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Syrian army takes Maaret al-Numan after heavy bombardment

Syrian government forces have captured a strategic rebel-held town in the country’s northwest amid a Russia-backed military offensive that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas. Maaret al-Numan, a former anti-government protest hotspot which has turned into a ghost town after months of bombardment, lies on a key highway connecting the capital,…

Syrian army takes Maaret al-Numan after heavy bombardment

Syrian government forces have captured a strategic rebel-held town in the country’s northwest amid a Russia-backed military offensive that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas.
Maaret al-Numan, a former anti-government protest hotspot which has turned into a ghost town after months of bombardment, lies on a key highway connecting the capital, Damascus, to Aleppo.
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“Our forces managed in the past few days to stamp out terrorism in many villages and town”, including Maaret al-Numan, an army spokesman said in a televised statement on Wednesday.
The army was bent on “hunting down all remaining armed terrorist groups until all Syrian soil has been cleansed of terrorism”, he added.
In 2011, Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns in Idlib province to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and the following year, it was captured by rebels fighting against his forces.
Syrian government forces backed by Russian airpower have stepped up the campaign to take control of the province, the last rebel stronghold where millions took refuge after fleeing other parts of Syria earlier in the war.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said rebel fighters withdrew from the town late on Tuesday.
Syrian troops had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for fighters to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.
The push into Maaret al-Numan came as Syrian forces were also advancing against rebels west of the city of Aleppo, according to state media and opposition activists.
Erdogan accuses Russia of ‘not honouring’ deals
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the government’s advance into the south of Idlib province, seeking safety closer to the Turkish border further north.
Aid groups have warned the latest violence is only compounding one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the nearly nine-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half of the country’s population.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said those displaced by the government’s renewed offensive had already begun heading north.
“The displacement has been ongoing for many months and it has recently been on the rise,” she said.
“[Those fleeing] believe that the Turkish side of the border is much safer. There is not enough space left [on the Turkish side], especially around the Atma camp in northern Syria.”
Turkey, which backs some rebel groups opposed to al-Assad, already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and fears millions more could soon cross the border. 
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday said Russia was not abiding by past agreements regarding Idlib, adding that Ankara made it known to Moscow it was running out of patience with regards to the continuing bombardment. 
“There have been agreements made with Russia. If Russia honours these agreements, we will do the same. But right now, unfortunately, Russia is not honouring these agreements,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by Hurriyet daily.
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Everything

‘We lost everything’: Syrian refugees caught up in Beirut blast |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – More than two weeks after the Beirut blast that killed half of her family, Dima Steif, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee from Idlib, is still in shock. Dima’s face is gaunt and emotionless as she recalls August 4, the day she lost her mother Khaldi and two sisters, 22-year-old Latifa and 13-year-old Jude.…

‘We lost everything’: Syrian refugees caught up in Beirut blast |NationalTribune.com

Beirut, Lebanon – More than two weeks after the Beirut blast that killed half of her family, Dima Steif, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee from Idlib, is still in shock.
Dima’s face is gaunt and emotionless as she recalls August 4, the day she lost her mother Khaldi and two sisters, 22-year-old Latifa and 13-year-old Jude.
Her 18-year-old sister Diana was wounded while her father was not home at the time of the explosion.
“We were at home, talking and laughing, when we heard the first explosion. We thought it was a fire, but then the next blow came and the whole earth shook underneath us,” said Dima, as she hugged a shaggy red stuffed animal that belonged to Jude.
Along with a printed scarf that Latifa used to wear and her own journal, the stuffed toy was among a few things Dima managed to pull out from the rubble of her family’s home days after the blast.
“The roof had already collapsed before we could get out of the house,” said Dima, who lived in Karantina, a poor Beirut neighbourhood near the port. They had come to Lebanon in 2014 after escaping the civil war in Syria.
Dima and her father have been temporarily staying at a hotel paid for by an aid organisation, while Diana is undergoing treatment in a Beirut hospital. 

Dima’s family members were among many Syrian refugees who lost their lives on August 4.
A statement by the Syrian embassy on August 8 said 43 Syrians – almost a quarter of the approximately 180 victims – died when nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said it received reports of the deaths of 89 registered Syrian refugees.
Omer Elnaiem, head of communications at the UNHCR, said: “The organisation has only confirmed 14 so far.”  
‘Lost everything’
Basma Tabaja, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Lebanon, said Syrians were particularly affected by the incident.
“A lot of Syrians worked at the port in offloading and loading cargo. Others lived in Karantina. That’s why many died or were injured,” said Tabaja.
Fatima Abumaghara, 35, fled Aleppo with her family in 2013. Her husband, Abdel Qader Balusso, died in the Beirut blast, leaving behind four young children.
The 43-year-old labourer was working in Karantina at the time of the explosion. After his death, Fatima said life was no longer worth living.
“We lost everything of meaning. Their father, the most valuable thing, is gone,” Fatima said as her two daughters, Nurulhuda, 13, and Farah, 18 months, huddled around her.

