Syrian Refugees Fearful as Lebanon Steps up Deportations

Displaced Syrian children slide down a hill, above a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 12, 2019. (AP)
Displaced Syrian children slide down a hill, above a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 12, 2019. (AP)
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Syrian Refugees Fearful as Lebanon Steps up Deportations

Displaced Syrian children slide down a hill, above a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 12, 2019. (AP)
Displaced Syrian children slide down a hill, above a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 12, 2019. (AP)

Lebanese officials are cracking down on Syrian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis and political stalemate, an escalation that has caused a panic among Syrians in the country.

In recent weeks, the army has raided refugee camps and set up checkpoints to review the documentation of non-Lebanese citizens, arresting and in many cases deporting Syrians found not to have legal residency, according to refugees and humanitarian organizations.

“People aren’t sleeping in their houses … and are afraid even to go to work,” said a woman originally from the Syrian province of Idlib who is living in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley.

Her husband was deported on April 10, along with 28 other men, after a raid on an apartment building in the Beirut suburb of Jounieh, she said, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

Like other Syrians interviewed for this story, the woman spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

Her 4-year-old son asks where his father is every day, she said. She fears her husband has been put in one of Syria’s detention centers because — like many men who fled to Lebanon — he was wanted for dodging mandatory army service.

Pressure has increased in other ways. Municipalities have put in place restrictive measures such as curfews for Syrians. The Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that it ordered municipalities to survey and register their Syrian populations and make sure they are documented before permitting them to rent property.

It also asked the UN refugee agency to revoke refugee status from Syrians who go back and forth between Lebanon and their war-torn country. Last week, a committee of government ministers demanded that UNHCR hand over detailed personal information on refugees in its database.

Lebanon hosts some 805,000 registered Syrian refugees, whose official status in theory protects them — although those who fail to keep their residency papers up to date can face deportation. The actual number of Syrians living in Lebanon after fleeing their country’s 12-year-old civil war is believed to be much higher as Lebanon's government ordered the United Nations to halt new registrations in 2015.

Government officials have given varying estimates of the number of Syrians in the country, ranging from 1.5 million to more than 2 million. Lebanon is believed to have a population of around 5 million to 5.5 million citizens, but no census has been held for nearly a century.

Since Lebanon’s economic meltdown began in 2019, officials have increasingly called for a mass return of Syrians, saying they are a burden on the country’s scarce resources and that much of Syria is now safe. The rhetoric has grown increasingly heated; a federation of trade unions recently declared a “National Campaign to Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation.”

In recent interviews with local media, caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar claimed that refugees make up 40% of Lebanon’s population, which “no country in the world would accept.”

Hajjar told The Associated Press that Lebanon's government can ensure that Syrians who qualify as refugees would not be deported, by exchanging data with the UN refugee agency.

He referred questions about deportations to General Security, the agency in charge of enforcing immigration laws. Spokespeople for the agency and the Lebanese military did not respond to requests for comment and neither has made public statement on the deportations.

The UN refugee agency said it has observed an increase in raids taking placing in Syrian communities and has received reports of Syrians being deported, including registered refugees. It said it “takes reports of deportations of Syrian refugees very seriously.”

UN officials did not give a number of confirmed deportations. The Access Center for Human Rights, a group tracking conditions of Syrian refugees, said it documented at least 200 deportations in April.

The United States, one of the Lebanese Army's largest donors, has expressed concerns about the deportations to Lebanese officials, said a spokesperson at the US Embassy in Beirut who spoke on condition of anonymity as per regulations.

Refugee returns should be “voluntary, safe, and dignified,” the spokesperson said. “We have questions about the procedures followed in recent deportations and the extent to which those criteria were met.”

The anti-refugee campaign comes against the backdrop of stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and a six-month deadlock in electing the country’s next president.

Meanwhile, several Arab countries have moved towards a rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Refugee returns have been on the agenda of recent regional talks, including a meeting of top diplomats in Jordan on Monday to discuss a political solution to Syria’s war.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said refugees are serving as a scapegoat for Lebanese politicians at a time of heightened public anger over their failure to deal with the country’s economic and political crises.

Refugees are “sort of the punching bag that shows up when everyone needs one,” he said. He suggested the crackdown could also be linked to Lebanon’s ongoing presidential deadlock.

A leading presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, is close to Damascus and has promised to use his connections to broker a deal for refugee returns. His likely rival, army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun, may be “trying to showcase his ability to forcibly return the refugees,” Hage Ali said.

Lebanese authorities have periodically deported Syrians over the past few years, citing a regulation that allows for Syrians who entered without legal authorization after April 2019 to be forcibly removed.

