This Is What Greece’s Refugee Crisis Really Looks Like

“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!”

 Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)
Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)

By Jesse Rosenfeld

Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.

From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.

Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.

He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.

 Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.

Read more at The Nation

Civilian Casualties Rise as Israel Hammers Gaza From the Air

By Karl Vick in TIME magazine

Palestinian relatives of eight members of the Al Haj family, who were killed in a strike early morning, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, July 10, 2014. Khalil Hamra—AP

Raising questions of how long air campaign can go on

The death toll among Palestinians scrambling under a relentless Israeli air assault in the Gaza Strip edged above 80 on Thursday, including four toddlers and at least another 10 children under age 16.

Meanwhile, the barrage of rockets Gaza militants launched toward Israeli cities failed to produce a significant casualty on the third day of Israel’s offensive. A media report that a missile had critically injured someone in a car in Ashdod, a coastal city near Gaza, was withdrawn by smartphone alert 28 minutes later.

Everything about the latest offensive is moving fast, especially relative to the last round of fighting. That November 2012 air campaign — dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense by Israel — lasted eight days. Israel’s current offensive, Operation Protective Edge, has bombed more than half as many targets in Gaza in less than half the time — 860 in three days compared with 1,500 in eight days last time. The Israeli military said it destroyed more buildings in the first 36 hours of the current campaign than in all of Pillar of Defense. More people are dying too: the 80 fatalities reported so far is, once again, more than half the reported death toll from the longer bombing two years earlier.

All of it raised the question of how long the Israeli bombardment can go on.

Israel’s wars have a half-life, a variable that slides with circumstances and unscheduled events, but which is decided, to a significant degree, by how the world views the fight. So long as it sees a democracy defending its people against terrorism, Israel enjoys considerable leeway. And that’s how most of the Gaza wars start out: Gaza, a coastal enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians patrolled on three sides by Israeli forces, which also parcels out its electricity, water and food, is a hotbox for militants. Those militants want to hit Israel any way they can, and the way that works best is missiles. More than 500 rockets have roared out of Gaza since Tuesday. Each triggers a siren somewhere in Israel, and often sympathy from some parts of the world moved by photographs of panicked mothers scrambling to shelter their children.

Read more at TIME

Syria’s Lost Generation

By KHALED HOSSEINI APRIL 11, 2014

There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Photo credit; Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

SOMETHING about the boy was not right. He seemed disoriented, detached from his surroundings. He barely spoke, and when he did, it was in flat monosyllables, his eyes unfocused and downcast, as if too heavy to roll up from the weight of all they had seen. He was the picture of quiet devastation, of a childhood forever splintered.

He was 14 years old, a Syrian refugee, sitting with his family in a small room in the registration building of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil, northern Iraq. In the crowded, noisy offices downstairs, scores of newly arrived refugees queued to register, including an exhausted-looking, dust-sheathed family of Dom Gypsies and a Syrian woman with a club foot, who limped about the hallways and pleaded with every passer-by to give her asylum in Germany.

In the upstairs office, the boy’s father sat across a table from me. A supple, boyish-looking 36-year-old, he recounted, with admirable calm, the story of his family’s harrowing escape, two weeks earlier, from their hometown, Aleppo, and their subsequent trip across the Turkish border and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Before the war, he said, he worked at a shoe store, and his three children excelled at school. It was a modest but happy middle-class life. But then came war, and suddenly rocket-propelled grenades were whooshing in all day and Aleppo was honeycombed by falling bombs. He lost his job and his children’s school closed; they would lose two full years of schooling before the family’s eventual escape.

Soon, there was no electricity, no telephone service, no food. The father sold the family’s belongings, down to the last piece of furniture. When the money ran out, he borrowed flour from neighbors for his wife to make bread.

“Sometimes we weren’t eating for two or three days, but just giving the bread and water to the children to eat to survive,” he said.

At some point this year, Syria will overtake my native country, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest refugee-producing state. There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Two-thirds of Syrian refugee children, and nearly three million children inside the country, are out of school.

They face a broken future. Syria is on the verge of losing a generation. This is perhaps the most dooming consequence of this terrible war.

Read more at The New York Times

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Stateless and Starving

Yarmouk and the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations

Residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

There is little by way of human cruelty that has not been visited on the people of the Levant over the past century. Iraqis, Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians have all faced massacres, terrorism, bombings, and any number of other atrocities, including what are probably the only two uses of chemical weapons since World War II. But calculated starvation — the deliberate policy of withholding food from suffering, ordinary people on a mass scale — has very little history in the region. And that makes the situation in the Yarmouk camp just outside Damascus, where 18,000 Palestinian refugees are slowly and deliberately being starved by the Syrian dictatorship, all the more horrifying.