“The blast was even worse than what we experienced in Syria. At least, back there, we knew we might not live to see another day. But we never expected this here.”
In addition to the shock and a “constant struggle” to make ends meet before that, Fatima said her family has been the victim of discrimination since they moved to Lebanon.
“Life in Lebanon has been difficult every day,” said Fatima, explaining that, as Syrians, her children are regularly bullied at school and humiliated by their neighbours.
“We put up with all that for the sake of the kids’ future, but we’ve now lost any sense of safety and security.” 

The exact number of Syrian refugees who died in the blast remains unclear [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

Already vulnerable
There are nearly one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, having moved there since the start of the civil war in 2011, according to the UNHCR.
Thousands of them were affected by the blast, said Jihan Kaisi, executive director of Lebanese NGO the Union of Relief and Development Associations (URDA).

“And at least 100 Syrian families have been severely impacted. They now need everything from food and medicine to home rehabilitation,” said Kaisi.
The UNHCR promised $35m to help 100,000 people affected by the blast, regardless of their nationality. But Syrian refugees and migrant workers remain more vulnerable than others, say aid organisations.
“Syrian refugees were already part of the most vulnerable sector in the Lebanese society,” said UNHCR’s Elnaeim.
“In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic and deepening financial crisis pushed the number of refugees living under extreme poverty in Lebanon from 50 to 75 percent,” he added, referring to a prolonged economic crisis and lack of basic services that sparked mass anti-government protests that have continued since last October.
“After the blast, they’ve been pushed further down.”
Tabaja agreed, saying that “Syrian refugees have an added layer of vulnerability”.
“It is harder for them to find work or adequately paid jobs,” she said, explaining that access to healthcare was another obstacle.
Although the Lebanese government promised to provide free hospital treatment to everyone affected by the explosion, media reports indicated that some hospitals have refused to treat Syrian refugees.

Dima lost her mother Khaldi and two sisters, 22-year-old Latifa and 13-year-old Jude in the blast. [Arwa Ibrahim/Al Jazeera] 

‘Wish I had died’
Fatima has spent her days since the blast trying to reach relief organisations to help her family.
Meanwhile, Dima – who stopped attending school two years ago after her father could no longer afford the school bus fees – has divided her time between visiting her sister in hospital and taking part in aid distributions near the port.
“Going to the hospital and volunteering keep me busy, but nothing can really take my mind off my sisters and mother,” said Dima, as she looked away and clutched the red toy more tightly.
“I just wish I’d remained under the rubble and died with them.”
Follow Arwa Ibrahim on Twitter @arwaib
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Syrian warring sides agree to Geneva constitution talks: UN envoy |NationalTribune.com

Representatives of opposing sides in Syria’s war have agreed to reconvene in Geneva for stalled negotiations on the constitution, according to Geir Pedersen, the United Nations special envoy to the country. A lull in fighting could provide an opportunity to start healing “deep, deep mistrust” between them, Pedersen said on Tuesday. More: Syrian government seizes assets…

Syrian warring sides agree to Geneva constitution talks: UN envoy |NationalTribune.com

Representatives of opposing sides in Syria’s war have agreed to reconvene in Geneva for stalled negotiations on the constitution, according to Geir Pedersen, the United Nations special envoy to the country.
A lull in fighting could provide an opportunity to start healing “deep, deep mistrust” between them, Pedersen said on Tuesday.
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“As soon as the pandemic situation allows, they have agreed to come to Geneva and they have agreed on an agenda for the next meeting,” he told journalists.
Pedersen did not give a date and said a virtual meeting of the constitutional committee would not be possible.
‘Key players’
In the same briefing, Pedersen repeated a call for key international actors, including the United States and Russia, to hold talks about a push for peace.
Moscow has been the key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Washington opposes him.
Pedersen told the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Monday that al-Assad ally Iran and opposition backer Turkey “are key players too”.
He said there have been too many fleeting opportunities to move from conflict to a political path that were lost, and “those missed moments were followed by renewed violence and a hardening of positions among regional and international actors”.
“We must not repeat this pattern,” Pedersen added.
Over the nine years of the Syrian conflict, there have been 12 rounds of peace talks in Kazakhstan and eight rounds of Geneva conferences.
Pedersen said there is anxiety that while violence has somewhat abated at the moment it could escalate at any time, and deep disappointment that the political process has not delivered tangible improvements for the Syrian people.
The long-standing divisions between Washington and Moscow over Syria were evident in their speeches to the council that followed, which gave no indication of a desire for talks.
US Ambassador Kelly Craft said fully implementing a 2015 plan, starting with an immediate nationwide ceasefire, is “what will move Syria towards a future of peace” – and that is what the UNSC must pursue.
She urged the council to ensure that the Syrian government reverse “its destructive pattern of behaviour against its own people” and agree to a ceasefire instead of pursuing a military solution to the conflict.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called for the lifting of unilateral “suffocating sanctions” imposed by the US and others which he said were preventing Syria from buying medical items to tackle coronavirus pandemic and he criticised the presence of US forces in northeast Syria.
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The Syrian refugee on the UK’s coronavirus front lines |NationalTribune.com

