Kurdish and Sunni allies.

This tripartite alliance is still reeling from the shock of the rulings and there has been speculation that Sadr may abandon his Kurdish ally, Masoud Barzani. However, indications from Najaf have pointed otherwise. Sadr appears committed to the alliance and the partnership that should establish a clear path in resolving disputes, even those on critical issues, such as oil, gas and the budget.

Barzani is facing a complicated situation with the barring of Zebari's nomination and the Supreme Court ruling. He is caught between calls from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to "prove himself" and between his banking on his alliance with Sadr. At the heart of his dilemma are his priorities, which Sadr is attempting to rearrange.

There are prices Erbil has to pay even with the tripartite alliance. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was hoping that the alliance with Sadr for the sake of forming the new government would have come at a less painful price.

The price paid by the Kurds will ultimately force the Sunnis, the third party in the alliance, to worry that they will be dealt the next blow.



Families of Illegal Migrants Look for Loved Ones in Libya’s Prisons, Detention Centers

Families of Egyptian migrants detained and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Families of Egyptian migrants detained and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Families of Illegal Migrants Look for Loved Ones in Libya’s Prisons, Detention Centers

Families of Egyptian migrants detained and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Families of Egyptian migrants detained and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Whenever there is news of a boat carrying undocumented migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea or those onboard being sent back to Libyan ports, it affects many countries, like Egypt, Sudan, and Syria.

This journey comes at a high price, with mothers selling their jewelry and fathers offering what little livestock they have left.

Like the hopes of migrant families coming together for a better life, they now face shared fears and suffer the painful sorrow of losing their children. Some have tragically drowned at sea, while others have mysteriously vanished in prison without any known whereabouts.

Asharq Al-Awsat has investigated what has happened to hundreds of migrants who have gone missing or been imprisoned in Libya by gathering information from families who shared their testimonies and from lists obtained from prisons, detention centers, and undisclosed locations.

Additionally, stories of individuals who have been released and others who have tried multiple times but failed to escape by sea to Europe have been documented.

Leaked lists from Libyan prisons and detention centers contain the names of migrants and underage children from Egypt and various African countries.

These individuals are held in official prisons as well as in accommodation centers overseen by the unauthorized migration agency affiliated with the temporary National Unity government in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Local human traffickers control the fate of detainees in unofficial accommodation centers and secret facilities, which are also affiliated with militias and organized crime groups.

Each prisoner’s freedom is contingent upon their family paying a ransom for their release, saving them from the torment that includes starvation, branding with fire, and being sold to others, according to a report by the National Committee for Human Rights in Libya.

Through the help of a security official from the Rabiana security directorate in Libya, a Chadian migrant named A.S shared his harrowing experience.

He revealed that he, along with 40 other migrants, including many children and minors, were held captive by a human trafficking gang for more than six months in a dimly lit warehouse near Rabiana.

A.S bravely disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that they endured starvation, sexual assault, branding with fire, and were even filmed to blackmail their families for money.

Interestingly, the Chadian migrant stated that a gang, consisting of three individuals, released over 20 detainees after receiving $5,000 from each hostage’s family.

In June 2022, the remains of 20 Chadian and Libyan individuals were discovered in the Libyan desert near the town of Al-Kufra, which lies on the border between the two countries.

It is important to mention that the “Missing Migrants Project,” operated by the International Organization for Migration, has recorded more than 5,600 cases of people dying or going missing while crossing the Sahara Desert since 2014.

Tarek Lamloum, the director of “Baladi Foundation for Human Rights,” considered the treatment of detained migrants in Libya as a form of slavery, as he explained in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat.

Lamloum regarded the sexual violations and forced labor imposed on migrants in exchange for necessities like food, water, and access to sanitary facilities as criminal.

However, those who were admitted to institutions under the supervision of official immigration authorities have a relatively better situation than those held in secret facilities controlled by armed groups.

Libya’s immigration department stated that the large number of migrants being detained in prisons and accommodation centers compels them to increase efforts for “voluntary return” to their home countries or another host nation.

However, the number of migrants entering Libya and being crowded into its prisons continues to be higher.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a report published on October 11, 2022, argued that migrants are forced into voluntary return to escape arbitrary detention, threats of torture, mistreatment, sexual violence, as well as enforced disappearance and extortion.

One of those who escaped the darkness of prison, according to the evacuation operations supervised by the International Organization for Migration and the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli, is Amr Atef Mohammed.

Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Mohammed, aged 15, in the city of Mashtoul El Souq in the Sharqia Governorate in Egypt's Delta region after his return in December 2022, having survived long imprisonment in Libya.

Mohammed, like others, went to Libya with the intention of escaping to Europe.

“The Libyan Coast Guard caught us and returned us to the Ain Zara shelter on Abu Salim Street,” recalled Mohammed.

According to a report released by the International Organization for Human Rights in mid-April 2023, there are approximately 695,000 irregular migrants in 100 Libyan municipalities, representing more than 42 nationalities.

People living in coastal cities in Libya are used to seeing waves bring ashore bodies of migrants who drowned while trying to reach Europe.

It has become so common that residents of the coastal Libyan city of Qasr al-Akhiyar had to leave their homes and farms last summer because of the strong smell coming from the bodies scattered on the beach.

The Libyan Red Crescent has always rushed teams to retrieve the bodies of migrants after local and judicial authorities are notified.

Toufik Al-Shakri, the Media and Communication Officer at the humanitarian movement, informed Asharq Al-Awsat about the efforts of relief teams in response to the increasing number of capsized migrant boats and how they are dealing with this phenomenon.

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 2,300 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2022 while attempting to cross on overcrowded and dilapidated boats departing from North Africa, particularly from Libya and Tunisia.

Italian police stated that the highest rate of migration flow in 2022 came from Libya, with over 53,000 irregular migrants, followed by Tunisia with more than 32,000 migrants.