However, past deportations mostly involved small numbers and were carried out under formal procedures, giving the UN and human rights groups a chance to intervene and, in some cases, halt them.

In contrast, recent months have seen increasing reports of the Lebanese Army summarily deporting those believed to be in the country illegally. Human rights organizations have cited cases of returning refugees being detained and tortured in Syria, allegations Lebanese authorities deny.

A Syrian from Idlib who, along with his brother, was among those arrested in the April 10 raid in Jounieh, said the army dropped off the men in a mountainous area in the no-man’s land between the Lebanese and Syrian borders.

He and some others managed to cross back into Lebanon on foot. Others, including his brother, were caught.

The last communication he received from his brother, he said, was a voice message on April 11, saying: “They brought us back and dropped us off in the same place and they’re going to turn us over to Syria.”

Many Syrians are lying low, hoping the anti-refugee campaign will blow over.

“Many of us are scared that we could be next,” said another Syrian refugee in the Bekaa. “Six of my friends were deported in the last raid.”

For some, the pressure campaign has had its intended effect.

A young woman living in the Bekaa said that after her camp was raided and dozens of men were deported, her family decided to return to the Syrian city of Raqqa, which remains outside the control of the Damascus government.

“There is no security (there). We don’t have a house or any money,” she said. “But we don’t have another choice.”



Sudan FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: New US Sanctions Won’t Affect Warring Parties

Smoke billows behind buildings in Khartoum on June 2, 2023, as fighting between Sudan's warring generals intensified. (AFP)
Smoke billows behind buildings in Khartoum on June 2, 2023, as fighting between Sudan's warring generals intensified. (AFP)
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Sudan FM to Asharq Al-Awsat: New US Sanctions Won’t Affect Warring Parties

Smoke billows behind buildings in Khartoum on June 2, 2023, as fighting between Sudan's warring generals intensified. (AFP)
Smoke billows behind buildings in Khartoum on June 2, 2023, as fighting between Sudan's warring generals intensified. (AFP)

The Sudanese army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were not surprised with Washington’s announcement on Thursday that it was imposing new sanctions on them due to their role in the ongoing conflict in the country.

Sudanese political parties dismissed the impact the sanctions will have on the army and RSF, but acting Foreign Minister Ali Sadiq told Asharq Al-Awsat that the people will bear the brunt of them.

Sudan’s Ambassador to the US Mohamed Abdalla Idris announced that his government rejects the sanctions, saying such an approach had been used before and it had led to the destruction of peoples in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Moreover, he noted that the US was a mediator in attempting to resolve the conflict, so how could it possibly impose sanctions on the parties it is talking to.

He added that the sanctions have been imposed on companies owned by the people, meaning Washington was collectively punishing them.

Furthermore, he revealed that the army will resume its participation in the ceasefire negotiations once the other party commits to its pledges.

Half-step

US Senator Jim Risch was scathing of the Biden administration for imposing the new sanctions.

“Thursday’s actions do not even represent a half-step in what needs to happen. The sanctions designations, while positive in their own right, do not openly hold accountable the top Sudanese individuals responsible for the catastrophic situation in Sudan,” he said in a statement.

“The people most responsible for destabilizing the region and ongoing brutality against the Sudanese people remain untouched by US sanctions.”

“Not unlike its policy response to the civil war in northern Ethiopia, the administration once again has avoided holding accountable top-level officials of the warring parties in Sudan,” he stressed.

“We can't let another African conflict of this magnitude persist without taking more transparent and direct action against those responsible for the fighting, which has killed hundreds, injured thousands, and displaced millions. These actions once again come short of real accountability,” he stressed.

Limited impact

Development and rights expert in Geneva Abdulbaqi Jibril told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US sanctions will not have a major impact on the current situation in Sudan.

He cited Sudan’s past experience in dealing with sanctions. Washington had imposed unilateral economic sanctions for two decades on the former regime. They were introduced during the term of former President Bill Clinton in 1997 and lifted in 2017 under then President Donald Trump.

The impact of sanctions is “limited at best” and very few vital sectors are affected by them, remarked Jibril.

The previous sanctions played a major role in impoverishing the people, he noted. They played a direct role in deepening unprecedented economic corruption.

He explained that the American measures at the time forced Sudan out of the world’s banking and financial system, compelling the former regime to use complicated means to meet basic needs.

The former government managed to mitigate the impact of the sanctions and trade embargo by resorting to financing outside the global banking system. This in turn limited the state institutions’ ability to control the movement of funds in the country.

International relations professor in Sudan Salaheddine al-Doma told Asharq Al-Awsat that the sanctions are “very effective.”