The Palestinians trapped there can do little to alleviate their plight. And humanitarian efforts by the United Nations and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have so far been thwarted by pro-regime forces. But the Palestinian leadership and people should recognize that Yarmouk has urgent, if indirect, implications for the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

Every Arab state has tried, at one time or another, to manipulate the Palestinian issue for its own purposes. But the Assad family’s Baathist regime in Syria has been uniquely hostile to the mainstream Palestinian national movement. It has shown time and again that its official commitment to the Palestinian cause is a smokescreen for its own interests. It has never really accepted the idea that Palestine, or Lebanon for that matter, is a separate entity from a greater Syria, which it still aspires to create. And its primary concern has been to ensure as much Palestinian subservience as possible to the Damascus dictatorship’s ideology and interests.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

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Use Force to Save Starving Syrians

By DANNY POSTEL and NADER HASHEMIFEB. 10, 2014

Daniel Zender

DENVER — THE Syrian people are starving. According to the United Nations, about 800,000 civilians are currently under siege. In areas around the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and in parts of the capital, Damascus, no food, medical supplies or humanitarian aid can get in, and people can’t get out. Many have already died under these “starvation sieges” and hundreds of thousands teeter on the brink, subsisting on grass and weeds. In Damascus, a cleric has ruled that under these conditions, Muslims are permitted to eat normally forbidden animals like cats, dogs and donkeys.

This is not a famine. Food is abundant just a few miles away from these besieged areas. Military forces — mainly the army of President Bashar al-Assad, but in some cases extremist anti-Assad militias — are preventing food and medicine from reaching trapped civilians. In addition to starving, many people in besieged areas have been stricken by diseases, including polio, but can’t get medical treatment because doctors can’t get through.

This moral obscenity demands action by the international community. Any armed group that prevents humanitarian access — whether the Syrian regime’s forces or rebel militias — should be subject to coercive measures.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has denounced the international community’s failure to prevent starvation as “absolutely scandalous” and is now calling for “much stronger action.”

Read more at The New York Times

Rare snowstorm near Syria-Lebanon border brings havoc, disrupts aid

A Syrian refugee shovels snow outside her tent in the makeshift refugee camp of Terbol near the Bekaa Valley town of Zahleh in eastern Lebanon on December 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / STR)

At least two people were killed and 14 injured as the first snowfall of the season hit Syria and Lebanon. High winds and freezing temperatures affected refugee camps and disrupted international aid. More severe weather is expected this winter.

The storm, named ‘Alexa,’ took the lives of two people and injured 14 others in Lebanon, Ya Libnan reported, citing Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh.

The winter storm caused transportation chaos in the region and grounded the UN humanitarian airlift, which was scheduled to bring food and supplies from Iraq to the northeastern Kurdish areas of Syria. Tens of thousands of people are isolated in those areas, waiting for the aid to arrive.

Read more at RT-Novosti

Cut Off: Starving Syrians Hope to Live Through Winter

A young boy sits alone in a rubble-filled street in the Harasta area of Damascus. What the chemical weapons failed to achieve is now being gradually accomplished by hunger: the annihilation of a city.

As the world focuses on Syria’s chemical disarmament, thousands of people in the country face a more pressing concern: starvation. Cut off by ongoing violence, they are dying because they have no access to supplies. Many will not survive the winter.

Three-year-old Ibrahim Khalil survived the chemical weapons attacks on Aug. 21. But then, 10 days later, he died of hunger — just as the next child died hours after him and a third died four days later in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.

When the world learned of the sarin gas attacks that took place in the suburbs of Damascus this past summer, it reacted with outrage, leading to Syria’s dismantling of its chemical arsenal, which was declared complete by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Thursday. Yet hardly anyone seems to be taking notice of these new deaths. After being under siege for months, cut off from food supplies, electricity, water and any form of aid, people are beginning to die of malnutrition.

Children are also starving to death in Yarmouk in the southern part of Damascus and other places sealed off by government troops. But nowhere is the situation as fatal as it is in Muadhamiya, where six children had died by mid-October “and dozens are already so weak that an ordinary cold would kill them,” says Dr. Amin Abu Ammar, one of the last doctors in the suburb.

The fact that President Bashar Assad agreed to destroy his stockpiles of chemical weapons is a piece of good news from a war that is not producing any other positive reports. In fact, it’s too good, so good that the chemical weapons inspectors were promptly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and it seemed as if the rest of the war had ceased. And while European governments are mainly concerned about foreign jihadists infiltrating Syria, there are about 1,000 armed local fighters in Muadhamiya who don’t even have any contact with neighboring towns.

