Sunday 25 June 2017

So the innocents suffer ...

Syrian families face a choice between civil war and a dangerous escape

Carnage: A man carries an injured girl as he rushes away from a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus Photo: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Carnage: A man carries an injured girl as he rushes away from a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus Photo: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Running out of options: Khanaan Yaseen Khateeb and his wife Esmat with their children will attempt the crossing

Shona Murray

'If we die, we all die together", says 40-year-old father of six Khanaan Yaseen Khateeb from Idlib, Syria. Around six months ago, he resigned himself to the reality that if the family is simply to survive, he'd have to take his 27-year-old wife Esmat and their six children - aged from 10 months to seven years - on a death boat to Greece.

In a few days' time, the family of eight will take that journey. Two of his children - four-year-old Amjad and five-year-old Eiman are sick and need surgery. They were both born with one leg shorter than the other. The other children are weak from the damp, and suffer malnourishment, and ill-health. If they stay in Turkey, where they have no passports, bear no nationality and Khanaan has no work, the prospect of any reasonable future is next to hopeless.

The family have been living on the ground floor of a disused warehouse for over a year, as their father - once a secondary-school teacher - scrounges around for a few hours' labour work every few days. Work has never been consistent, but the opportunities are now even scarcer.

Turkish authorities are clamping down on people working without a permit, which is affecting thousands of refugees, particularly young, educated Syrians who were until recently able to find respectable jobs working with NGOs. Many have been let go as a result of increasing spot checks and the threat of a $1,000 fine for anyone employing illegal staff.

Khanaan is "very frightened" about the trip.

"There is no other option; I have to go for my two sick children. And we have to go all together. Allah will save us; that's all we can hope for," he says.

The family is paying $1,300 (€1,200) per adult and half that for each child to get on a wooden boat arranged by smugglers at the Turkish port of Izmir. The smuggler tells him over the phone that they'll be joined by only around 35 other people on a better-quality device, as opposed to a rubber dinghy overflowing with upwards of 80 - but Khanaan says he doesn't believe this.

People are regularly given such assurances before they make their way to the port. He is bracing himself for an overloaded death trap.

"Maybe we're going to die but we have to try; we have no other option. Most of the children don't understand, so I won't tell them; I don't want to scare them."

His children are too young to comprehend what awaits them, except for his seven-year-old daughter Asmaa, and she is begging her parents not to make her go. "She's is afraid we will be killed", he admits.

The eldest of the six children, Asmaa, knows way too much the savagery of war and violence, especially for such a small child. She listens intently to her mother and father discussing their rational for the journey and cries loudly at the thought of it.

Like most Syrian children, she has seen so much bloodshed and death and knows all too well what it means to be smuggled to Europe. Many of her friends have gone this way - never to be seen or heard of again.

"You're going to kill me", she tells her parents.

Khanaan promises he'll "carry" her. "I'll look after you, you're going to be okay", he says.

Last Monday, he made the final arrangements for the journey and the family will leave for Izmir this week. Pointlessly, he asked the smuggler if they have a chance "to make it or not".

"Inshallah, you will, because now it's the right time to go the sea; it will be far worse in a few weeks when the weather and wind gets worse."

Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes are continuing in Syria. Ostensibly designed to remove the threat posed by Isil, according to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and organisations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Russian military is repeatedly bombing areas held by moderate rebels and civilians in western areas where Isil has little or no presence.

Over 120,000 people have become displaced since the strikes started and NGOs are struggling to support those affected inside, where access is almost impossible for humanitarian agencies.

"The bombardment against civilians has increased to the highest level since the conflict began" says Vicki Aiken, country director for GOAL in Syria.

Last week, US Ambassador to the Middle East Anne Patterson denounced the military action, saying 85-90pc of Russian strikes are targeting the "moderate opposition" fighting Russia's ally, Bashar al-Assad. Moscow's priority is to keep Assad in power; supporting Russian interests in the region, and not to eradicate Islamic terrorism, she asserted.

FSA fighter Mahmoud al Sara from Al-Haffah in Latakia, says his brigade is constantly under bombardment from Russian and Iranian supported airstrikes.

"The shellings are killing civilians; there are no terrorists in my area, but they are so intense; we came out and just saw around 30 bodies one day; heads, everywhere, and none belonged to any terrorist group", he told the Sunday Independent.

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