The warring parties are well aware that the US is serious about achieving the people’s aspirations in civilian rule because it accomplishes its interests.

If developments go against US wishes, then Russia and China will be able to impose their influence in Sudan, he noted.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to achieve civilian rule in Sudan will have an impact on President Joe Biden’s reelection bid next year, he added.


Sudanese Orphans Face Death by Starvation, Uncertainty in Khartoum

The Mygoma Orphanage in Khartoum, Sudan (AP)
The Mygoma Orphanage in Khartoum, Sudan (AP)
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Sudanese Orphans Face Death by Starvation, Uncertainty in Khartoum

The Mygoma Orphanage in Khartoum, Sudan (AP)
The Mygoma Orphanage in Khartoum, Sudan (AP)

Siddig Frini, the general manager of Khartoum state’s ministry of social development, became visibly emotional during his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat as he described the distressing conditions endured by 340 children, ranging in age from one day to four years, at the Mygoma Orphanage.

Heartbreakingly, newborns have met untimely deaths as a result of power outages and the catastrophic impact of war in Sudan.

Tragic deaths have struck the orphanage in Khartoum, where dozens of children lost their lives amid fierce military confrontations between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Compounding the devastation, a neighboring building was hit by a shell.

Furthermore, the children have been deprived of crucial nourishment as most of the orphanage’s staff members have been unable to access the facility, leaving them without essential meals and milk throughout the day.

Frini underscored difficulties experienced by Mygoma, revealing that one child is dying each day.

He acknowledged that, due to the ongoing power outages, a reduction in the number of deaths at the orphanage cannot be assured.

However, Frini expressed his openness to hearing any suggestions that could help improve the children’s situation and protect their lives.

He emphasized the significance of child welfare experts and community support in securing a brighter future for the children.

Moreover, Frini firmly rejected the notion of children being casualties of the conflict between warring factions.

“I am willing to purchase an electrical generator on credit because I currently do not have enough money to buy it outright,” Frini told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“The orphanage continues to receive children from all states of Sudan. Mygoma recently welcomed seven children in a single day,” he added.

Frini announced his willingness to approach proposals advocating for the transfer of residents, including the children of Mygoma, outside Khartoum.

However, he emphasized that the top priority is to prevent any further loss of lives at the orphanage. This can be achieved by providing an electrical generator, fuel, or restoring the electricity supply to Mygoma.

Additionally, Frini revealed that Khartoum Governor Ahmed Osman is in contact with relevant parties, including UNICEF, to stabilize the situation at Mygoma and other similar facilities.

Frini pointed out that among the proposals is the transfer of 80 newborn infants to Port Sudan and relocating others to Wad Madani city.

“We will not turn our backs on the organizations that have shouldered the greatest burden in managing the facilities during this period,” Frini told Asharq Al-Awsat.

According to Mygoma’s Director Zainab Jouda, 35 children, mostly newborns, have sadly died at the state-run facility since the armed clashes started on April 15.

Within a span of two days, 14 children passed away due to fever.

Before the war, the orphanage had 450 attending mothers taking care of over 400 children in four shifts.

However, after the war, the number decreased to 15 mothers responsible for the care of 200 newborn infants.

Noting the shortage of mothers, she recognized the adverse effects on the children's nutrition and care. As a result, the orphanage administration has appealed for volunteers to step in and assist in caring for the children at the facility.

Regarding the bombardment of Mygoma with heavy weapons, Jouda said: “A shell struck the neighboring building, causing shrapnel to damage a portion of the orphanage's roof.”

“The children were moved to the ground floor, and some of the bullets penetrated through several offices,” she added.

Established in 1961, Mygoma spans an area of 5,000 square meters. It used to receive between 40 and 45 children monthly prior to the outbreak of the war.


Who Are the Candidates Running in the 2024 US Presidential Election 

Former US President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak at midterm election rallies, in Dayton, Ohio, US November 7, 2022, and Tampa, Florida, US, November 8, 2022, in a combination of file photos. (Reuters)
Former US President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak at midterm election rallies, in Dayton, Ohio, US November 7, 2022, and Tampa, Florida, US, November 8, 2022, in a combination of file photos. (Reuters)
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Who Are the Candidates Running in the 2024 US Presidential Election 

Former US President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak at midterm election rallies, in Dayton, Ohio, US November 7, 2022, and Tampa, Florida, US, November 8, 2022, in a combination of file photos. (Reuters)
Former US President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak at midterm election rallies, in Dayton, Ohio, US November 7, 2022, and Tampa, Florida, US, November 8, 2022, in a combination of file photos. (Reuters)

Former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie plan to announce next week they are running for president, joining former President Donald Trump in a growing list of Republicans seeking to unseat Democratic President Joe Biden.