Read more at Der Spiegel

‘We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres’

For Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, arguments about international law ring hollow.

A family from Dara’a, now living in a caravan in Zaatari. “Even the children have forgotten how to smile,” the woman remarked to me. (All photos: Max Blumenthal)

I sat inside a dimly lit, ramshackle trailer functioning as a general store for the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while a wiry, sad-eyed man named Adbel told me about the massacres that drove him from his hometown. Dragging deeply on a cigarette, Abdel described how army forces rained shells down on his neighborhood in Deir Ba’alba, a district in Homs, over five months ago, pounding the town over and over. Then he told me how government thugs barged into homes at 6 am, methodically slashing his neighbors to death with long knives, leaving fields irrigated with the blood of corpses, a nightmarish scene that looked much like this. Like nearly everyone I interviewed in the camp, he described his experience in clinical detail, with a flat tone and a blank expression, masking continuous trauma behind stoicism.

As Abdel mashed his cigarette into a tin ashtray and reached to light another, a woman appeared at the shop window with three young children. She said she had no money and had not been able to purchase baby formula for three days. She had trudged to hospitals across the camp seeking help and was turned away at each stop. Without hesitation, the shop owner, a burly middle-aged man also from Homs, pulled a can of formula off a shelf and handed it over to the woman. She made no promise to pay him back, and he did not ask for one. Like so many in the camp, she left Syria with nothing and now depends on the charity of others for her survival. In a human warehouse of 120,000, the fourth-largest population center in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world, where few can leave and even fewer are able to enter, the woman’s desperate existence was not an exception but the rule.

“We’re in a prison right now,” Abdel told me. “We can’t do anything. And the minute we try to have a small demonstration, even peacefully, [Jordanian soldiers] throw tear gas at us.”

“Guantánamo!” the shop owner bellows.

None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me. “His goal is to demolish our spirit so we will never rise up again.” The woman’s sons had spent four months under sustained torture for defecting to the Free Syrian Army. She does not know where they are now, only that they are back in the field, battling Assad’s forces in a grinding stalemate that has taken somewhere around 100,000 lives.

Mansour, a 7-year-old, was held at gunpoint by regime forces when his father was arrested. They were reunited in Zaatari, where Mansour is desperate to receive a caravan for his family.

When news of the August 21 chemical attacks that left hundreds dead in the Ghouta region east of Damascus reached Zaatari, terror and dread spiked to unprecedented levels. Many residents repeated to me the rumors spreading through the camp that Bashar would douse them in sarin gas as soon as he crushed the last vestiges of internal resistance—a kind of genocidal victory celebration. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, however, a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.

Read more at The Nation

Little Doubt: Experts Attest to Use of Nerve Gas in Syria

A man holds the body of a child allegedly killed by a nerve gas attack in Syria on Wednesday.

Experts are convinced that the hundreds of people who died in attacks in Syria on Wednesday were the victims of chemical weapons. It is yet to be confirmed, however, exactly what was deployed and whether the Assad regime is indeed responsible.

Gruesome scenes played out Wednesday morning in footage of the overcrowded hospitals of Arbeen, a suburb east of Damascus. People writhe on the floor screaming, as more and more dead fill the hallways. Doctors and nurses try to revive the victims with onion juice and garlic. They rub onion halves on their skin, pour cold water over them as they twitch uncontrollably.

“What else can we do? We don’t have anything else,” says Abu Ahmad, a pharmacist who lives in Arbeen. The area has been under the control of the rebels since the beginning of the year and, for the past few months, almost entirely cut off from the outside world by the military forces under Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad. Some 10,000 people still live there.

As of Wednesday, the death toll in Arbeen was 63. But if what the opposition is reporting turns out to be true, that is only a small sliver of the carnage: Up to 1,300 people were allegedly killed in a toxic gas attack by the Syrian army that day.

Shocking videos have been uploaded to YouTube. In them, children are seen to make up a large percentage of the dead. The videos have already had political consequences, as governments around the world reacted with horror. On Wednesday evening, the UN Security Council announced the need for “clarity” about the reported use of chemical weapons, but they didn’t reach agreement about launching an investigation.

Read more at Der Spiegel

Rami Abdul Rahman’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

“I am a simple citizen from a simple family who has managed to accomplish something huge using simple means,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

COVENTRY, England — Military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures.

Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.

Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Mr. Abdul Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria, disseminating bursts of information about the fighting and the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary e-mails about protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics and details.

Read more at The New York Times.