London, United Kingdom – Once a week, Hassan Akkad has a recurring nightmare. He is in Syria. He is stuck. And he cannot leave. “My happy memories of Syria are overridden by nightmares,” he tells Al Jazeera, in an interview on Skype. “It’s sad that this is how it seeps into my brain from my subconscious.”…

The Syrian refugee on the UK’s coronavirus front lines |NationalTribune.com

London, United Kingdom – Once a week, Hassan Akkad has a recurring nightmare.
He is in Syria. He is stuck. And he cannot leave.
“My happy memories of Syria are overridden by nightmares,” he tells Al Jazeera, in an interview on Skype. “It’s sad that this is how it seeps into my brain from my subconscious.”
Those happy memories are road trips to Latakia, barbecues in Ghouta, the countryside that surrounds Damascus, gathering with friends and “goofing around” and sitting around the family dinner table with his loved ones, his grandparents.
The Damascus native, now 32, was in his early 20s just before the war broke out.

Hassan Akkad, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee, works on the UK’s coronavirus front lines disinfecting London’s COVID-19 wards [Raymond Bobar/Al Jazeera]

When anti-government protests swelled on the streets, Akkad, then a high-school English teacher, took part and filmed the rallies. 
He was detained twice, for two weeks each time.
“The first time in prison was the worst, that’s when I was tortured. I still have a scar on my wrist, it was smashed so I have a titanium pin in it.”
On the second occasion, he was put in solitary confinement. When he got out, he was banned from working and lost his teaching job.
Although he had never wanted to leave, he did not feel safe.
He fled, at first staying in the Middle East. In September 2015, after a punishing 87-day journey across Europe, he arrived in London.
He filmed the dangerous voyage, including the moment everyone on board his packed dinghy, along with children, nearly drowned. His footage was included in a documentary series – Exodus: Our Journey to Europe – which went on to win a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award.
In England, he received legal asylum and kindness. Families in Brixton and Hitchin gave him a room in their homes.
For the past five years, he has worked in film and TV production and for Choose Love, a refugee advocacy organisation.
I think, to me, that is the worst part of this pandemic – that people are dying alone.
Hassan Akkad, filmmaker, campaigner and hospital cleaner

But almost two months ago, his career path took a sharp turn.
He now works as a cleaner at Whipps Cross in Leytonstone, east London, one of the capital’s busiest hospitals, in a COVID-19 ward.
“It’s not charity. It’s minimum wage but I’m still being paid,” he says. “I don’t have a debt to pay. Refugees don’t have a debt to pay because it’s our right to seek refuge.
“But I have been treated very well by the public so far. When I showed up here, I was in a bad physical and mental state – they helped me on my feet. Leytonstone is my adopted home. Nationality doesn’t dictate our kindness. It’s what I want to do, I want to help my neighbours, the patients and the staff.”
He signed up after googling “urgent coronavirus front-line jobs”.
“It led me to a link. Five hospitals were urgently looking for cleaners and one of them was Whips Cross,” which is about a mile from his home.
He had read a study about how the virus was found on a cruise ship 17 days after infected passengers had left.
“I connected the dots, I figured out they urgently need cleaners because of this – it survives on surfaces, and NHS staff and patients were contracting it. I didn’t even think twice. I ran it by my fiancee, didn’t tell my parents, and went to the induction. I only wanted to know if I would be provided with PPE. They said yes. The rest is history.”
Before taking up the cleaning job, filled with a desire to help amid the pandemic, he had delivered groceries to people self-isolating and had volunteered to work on British farms amid fears of food shortages, “but I never heard back”.