Families who have lost loved ones in Libya and are waiting for their return are deeply frightened by the tragedies that happen to migrant groups there.

One such tragedy occurred on the beach of Sabratha in western Libya, where a deadly dispute among human traffickers resulted in shots being fired at a boat carrying many migrants.

This horrific crime, which occurred on October 10, claimed the lives of 15 migrants, with 11 of them being found burnt.

Osama Abdel Tawab believes that his brother, Adham, was among the victims of this boat.

Adham had arrived in Libya in August 2022, hoping to find a way to migrate to Europe, but his family lost contact with him after his last conversation with his brother in Italy.

Sabratha serves as a major hub for non-regular migrants seeking to reach Europe, alongside other coastal cities in both the western and eastern regions. It is a hotspot for smuggling activities, operating discreetly beyond the reach of security authorities.

Abdel Tawab’s desperation to find his brother drives him to constantly search for him.

“We have reached out to every possible source and contacted numerous officials, but we have been unable to trace Adham's whereabouts,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“Even the smuggler who facilitated his travel has disappeared. Our current objective is to conduct a DNA analysis to determine whether Adham's remains are among the charred bodies or not,” added Abdel Tawab.

According to Abdel Tawab, the people of Abnoub city recently laid to rest the body of an individual named Haitham, who was aboard the boat with his brother.


Inside Sudan’s War, ‘There’s Another War for Art’

Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a Sudanese artist, painting at her new home in Cairo. Dozens of artists and gallery owners have fled Sudan and don’t know the fate of their artworks. Credit: Heba Khamis for The New York Times
Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a Sudanese artist, painting at her new home in Cairo. Dozens of artists and gallery owners have fled Sudan and don’t know the fate of their artworks. Credit: Heba Khamis for The New York Times
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Inside Sudan’s War, ‘There’s Another War for Art’

Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a Sudanese artist, painting at her new home in Cairo. Dozens of artists and gallery owners have fled Sudan and don’t know the fate of their artworks. Credit: Heba Khamis for The New York Times
Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a Sudanese artist, painting at her new home in Cairo. Dozens of artists and gallery owners have fled Sudan and don’t know the fate of their artworks. Credit: Heba Khamis for The New York Times

By: Abdi Latif Dahir

Dozens of Sudanese artists and curators have fled their studios and galleries in the capital, jeopardizing thousands of artworks and imperiling an art scene central to the 2019 revolution.

On the morning Sudan’s rival military forces began fighting, Yasir Algrai was in his studio in the center of the country’s capital, prepping for another day of work surrounded by paint colors and canvases.

That was on April 15 — and in the three days that followed, Mr. Algrai remained trapped in his studio, starving and dehydrated as battles raged outside his door on the streets of Khartoum.

For hours every day, he cowered in terror as bullets pierced the windows of the building and the walls shook from errant shelling. When a small period of quiet to escape materialized, Mr. Algrai was eager to seize it — albeit with a heavy heart.

“I could not carry any of my art or personal belongings,” said Mr. Algrai, 29, who got out, but left behind his favorite guitar and more than 300 paintings of different sizes. “This conflict has robbed us of our art and our peace, and we are now left trying to stay sane in the midst of displacement and death.”

Mr. Algrai is among dozens of Sudanese artists and curators who have fled their studios and galleries as two warring generals lay waste to one of Africa’s largest and most geopolitically important nations.

The conflict, pitting the Sudanese Army controlled by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, has killed hundreds, displaced over a million people and left more than half the country’s population in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Amid the freewheeling violence, many fear that the war will devastate the city’s burgeoning art scene, propelled primarily by young artists who emerged from the 2019 pro-democracy revolution and who were beginning to gain regional and global attention.

New artwork by Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher. Photo credit: Heba Khamis for The New York Times

A dozen Sudanese artists and curators in Sudan, Egypt and Kenya told The New York Times that they had no idea about the fate of their homes, studios or gallery spaces, which cumulatively housed artworks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The artistic, creative ecosystem is going to be broken for a while,” said Azza Satti, a Sudanese art curator and filmmaker. Artists, she said, “saw the people’s need to express themselves, to feel alive, to feel recognized,” adding that the war was gradually leading to “the erasure of that voice, that identity.”

Some of the fiercest fighting in the capital has unfolded in neighborhoods like Khartoum 2, where the city’s newest art galleries are based, or bustling districts like Souk al-Arabi, where Mr. Algrai kept his studio. Robberies and looting are rampant in those areas, with residents blaming the paramilitary forces who have steadily tightened their grip on the capital.

With museums and historical buildings attacked and damaged in the fighting, many are also concerned about the pillaging of the country’s artistic riches and archaeological sites.

The Sudan Natural History Museum and archives at the Omdurman Ahlia University have both suffered significant damage or looting, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a statement.

Inside the war, the physical war, there’s another war for art,” said Eltayeb Dawelbait, a veteran Sudanese artist who is based in Nairobi. Mr. Dawelbait has several pieces in Sudanese galleries and said he feared Sudan’s artistic and cultural institutions would be pilfered much like what happened in Iraq two decades ago.

“The artwork needs to be protected,” he said.

After the country’s 1956 independence, Sudan had a bustling art scene that produced renowned artists, including Ahmed Shibrain, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. But in the three decades that the dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir held power, he used censorship, religious decrees and imprisonment to limit creative expression, forcing many artists and musicians to flee the country.

That began to shift during the 2019 revolution, when young artists poured into the streets to paint murals on walls and roads and call for democratic rule. When Mr. al-Bashir was eventually removed from power in April of that year, artists reveled in their newfound freedoms and began painting and sculpting to capture life in post-revolution Sudan.