Here is a list of 2024 hopefuls in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

REPUBLICAN PARTY

DONALD TRUMP Trump, 76, announced his election campaign last November as he faced some of the loudest criticism yet from within his Republican Party over his support for far-right candidates who were defeated in the midterm elections. Like Biden, he remains unpopular with great swaths of the electorate. But he has retained a firm grip on his base and strengthened his standing in polls after he was indicted by New York prosecutors in connection with an alleged hush money payment to a porn star. Trump is the front-runner in the Republican race.

RON DESANTIS After the glitch-filled launch of his campaign on Twitter, DeSantis has moved to further position himself to the right of Trump on a number of key issues. DeSantis, 44, who ranks second to Trump in most polls, has already signed bills imposing new restrictions on abortion and further loosening gun laws, positions that may help him in the Republican primaries but would likely hurt him among independent and more moderate voters in the general election. His battle with Walt Disney Co over its Florida theme park has unnerved some donors, as has his mixed messaging on continued US support for Ukraine.

TIM SCOTT The only Black Republican US senator has low name recognition outside his home state of South Carolina, but his optimism and focus on unifying his divided party have helped him draw a contrast with the more aggressive approach by Trump and DeSantis. Scott supporters, however, acknowledge that while his sunny demeanor is a selling point it may not be enough to win. Scott, 57, has only 1% of support among registered Republicans, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. He launched his campaign on May 22.

NIKKI HALEY A former governor of South Carolina and Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, Haley, 51, has emphasized her relative youth compared to Biden and Trump as well as her background as the daughter of two Indian immigrants. Haley has gained a reputation in the Republican Party as a solid conservative who has the ability to address issues of gender and race in a more credible fashion than many of her peers. She has also pitched herself as a stalwart defender of American interests abroad. She attracts about 4% support among Republican voters.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY A former biotechnology investor and executive, Ramaswamy, 37, launched a firm in 2022 to pressure companies to abandon environmental, social and corporate governance initiatives. He announced in February he was running for the Republican nomination. The political outsider has excited a lot of grassroots chatter as a potential alternative to Trump, but he remains a longshot candidate.

MIKE PENCE Trump's vice president has broken with his former boss over the 2021 attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol, while Pence was inside the building. Pence, 63, says "history will hold Trump accountable" for his role in the attack. However, Pence, like other Republican White House hopefuls, came to Trump's defense after New York prosecutors charged him in the hush money case, underscoring the fear of alienating Trump's supporters in the primaries. Pence, a staunch conservative, is appealing directly to the evangelical Christian community. He will launch his campaign in Iowa on June 7.

CHRIS CHRISTIE Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 60, who advised Trump's White House campaign in 2016 only to become a vocal critic of the former president, enters the race as a decided underdog. Only 1% of Republicans said he would be their preferred 2024 nominee in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted May 9-15. He plans to launch his bid on June 6.

ASA HUTCHINSON The former Arkansas governor launched his bid for the White House in April with a call for Trump to step aside to deal with his indictment. Hutchinson, 72, has touted his experience leading the deeply conservative state as proof he can deliver on policies Republican voters care about, citing tax cuts and job creation initiatives as particular sources of pride. Still, his name recognition remains limited outside Arkansas.

DOUG BURGUM Burgum, who is serving his second term as North Dakota's governor, plans to launch his campaign on June 7. Burgum, 66, built a successful software business before selling it to Microsoft Corp in 2001. A proponent of low taxes and fewer regulations, he will likely seek to portray himself as a traditional conservative who will focus on the economy and national security.

DEMOCRATIC PARTY

JOE BIDEN Biden, 80, already the oldest US president ever, will have to convince voters he has the stamina for another four years in the White House, amid voter concerns about his age and his poor approval ratings. Biden allies say he is running because he feels he is the only Democratic candidate who can defeat Trump. In announcing his candidacy, he declared it was his job to defend American democracy. He does not face a serious threat from a Democratic challenger.

MARIANNE WILLIAMSON The best-selling author and self-help guru has launched her second, longshot bid for the White House. She ran as a Democrat in the 2020 presidential primary but dropped out of the race before any votes had been cast. She launched her latest campaign on March 23.

ROBERT KENNEDY JR. An anti-vaccine activist, Kennedy, 69, is making a longshot bid to challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination. He is the son of US Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 during his own presidential bid. Kennedy has been banned from YouTube and Instagram for spreading misinformation about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic.


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".