Akkad, pictured in a selfie in personal protective equipment (PPE) [Courtesy: Hassan Akkad]

At the entrance of the ward he works in, there are three signs.
One warns staff not to enter unless they are wearing PPE, another says visitors are not allowed in and a third is a reminder – that you are about to enter a COVID-19 ward.
There are 18 beds. At the height of the epidemic, the ward was full – not a single empty bed for weeks amid a rush of coronavirus patients needing oxygen masks to survive.
“Today we had 10 patients, instead of 18,” says Akkad. “[But] I think it’s too early to ease the lockdown. Everyone is worried about a second wave.”
The UK – Europe’s worst and the world’s second most affected country in terms of deaths – is in the midst of easing its coronavirus lockdown.
COVID-19 has killed about 35,000 people in the country and infected more than 240,000, although these figures are widely understood to be lower than the actual toll.
For eight hours a day, wearing gloves, two masks and plastic aprons, Akkad disinfects toilets and mops floors with a powerful, chlorine-heavy detergent. He takes the rubbish out and places it in a special dumpster for virus-contaminated waste. He meticulously wipes down “all the hotspots” – light switches, door handles, windows, doors, sinks.
“Anything you can touch with your hand has to be cleaned,” he says. 
“We use disposable mops – every hospital now has changed all the procedures in terms of cleaning. You can’t use the same mop twice – you use it for a bit and then it goes in the bin.
“When a patient gets discharged or sadly passes away, we do a ‘terminal cleaning’,” a thorough process to control the spread of infections.
“We go to that bed, take out the mattress, and wipe and disinfect every inch of the bed frame. And then we clean that area, so when we have a new patient, they don’t come to a contaminated bed.”
The entire cleaning process takes place at least three times a day.
I cringe when I see government ministers clapping.
Hassan Akkad, filmmaker, campaigner and hospital cleaner

“In my first week, I was quite shocked. It’s different from when you see it on the telly, to actually being there. And the reason why it’s called the front line … that’s where you are face to face with the pandemic.
“You do see dying patients, every week I would see dying patients. That was a shock to the system.”
Several patients and at least one doctor at Whipps Cross University Hospital, Dr Habibhai Babu, known to colleagues as Babu, have died of coronavirus.
As in much of the rest of the world, strict measures to contain the spread of infection mean coronavirus patients die alone.
“The pandemic has changed our rituals. Everything has changed. For me personally, I have always been distant from my family. Social distancing isn’t a new thing to Syrians, due to the war and hard visa systems. My parents attended my engagement party on Skype. I attended my brother’s wedding in Iraq on Skype. This is very familiar to me.”
Holding back tears, he said: “I’ve witnessed two patients saying goodbye to their loved ones on Skype. It is one of the toughest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. 
“The patients are not aware that they are dying, their loved ones are. They [the relatives] were informed by staff, so that’s why they have arranged for this call. 
“We are around those patients, we don’t leave their sides. But for them to pass away without their relatives, their daughters and husbands and children around them, it’s incredibly hard, a very hard thing to witness. 
“I think to me, that is the worst part of this pandemic – that people are dying alone.”
As well as tens of thousands of patients, dozens of NHS workers have died from COVID-19, many of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
In Akkad’s ward, he is one of the three male staff – two cleaners and a doctor. The rest are women, including grandmothers.
They come from more than 10 different countries.
“We are united by a mission or goal to combat this unprecedented healthcare crisis and help these patients,” Akkad says.
But as the national conversation focuses on the deaths of doctors and nurses, Akkad notes that hospital cleaners and others at the “bottom of the pyramid” often encounter even greater risk.
“The people who slide under the radar are cleaners, porters, ward hosts and healthcare assistants. Ninety-nine percent are from an immigrant background and on minimum wage. They risk their lives. You cannot work from home if you are a cleaner or a porter.”
While he appreciates the public’s embrace of front-line NHS workers, which has seen Britons clap on their doorsteps each week to show their appreciation, he baulks at the UK government’s handling of the crisis.
“They have failed on every level,” he says. “The UK has the second-highest number of deaths [after the US]. They were very slow on implementing the lockdown, prioritising the economy over people’s lives.
“I cringe when I see government ministers clapping.”
Looking ahead, he says he will continue in the role for as long as he is needed, “as long as I physically and emotionally can”.
But he has already started to feel an effect on his body. 
“I have injuries in my wrists from prison in Syria. Physically I have started to hurt. There is a shooting pain in my wrists because of too much mopping.
“I am going to try to recover. Emotionally, thank God, I have a therapist. Without one, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
In the months before the pandemic took hold, much of the West was witnessing rising populism. There were reports of growing xenophobia and anti-migrant attacks in post-Brexit England, images on the news of crowded US-run immigration detention centres, and people fleeing war and persecution faced an increasingly hostile reception on Europe’s borders.
While the pandemic is often naively misinterpreted as a great leveller – “self-isolating in Yorkshire isn’t like self-isolating in Idlib or Moria, or Yemen or Gaza”, says Akkad, there is some reason for hope.
“I don’t think we can go back to that,” he says, of the atmosphere before the global health crisis.
“There will be positive things coming out this pandemic and one of them could be that the world will be more open to migrants and refugees, and realise the value that they have in their host communities.
“I hope that the world will be kinder.”
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