Among them was Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a 32-year-old self-taught artist who quit her job as an art teacher after the revolution in order to work full-time on her art. Ms. Baasher’s figurative paintings examine the repression that women face in Sudanese society, and over the years, her pieces have attracted the attention of curators and art custodians from Sudan, Egypt, Kenya and the United States.

Days before Sudan’s war broke out in April, she and her family went to Egypt for the last days of the holy month of Ramadan and the following Eid holiday. Ms. Baasher packed several small paintings for the trip with the hope of selling them, but left more than two dozen large canvases at home.

“I cannot put into words or onto a canvas how I feel about this war,” Ms. Baasher said in a video interview from Cairo. With her apartment building and neighborhood in Khartoum deserted, she said she didn’t know the fate of any of her belongings.

“We are all just shocked and traumatized,” she said. “We never imagined this would happen and that we would lose the art movement we have been building.”

Her pain was shared by Rahiem Shadad, who in the heady, post-revolution days co-founded The Downtown Gallery in Khartoum.

Mr. Shadad, 27, works with more than 60 artists across Sudan, and was planning a solo show in Khartoum for Waleed Mohamed, a 23-year-old painter. Mr. Shadad had also just finished curating and shipping artworks for an exhibition scheduled to travel abroad titled “Disturbance in The Nile.” The show, which starts in late June, will tour Lisbon, Madrid and Paris and feature Sudanese artists from various generations.

But since the fighting broke out, Mr. Shadad has focused solely on ensuring the safety of the artists and their artwork.

Hundreds of paintings and framed artworks are stuck in the Downtown Gallery located in Khartoum 2. The conflict has also drained the savings of many artists and denied them a regular income, which largely stemmed from sales to foreign nationals and embassy officials who have now been evacuated.

To help artists and their families, Mr. Shadad, along with Sudanese curators like Ms. Satti, started a crowdfunding campaign this month. They are also mulling over how to transport artists’ works to safety once relative calm takes hold in Khartoum. Despite a seven-day cease-fire scheduled to expire on Monday, Mr. Shadad said he had been told about robberies and harassment of civilians who venture back to the area near his gallery.

“The hub of the art scene in Sudan is under a serious attack,” Mr. Shadad, crying, said in a phone interview from Cairo. “It is extremely emotional thinking that the hard work that we have done will just be lost.”

For many artists, the conflict has also denied them access to their source of inspiration.

Khalid Abdel Rahman, whose work depicts landscapes of Khartoum neighborhoods and Sufi tombs, fled his studio in Khartoum 3 without his paintings and says he’s been thinking about how the conflict will affect his vision and future creations.

“I can’t figure it out now,” he said. “I’m really sad about this.”

But amid the death and displacement that has enveloped Sudan, artists say this is another period in the nation’s history that they will have to document one way or another.

“This is an era that we must carefully study so that we can pass it on to future generations and introduce them to what happened to the country,” Mr. Algrai, who is staying in a village east of Khartoum, said.

“The passion will never die.”

The New York Times


As Drone War Comes to Russia, Muscovites Shrug Their Shoulders and Carry On

A specialist inspects the damaged facade of a multi-storey apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30, 2023. (AFP)
A specialist inspects the damaged facade of a multi-storey apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30, 2023. (AFP)
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As Drone War Comes to Russia, Muscovites Shrug Their Shoulders and Carry On

A specialist inspects the damaged facade of a multi-storey apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30, 2023. (AFP)
A specialist inspects the damaged facade of a multi-storey apartment building after a reported drone attack in Moscow on May 30, 2023. (AFP)

After the biggest ever drone strike on Moscow brought the Ukraine war to the Russian capital, Muscovites carried on with their lives with the fatalism for which they are famous.

On a warm spring day in the city center, residents could be seen taking selfies in front of the Bolshoi Theater while others relaxed in cafes and shopped in the well-stocked luxury stores of Moscow.

Very few expressed concern at the news. Most shrugged their shoulders and many expressed sadness that the conflict appeared to be escalating.

"The Kyiv regime is already crossing all the lines," Natalia, 59, told Reuters, referring to the Ukrainian government which Russia said was behind the drone attack on Moscow.

"This is very sad, especially since they are directing these drones at residential buildings, at the city, at civilians, where there are no military facilities."

Though civilian targets in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities have, since the earliest days of the war, been struck repeatedly by Russian drones and missiles, Tuesday marked only the second time the Russian capital had come under direct fire, after an apparent drone strike on the Kremlin earlier this month.

The Russian Defense Ministry said that all the drones had been downed, though three collided with residential buildings in south Moscow and the town of Moskovskiy, on the capital's outskirts. Two people were injured.

The Kremlin said it was obvious that Ukraine was behind the attack and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the drones had been directed against civilian targets. Ukraine denied it was directly involved in targeting Moscow but forecast more attacks would follow.

War comes to Moscow

Some residents who spoke to Reuters suggested that the conflict in Ukraine was always likely to make itself felt at home, sooner or later.

Olga, who said she lived near to the site of one of the drone collisions on Profsoyuznaya Street, called the strikes "logical, to be expected ... what else were we waiting for?"

"Of course, I am glad it didn't fall on our house, just nearby", Olga added. "I'm thinking about moving to a safer place."

Drone debris hit some of Moscow most prestigious areas including Leninsky Prospekt, a grand avenue crafted under Josef Stalin, and the area of western Moscow where the Russian elite - including President Vladimir Putin - have their residences.

Residents in southwestern Moscow said they heard loud bangs at around 0200 to 0300 GMT, followed by the smell of petrol. Some filmed a drone being shot down and a plume of smoke rising over the Moscow skyline.

The Kremlin praised Moscow's air defenses and the military while Russian lawmakers suggested Russia needed to get tougher at rooting out traitors and saboteurs within Russia.

Exactly how the Russian population views the war is unclear as few trust pollsters enough to tell them the truth and even then, emigre opponents of Putin say, any negative polls would never be published.

Criticism of what the Kremlin calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine has been punishable by law since the start of the conflict, and public criticism of Putin is rare.

"You need to understand cause and effect, why everything is happening," one middle-aged man, who declined to give his name, told Reuters in central Moscow. "I think that these attacks are due to only one thing: the fact that our ruler began waging a war.

"All of this is because of our ruler," said the man. "It's no surprise it's bounced back to here."


A Door of Hope, Death in Libya

 Families of Egyptian migrants held captive and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Families of Egyptian migrants held captive and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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A Door of Hope, Death in Libya

 Families of Egyptian migrants held captive and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Families of Egyptian migrants held captive and missing in Libya (Asharq Al-Awsat)

In October 2022, a phone call from Italy reached me, the voice on the other end filled with worry and trepidation.

“My brother Adham traveled to Libya, and we have lost contact with him. We don't know if he is alive or dead,” disclosed Osama Abdel Tawab Amin, an Egyptian.

Amin proceeded to recount the events surrounding his 14-year-old brother Adham, who embarked on a journey from Egypt to Libya with the intention of reaching the eastern city of Benghazi.

Adham, a native of the Asyut governorate in southern Egypt, had become part of a group of numerous minors from various Arab and African countries who hoped to reach Europe.

Driven by the aspiration to migrate to Europe from a tender age, these underage children willingly subject themselves to the grip of human traffickers.

Departing from their villages, they embark on a hazardous expedition, fraught with the potential outcomes of imprisonment, arrival on European shores, or, tragically, repatriation to their home countries.

This time, however, the outcome was ominous as it led those minors to their “final resting place.”

Spanning from the Nile Delta to Sidi Barrani near the Libyan border and reaching into other countries, including Sudan and Chad, this investigation aims to document extensive human trafficking operations affecting minors.

Starting in early 2021, there has been a notable increase in reports from Egyptian, African, and Syrian families concerning their children’s journey to Libya and the subsequent loss of communication.

Desperate to reunite with their children, these families have been actively seeking assistance and have shared distressing accounts of their children falling prey to the deceitful tactics employed by human traffickers.

The somber reality of this tragedy came to light at the rear entrance of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, offering a panoramic view of the Nile in Cairo.

It was in this location that Asharq Al-Awsat captured a significant collection of grievances submitted by individuals.

Furthermore, members of the Egyptian parliament have been presented with additional reports, each intertwined with a distressing combination of fear and despair.

In mid-March 2022, the Libyan Coast Guard issued a statement regarding the tragic sinking of a boat in the Mediterranean Sea.

The incident occurred off the coast of “Wadi Umm al-Shaush,” situated near the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk.

Among the migrants on board were around 18 young Egyptians.

Despite extensive search efforts conducted over several days, the family of Amr Sayed Anwar, a 15-year-old Egyptian boy hailing from a village in the Dakahlia governorate north of Cairo, received the devastating news that their son was among the victims of this tragic drowning incident.

After approximately a month had passed since the incident, I contacted Anwar’s father, who resides in a village near the town of El-Senbellawein, one of the administrative centers in the Dakahlia governorate.

The man, who is around fifty years old and works as a daily laborer on a farm, expressed that the authorities in Libya had not located his son’s body.

He sorrowfully stated: “I have lost my son forever.”

The grieving father’s intense emotional state prevented me from inquiring about the details of his son’s journey to Libya, but he erupted in anger when the term “broker” was mentioned.

“I paid 30,000 Egyptian pounds and he ended up traveling with 22 others, some older than him. They went to a broker in Marsa Matruh. After reaching Libya, the broker demanded an additional 70,000 pounds to continue the journey to Italy,” recalled the father angrily.

Upon being provided with the broker’s contact information by Anwar’s father, it became apparent to me that the “broker market” functions akin to any other market, governed by the dynamics of supply and demand, as well as the art of negotiation and bargaining.

In this market, each region within Libya carries a specific price that prospective migrants must pay, determined by its proximity or distance from the Egyptian borders.

It turned out that the broker referred to me by the father of the deceased child enjoys a wide reputation among those aspiring to engage in clandestine migration from several rural governorates in the Nile Delta, despite him residing in the Sidi Barrani area, located 570 kilometers northwest of Cairo.

The broker did not respond to any requests for an interview regarding his activities in facilitating border-crossing for migrants.

However, he later interacted with us when we identified ourselves as concerned parents seeking to migrate their children.

During the initial conversation, I asked him for assistance in smuggling three young boys to Libya, to which he did not object. He promptly inquired: “Which region do they want to go to?”

Abu Mazen, the broker operating under an alias, wasted no time and did not allow me much room to answer.

His mannerisms seemed to blend Egyptian and Libyan influences.

Without hesitation, he promptly stated the exact sum required and confidently asserted his ability to facilitate the transportation of any number of individuals across the Egyptian border into Libya.

In an attempt to reassure me, he even added: “I consider them my own children, I swear to God!”

Around ten days later, I contacted Abu Mazen, and it appeared that the sheer number of callers had caused him to forget our previous conversation. He asked for a recap of our discussion, and then I requested a meeting with him. With clear reluctance, he opted to schedule our meeting in Marsa Matruh a week later.

At the end of May 2022, during our conversation, Abu Mazen proposed a change of plans.

Instead of meeting in Marsa Matruh as initially planned, he suggested that it would be more convenient for both of us to meet in Alexandria. He explained that he would be visiting a relative there and offered the option for me to meet him in Alexandria if I preferred.

We met as planned at a seaside café in the Al-Asafira district of Alexandria, situated about 230 kilometers north of Cairo. Our discussion primarily focused on how young individuals are recruited and the various techniques employed to smuggle them out of the country.

I noticed that the sixty-year-old man spoke with ease, but when it came to the details, caution overcame him.

With a touch of boasting, Abu Mazen, whose phone never stopped ringing, began to showcase how he possessed a strong network of connections within Libya.

Suddenly, he said, “I don't exploit or deceive young people. They come to us seeking help to smuggle them into Libya, and we assist them, never leaving them except in the specific region they specify.”

During our time at the café, Abu Mazen took pride in the abundance of phone calls he received in less than an hour, highlighting the growing demand for his services.

He made a point of emphasizing that he does not overcharge like “others,” stating: “We hold ourselves accountable to God when it comes to people’s children.”

“I charge 20,000 pounds per person from the Barani border to Tripoli (approximately $650), and 15,000 pounds to Benghazi.”

“Others charge 40,000 or 50,000 pounds and abandon or sell them,” he added.

Abu Mazen further remarked: “Today, the Libyan dinar is valued at five Egyptian pounds,” referring to the exchange rate between the two currencies at that time (with the dollar equivalent to 5.12 dinars).

After my insistence, Abu Mazen enlightened me about the smuggling methods and said: “This has been my work for years, and I have my connections inside Libya, just ten hours away from the customs.”

With great caution, he mentioned that he brings young people from various provinces to the city of Marsa Matruh at a specific time before transporting them to Saloum.

From there, they would embark on foot through desert routes and trails, alongside the land border crossing that connects Egypt and Libya.

Despite my repeated inquiry about the age of the young individuals he helps smuggle, Abu Mazen displayed little concern for this matter.

He simply responded: “We’re in it for the money, their age is inconsequential to us.”

He chuckled and continued: “There is a significant demand for transporting young children. But what can we do? It's what their families desire!”

He clarified that the individuals who he smuggles have intentions to migrate from Libya to Europe, with the journey costing between 120,000 to 150,000 pounds.

Furthermore, he confidently stated: “Where would they go without me? My associates in Libya will handle everything!”


Türkiye's Kilicdaroglu Faces the Heat after Election Loss to Erdogan

Türkiye's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks at CHP headquarters, in Ankara, Türkiye, late Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
Türkiye's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks at CHP headquarters, in Ankara, Türkiye, late Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
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Türkiye's Kilicdaroglu Faces the Heat after Election Loss to Erdogan

Türkiye's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks at CHP headquarters, in Ankara, Türkiye, late Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
Türkiye's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks at CHP headquarters, in Ankara, Türkiye, late Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)

After failing to seize the moment to defeat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Türkiye's elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces questions about his leadership and the challenge of preserving a bitter opposition alliance ahead of local voting in March 2024.

According to some party members, analysts and voters, Kilicdaroglu, the opposition presidential candidate in Sunday's runoff vote, will need to immediately re-focus on maintaining control of Türkiye's big cities in the municipal elections.

But after his loss to Erdogan - who was seen as uniquely vulnerable due to a cost-of-living crisis - many opposition members and supporters are frustrated, soul-searching and considering leadership changes.

"It was not a surprising result since the opposition did not change for 20 years facing the same government," said Bugra Oztug, 24, who voted for Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul. "I feel sad and disappointed, but I am not hopeless."

Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant, got 47.8% support in the runoff vote despite an optimistic, inclusive campaign that pledged to rein in Erdogan's maverick economic policies.

Instead, Erdogan, modern Türkiye's longest-serving leader, will extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade, backed by a majority for his alliance in parliament.

Meanwhile the Republican People's Party (CHP), which Kilicdaroglu leads, holds internal discussions this week in Ankara to pick up the pieces. The broader six-party opposition alliance convened after Sunday's election results came in.

Akif Hamzacebi, a former CHP deputy parliamentary group chair, said his party and Kilicdaroglu were "seriously unsuccessful" because of a poor strategy, and a comprehensive re-evaluation is needed. If "the necessary actions are not taken, the future will be worse than today," he said on Twitter.

Second-guessing

Kilicdaroglu, 74, had long pressed to be the man to take on the 69-year-old Erdogan.

The opposition alliance - which included nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals - chose him as candidate in March, even though some members had warned at the time that he was not the strongest option based on opinion polls.

His selection came after a dramatic weekend in which Meral Aksener, leader of the IYI Party, the Turkish opposition's second largest, briefly walked out in protest.

Yet on the campaign trail, Kilicdaroglu won the key backing of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), leading most pollsters to predict he would prevail in the initial vote on May 14 and begin rolling back Erdogan's legacy.

In the end, he barely managed to force a runoff on May 28. In the last two weeks, he struggled to motivate voters in the face of an overwhelmingly pro-government mainstream media and Erdogan's strong base of support across rural Anatolia.

In a speech on Sunday evening, Kilicdaroglu called it "the most unfair election in years". But he gave no sign of resignation and said he "will continue to lead and struggle for democracy".

Atilla Yesilada, analyst at GlobalSource Partners, said, "I don't know whether CHP and IYI Party can tolerate their leadership anymore".

Zeynep Alemdar, professor of international relations at Okan University, said Kilicdaroglu sought to be a collaborative leader, but his allies contributed little to his success.

"None of them seem to have increased their share of votes, neither for themselves nor for Kilicdaroglu," she said.

Holding the cities

Analysts say Kilicdaroglu will now seek to keep this unwieldy alliance united, including the HDP's support, to hold on to cities in March.

In the last municipal elections in 2019, CHP candidates backed by the alliance shocked Erdogan's AK Party (AKP) by winning mayoralties in Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Adana.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP - who Aksener had promoted as a better presidential candidate than Kilicdaroglu - said on Monday that the "struggle is starting again".

"We will no longer expect different results by doing the same things. From now on, we will continue to fight to win all hearts," Imamoglu said in the video address.

An internal debate within the CHP, the party of modern Türkiye's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, will likely stir ahead of a party congress scheduled for this summer.

Emre Erdogan, political science professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University, said the opposition's election loss made it harder to form a "grand" alliance but this remained necessary for success in the local elections in March 2024.

"If the opposition cannot unite again, the victories of 2019 may be reversed and the opposition camp can lose Istanbul and even Ankara," he said.


Disappointing Weather Takes its Toll on Gaza Wheat Crop 

A Palestinian man grinds wheat during harvest season on a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 24, 2023. (Reuters)
A Palestinian man grinds wheat during harvest season on a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 24, 2023. (Reuters)
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Disappointing Weather Takes its Toll on Gaza Wheat Crop 

A Palestinian man grinds wheat during harvest season on a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 24, 2023. (Reuters)
A Palestinian man grinds wheat during harvest season on a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 24, 2023. (Reuters)

Shifting weather patterns and disappointing rains in Gaza mean Palestinian farmer Itaf Qudeih has managed to harvest only a quarter of the wheat she once grew on her land.

"The wheat was taller and the grain was bigger, it is now very weak. The late winter influenced the crop and the quantity of the produce," said Qudeih, 60, as she joined fellow workers for the harvest in her fields in southern Gaza.

"This land used to produce a ton of grain, it is now making a quarter of a ton because of weaker rainfall," she added.

Mohammad Odah, of the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, said the annual wheat harvest has fallen by 1,000 tons from last year because of the late winter season and unreliable rains. Last year production was 5,000 tons.

Usually, the local wheat harvest accounts for 2% of consumption in the enclave, whose 2.3 million people regard traditional flat breads as an indispensable part of their diet. The rest is imported.


Planet-Friendly Farming Takes Root in Drought-Hit Tunisia

This picture taken on April 27, 2023, shows an agricultural field in Cap Negro in northern Tunisia. (AFP)
This picture taken on April 27, 2023, shows an agricultural field in Cap Negro in northern Tunisia. (AFP)
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Planet-Friendly Farming Takes Root in Drought-Hit Tunisia

This picture taken on April 27, 2023, shows an agricultural field in Cap Negro in northern Tunisia. (AFP)
This picture taken on April 27, 2023, shows an agricultural field in Cap Negro in northern Tunisia. (AFP)

Saber Zouani lost his job as a waiter when the Covid pandemic ravaged the Tunisian tourism sector, so he decided to try something new and started a permaculture farm.

Now he grows all the food he needs and has become a pioneer of the style of ecological agriculture that is gaining fans worldwide, including in his North African country.

Many hope it will help Tunisia weather the impacts of climate change and wean it off its reliance on global supply chains, including grain and fertilizer imports from war-torn Ukraine and Russia.

In his western home town of Cap Negro, Zouani, 37, proudly showed off his three-hectare (seven-acre) farm, set up to mimic natural ecosystems in line with ideas popularized in the 1970s by Australian ecologists.

Permaculture, as an alternative to industrial agriculture, aims to work in harmony with the environment, keep soil structures intact, and do without artificial inputs such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

"No, these are not weeds," said Zouani, a biotechnology graduate, pointing to nettles and dandelions growing wild all around his rows of onions, peppers and radishes.

When he harvests his vegetables, he said, he puts the excess green matter back onto the soil to slow evaporation -- hoping to keep the ground as moist as a forest floor covered with fallen leaves.

'Create living soil'

Such methods are especially useful in Tunisia where an unprecedented drought has parched the countryside and left water reservoirs at dangerously low levels this spring.

At his farm, Zouani captures precious rainwater in a pond and only sparingly waters his plants, which are all grown from his own seeds.

Zouani also keeps cows, sheep, goats and chickens and composts their droppings to create soil enriched with the nitrogen-rich natural fertilizer.

"We need to create living soil, attract earthworms, fungi and all the nutrients for our plants and trees," said Zouani.

Permaculture, he said, draws on farming methods and wisdoms of centuries past -- "returning to our roots, to the traditional methods used by our grandparents".

Zouani said he earns around 300 dinars ($100) a month from selling farm produce, with enough left over to make him, his brother and their elderly parents self-sufficient.

In two or three years, he hopes to make "a decent income" and turn his farm, named "Om Hnia" in honor of his late grandmother, into an eatery and eventually a rural eco-lodge.

Zouani started off more than two years ago with the help of the Tunisian Association of Permaculture, which gave him initial training and then financial support for basic equipment.

The group's "Plant Your Farm" project aims to create 50 micro-farms over five years, of which around 30 are already up and running, said its president Rim Mathlouthi.

'Bring back biodiversity'

The goal, Mathlouthi said, is to "demonstrate to the authorities and other farmers that permaculture is a profitable and efficient agricultural system which brings back biodiversity when the soil is depleted from ploughing and chemical inputs".

She said the initiative, with funding from Switzerland and others, even covers Tunisia's sun-baked arid regions and aims to entice jobless young people to cultivate abandoned family land.

It also hopes to help change a model "where the Tunisian farmer loses money because he is constantly spending, for a very small yield, on seeds, fertilizers and pesticides", said Mathlouthi.

Permaculture also aims to help Tunisia adapt to the searing drought that has badly impacted a farm sector centered on wheat, barley and other water-intensive cereals.

"Crises such as water stress or the Ukraine war are opportunities to promote solutions such as agro-ecology and permaculture," said Mathlouthi.

To help Tunisia's new eco-farmers sell their organic produce and spread the word on permaculture, the association has promoted farmers' markets and created a "citizen food" label.

Families flocked to a recent workshop at a school in the northern city of Bizerte, where they learnt green farming techniques and sampled their tasty produce.

"These are healthy products," enthused father-of-three Salem Laghouati, 44. "It's important to know what you're eating."

Maissa Haddad, a 49-year-old schoolteacher, said she was proud to be "educating children on permaculture" and teaching them that it is "beneficial for our planet and our lifestyle".


Türkiye Election Runoff 2023: What You Need to Know

Election representatives prepare ballots with the presidential candidates at a polling station A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Türkiye, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
Election representatives prepare ballots with the presidential candidates at a polling station A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Türkiye, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
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Türkiye Election Runoff 2023: What You Need to Know

Election representatives prepare ballots with the presidential candidates at a polling station A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Türkiye, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
Election representatives prepare ballots with the presidential candidates at a polling station A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Türkiye, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)

Turks were voting on Sunday in a presidential election runoff between the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu that will decide whether the president extends his rule into a third decade.

Here is a guide to the runoff, the two candidates and the key issues as well as details on how the May 14 parliamentary election unfolded:

Presidential vote

Turks will be electing a president for a five-year term.

In the first round of voting on May 14, Erdogan got 49.5% support, falling just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff in a vote seen as a referendum on his autocratic rule.

Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of a six-party opposition alliance, received 44.9% support. Nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan came third with 5.2% support and was eliminated. The outcome confounded the expectations of pollsters who had put Kilicdaroglu ahead.

A referendum in 2017 narrowly approved Erdogan's move to broaden the powers of the presidency, making the president head of government and abolishing the post of prime minister.

As president, Erdogan sets policy on Türkiye’s economy, security, domestic and international affairs.

THE CANDIDATES:

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

More than 20 years after Erdogan and his AKP came to power, he hopes to extend his tenure as modern Türkiye’s longest serving ruler.

His strong performance on May 14, when he managed to mobilize conservative voters, defied predictions of his political demise.

Victory would entrench the rule of a leader who has transformed Türkiye, reshaping the secular state founded 100 years ago to fit his pious vision while consolidating power in his hands in what critics see as a march to autocracy.

Over the last week, Erdogan received the endorsement of hardline nationalist Sinan Ogan, boosting the incumbent and intensifying Kilicdaroglu's challenge in the runoff.

In the parliamentary vote held on May 14 support for Erdogan's AKP tumbled seven points from the 42.6% which it won in the 2018 elections, but with his alliance enjoying a parliamentary majority he has called on voters to support him in order to ensure political stability.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Kilicdaroglu is both the main opposition candidate and chairman of the CHP, which was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the founder of modern Türkiye.

He has offered voters an inclusive platform and promised a democratic reset, including a return to a parliamentary system of government and independence for a judiciary that critics say Erdogan has used to crack down on dissent.

However, his rhetoric since May 14 has taken a hawkish turn as he reaches out to nationalist voters in his bid to overtake Erdogan, vowing to send back millions refugees.

Türkiye’s pro-Kurdish parties on Thursday reaffirmed their support for Kilicdaroglu in the runoff without naming him, a day after expressing anger at a deal which he reached with the far right, anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP).

ZP leader Umit Ozdag declared his party's support for Kilicdaroglu on Wednesday in a potential boost to the CHP leader, countering the impact of Ogan's support for Erdogan. The ZP received 2.2% of votes in the parliamentary election.

What is at stake?

The vote will decide not only who leads Türkiye, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost of living crisis, and the shape of its foreign policy.

Erdogan's critics say his government has muzzled dissent, eroded rights and brought the judicial system under its sway, a charge denied by officials.

Türkiye’s economy is also in focus. Economists say it was Erdogan's unorthodox policy of low interest rates despite surging prices that drove inflation to 85% last year, and the lira slumping to one tenth of its value against the dollar over the last decade.

Kilicdaroglu has pledged to return to more orthodox economic policy and to restore the independence of the Turkish central bank.

On foreign affairs, under Erdogan, Türkiye has flexed military power, forged closer ties with Russia, and seen relations with the European Union and United States become increasingly strained.

Türkiye and the United Nations also brokered a deal between Moscow and Kyiv for Ukrainian wheat exports and Erdogan announced on May 17 the latest two-month extension.

Polling

More than 64 million Turks are eligible to vote at nearly 192,000 polling stations, including more than 6 million who were first-time voters on May 14. There are 3.4 million voters overseas, who voted between May 20-24.

Polling stations in Türkiye opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Sunday and close at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). The sale of alcohol is banned on election day.

Turnout in Turkish elections is generally high. On May 14, the overall turnout was 87.04% of eligible voters, with a level of 88.9% in Turkey and 49.4% abroad.

Results

Under election rules, news, forecasts and commentaries about the vote are banned until 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) and media are only free to report on election results from 9 p.m. (1800 GMT).

However, the High Election Board may allow media to report on results earlier and usually does. Results on Sunday evening are likely to emerge earlier than they did on May 14 given the relative simplicity of the ballot paper.


ISIS Wives in Syria’s Roj Camp Face Consequences for Husbands’ Actions

Roj Camp in Al-Malikiyah Countryside, Al-Hasakah, Northeastern Syria (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Roj Camp in Al-Malikiyah Countryside, Al-Hasakah, Northeastern Syria (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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ISIS Wives in Syria’s Roj Camp Face Consequences for Husbands’ Actions

Roj Camp in Al-Malikiyah Countryside, Al-Hasakah, Northeastern Syria (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Roj Camp in Al-Malikiyah Countryside, Al-Hasakah, Northeastern Syria (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Located in northeastern Syria, Camp Roj is home to families and relatives of individuals associated with the notorious terrorist organization ISIS. Within this encampment, women and mothers find solace amidst their daily routines, sheltered under tents embellished with the emblem of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Their future remains uncertain as they patiently await the resolution of their destinies. In this desolate setting, the passage of time has become inconsequential, as evening merges seamlessly with daylight.

At Camp Roj, inhabitants are grappling with a prolonged pause in their lives and carry the weight of their memories and endure the painful revisiting of bygone moments.

The narratives of their journeys to Syria exhibit a remarkable resemblance.

For ISIS wives, when their husbands committed to joining the ranks of the extremist organization, their families were compelled to accompany them, bracing themselves for the repercussions.

When we carefully examine the daily lives of these women and mothers at Camp Roj and compare them to their previous normal lives in their home countries, it becomes clear that everything is different.

Located in the outskirts of the town of Al-Malikiyah in the Al-Hasakah province, Camp Roj is home to approximately 600 families, totaling around 2,500 individuals.

Among those individuals are Iraqi refugees, displaced Syrians, as well as foreign families of former ISIS fighters hailing from Western and Arab nations.

Asharq Al-Awsat visited this heavily guarded camp and conducted exclusive interviews with a Moroccan, an Egyptian, an Uzbek, and an Iraqi woman.

Most of the women who participated in this investigation expressed their struggles in obtaining sufficient funds to meet their basic needs.

They also lamented the difficulty of accessing clean drinking water, as well as the lack of hygiene, medical care, counseling, education, and proper nutrition.

These women are living within the confines of closed walls and surveillance cameras.

Shuruq, a Moroccan woman hailing from the city of Tetouan, shared her story of spending eight years in several Syrian cities that were subjected to bombings and destruction.

Eventually, she found herself seeking refuge under a tent that offers no protection from the winter cold or the scorching heat of summer.

Today, she bears the responsibility of raising orphaned children after their father, who brought them to this volatile corner of the Middle East, was killed.

“I never decided the fate of my life. I lived the life of my family, then the life of my husband, and now I am a widow at this age... I live each day as written by destiny,” said Shuruq.

The 36-year-old widow recounted her escape from areas under the control of ISIS in mid-2017 following the death of her husband.

“My husband chose to join the organization, and after his death, we had no remaining ties to it. We fled towards areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and sought refuge in the camp,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat.

She pointed out that one of the main obstacles preventing women like her from returning to their home countries is the presence of children born in Syria with multiple nationalities.

“My children were born in Morocco, and in my case, there is no legal conflict due to having dual nationality, mixed marriage or giving birth to children in Syria. I don't understand why Morocco hesitates to repatriate us when I am a widow and a mother to orphans.”

“When my mental state deteriorates, day and night become indistinguishable, and the daily routine becomes a blur,” said Shuruq about her daily struggle.

“Sometimes I prepare breakfast for my children at 9 in the morning, and on other days, it's at 3 in the afternoon because time holds no value,” she revealed, adding that she is living in burden.


Children in Quake-Hit Syria Learn in Buses Turned Classrooms

Buses turned into traveling classrooms pull into at a displacement camp in Jindayris in the opposition-held northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo on May 23, 2023, following a devastating earthquake more than three months ago. (AFP)
Buses turned into traveling classrooms pull into at a displacement camp in Jindayris in the opposition-held northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo on May 23, 2023, following a devastating earthquake more than three months ago. (AFP)
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Children in Quake-Hit Syria Learn in Buses Turned Classrooms

Buses turned into traveling classrooms pull into at a displacement camp in Jindayris in the opposition-held northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo on May 23, 2023, following a devastating earthquake more than three months ago. (AFP)
Buses turned into traveling classrooms pull into at a displacement camp in Jindayris in the opposition-held northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo on May 23, 2023, following a devastating earthquake more than three months ago. (AFP)

In a dusty Syrian camp for earthquake survivors, school pupils line up and wait for a colorful bus to pull up. Since the disaster hit, they go to a classroom on wheels.

School bags on their backs and notebooks in hand, the children took off their shoes before entering the bus, then sat down along rows of desks fitted inside.

A teacher greeted them in the mobile classroom, decorated with curtains bearing children's designs, before they broke into a song for their English class.

The February 6 quake killed nearly 6,000 people in Syria, many of them in the war-torn country's opposition-held northwest, and also left tens of thousands dead in Türkiye.

The Syrian town of Jindayris, in Aleppo province near the Turkish border, was among the worst hit, with homes destroyed and school buildings either levelled or turned into shelters.

"We were living in Jindayris and the earthquake happened... and then we didn't have homes anymore," said 10-year-old Jawaher Hilal, a light pink headscarf covering her hair.

"We came to live here and the school was very far away," said the fifth-grader now staying with her family at the displacement camp on the outskirts of town.

As relief services were set up, she told AFP, "The buses came here and we started to study and learn. The buses are really nice, they teach us a lot."

The travelling classrooms are a project of the non-profit Orange Organization and service more than 3,000 children at some 27 camps, said education officer Raad al-Abd.

"The mobile classrooms offer educational services as well as psychological support to children who were affected by the quake," he said.

'Desperate conditions'

More than three months after the quake, 3.7 million children in Syria "continue to face desperate conditions and need humanitarian assistance", says the United Nations children's agency UNICEF.

"Almost 1.9 million children have had their education disrupted, with many schools still being used as shelters," it added in a statement this month.

In northwest Syria alone, "a minimum of 452 primary and secondary schools" were reportedly damaged to varying degrees, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said weeks ago.

"More than 1 million school-aged children need education support and are at risk of being out of school," it said, adding that at least 25,000 teachers are also in need of help, including "mental health and psychosocial support".

On another bus, boys and girls enthusiastically interacted with the teacher, balloons hanging from the ceiling, for lessons that included Arabic, math and science.

Outside in the bare dirt, children sang in a circle and clapped along with the educators.

As the buses left, pulling out through the road running between the camps' tents, adjacent structures and trees, the children yelled out and waved goodbye.

Jawaher's father Ramadan Hilal expressed relief and gratitude for the initiative.

"After the earthquake there were no more schools or anything else," he said. "Even though they wanted to establish schools, they are far away."