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Posts Tagged ‘Raqqa’

A little over two months ago, I wrote about a fire that destroyed a Syrian Refugee Settlement in Qab Elias, Lebanon.  As I interviewed more people and heard accusations of foul play involving the government/terror groups and the failure of NGOs to properly train residents in fire safety, I did not feel safe nor comfortable publishing critical points of view while still in the country.  This is the long overdue story from the perspectives of those who were there.


Perspective 1: Women in the Settlement Yearn for Home

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Shaikha al-Abid sits in front of two friends from Raqqa Syria who migrated to Qab Elias, Lebanon five years ago and now endure what they describe as even worse hardships.  The dozen other women gathered around for the interview did not wish to be photographed.

Shaikha al-Abid sat with a large group of women by the emergency tents and candidly spoke of the impact the fire has had on the community now dependent on aid.  As the elder of the group, she provided the narration while others leaned in to add a level of solidarity and occasionally offered additional explanations or elaboration.

Most of the group started their exodus from the ISIS declared capital of Raqqa, Syria five years ago.  Around 50 families who all knew each other spent the next year leaving at different times that suited them to escape the rapid escalation of danger.

How the entire community ended up where they did in Lebanon was mostly due to chance.  Hopping on a bus with a plan that didn’t extend beyond “get out of Syria,” the first group to cross the border was brought by their driver to a piece of land he told them had a shawish who was “nice and good.”  After the first group arrived, everyone else flocked to the same place, finding a familiar comfort in the surroundings of loved ones.

The close knit families got even closer as their kids grew up and married each other while in the settlements. Just as soon as Shaikha spoke of it feeling like there was a wedding every day, she broke into the pain of losing that little piece of beauty in her life.  The fire, she says, brought unexplainable suffering.

The normalcy of life the community fought so hard to recoup after fleeing their homeland was lost once again in the explosions of gas canisters and billowing smoke clouds.   Once they heard the first tank rapture, there was a huge commotion of people rounding up propane tanks, children and heading to the area of refuge: the nearby road, as flames engulfed everything.

NGOs have stepped in to fill the items of immediate need: food, water, shelter, bedding, but for most other items they are on their own.  Shaikha half-jokingly asked me if I knew anyone that could provide her with a refrigerator.  For now, it wouldn’t even be able to run as the settlement does not have permanent electricity and the large generator burst at the seams helping to fuel the spread of the fire with an explosive spray of burning diesel fuel.

The number one concern the entire group voiced was that they are not receiving any direct financial benefits such as the much coveted cash cards that UNHCR distributes to some camps for people who meet “certain qualifications.”  There is no money for people to pay for essentials like medicine and hospital visits.  They still have to pay the landlord of the burnt down settlement who allows them a small patch of untillable land on his farm. He also makes out on the deal, as my translator told me by hiring/pressuring female residents into a full day of work on the farm for the equivalent of $10, half of which gets skimmed off the top by the Shawish.  (Note: This middle-man pocket stuffing was corroborated by two other sources who testified they saw this reserve of cash go up in flames in the Shawish’s housing unit as they rushed around to try to save people).

In a close second on a serious list of concerns was the destruction of everyone’s Syrian IDs.  This identification is vital for navigating the hurdles of displacement, however, the IDs can only be issued in Syria and the borders are closed so people cannot return back home to get new IDs or even to visit family.  This is a two way closure as new family members are also officially prohibited from coming to Lebanon from Syria.

Shaikha and the women all around her unanimously agreed that they want to return to Raqqa.  I thought my interpreter had gotten something wrong here, certainly not believing such a large group of people could want to return to the ISIS stronghold that while American led coalition forces had declared liberated this very week was still in a dangerous state.  In clarification, Shaikha assured me they all felt Lebanon was too dangerous and they aren’t treated well here.


Perspective 2: Leader of the Settlement Tries to Save a Life

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Moustafa Mahmoud stands with bandaged legs in front of the burnt wheat field adjacent to the destroyed settlement as he recalls the horrifying scene the day of the fire.

Moustafa Mahmoud is the second in command in the camp, a veritable number two to the Shawish.  He rushed out of his tent in late morning after hearing screams of “Fire! Fire!” and saw flames enveloping the tent next to his where the fire was first reported as having been started.  He immediately snapped into the training he said he received from Save the Children and ran to the closest fire extinguisher which the UNHCR mandates must be maintained in a ratio of 1 extinguisher for every 4 dwellings (according to an official presentation given to volunteers by an organization representative).

The fire extinguisher he remembers were delivered only eight months prior, did not work.  After pulling the pin and aiming at the fire, a single small puff of a white cloud came out when the handle was squeezed, but nothing thereafter.  Moustafa says he was the only person who received the training on how to use the extinguisher so he knew it was his duty to put out the fire. Running between 28 homes, he tried a total of 7 extinguishers before he knew they must have all been dead.  Meanwhile, the fire raged on.

Moustafa started to head toward a water tank in the settlement, but knew that would be worthless as the chaos was too much to make a coordinated extinguishing effort and the fire was now too strong to throw buckets of water on.  The propane tank explosions caused a panic of fleeing and Moustafa noticed a baby left behind in a tent.  Separated by flames, he saw the fire spread to the infant as he tried to fight his way through to rescue him.  Moustafa pushed through as far as he could before the flames burned up his own legs while he watched a life get swallowed up in fire.

Moustafa knew there was nothing left he could do to save this area of the camp, but he set his sights to moving quickly to the area on the opposite side where the fire had not yet spread so he could help rescue the elderly.  In moving, he noticed a car on fire he was scared would explode like the propane tanks all around him.  He punched out the back window of the small white sedan and pushed it away from the most intense heat before he ran towards the burning wheat field to successfully aid the elders of the settlement in their egress.

As he recounted the experience, he paused to say he didn’t care about any material possessions lost by the fire, but the vision of the child burning was stuck in his mind.  He has opted to not seek psychological support, citing lack of time, saying he is second in charge in the settlement and has to liaise with all the NGO’s because he has the records of families in the settlement. The huge stigma of mental health is also playing a part with the pervasive opinion that he does not in fact need any professional help in coping with this trauma.  What Moustafa does want, is to return back to Raqqa so he can continue his studies in agricultural engineering.

No one on site with Save the Children would discuss the fire extinguishers with me and residents told me all extinguishers were quickly taken off site before they could be examined.


Perspective 3: The Bystander Takes Action

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Ahmad Alsari stands in front of his mother’s snack stand where he recounted the action he took when he saw smoke rising from the refugee settlement nearby.

While the settlement was fleeing, many from the surrounding community sprang to action.  The phone lines were immediately lit up with people calling the fire service for help even though multiple sources say it took first responders over an hour to respond (the fire burned for about two hours according to the same sources).

Ahmad Alsari, whose mother owns a snack store around the corner that he works at, was the first to see the black smoke before it became billowing clouds.  He ran to the settlement to pull kids out of their tents and stayed on site for the next four hours helping dig through ash.  The whole time he said he was crying and screaming “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is great” and is often called and repeated in times of distress modeling after the prophet Muhammad who spoke the words after a funeral.

Ahmad observed a circle of structures burning which had trapped from his estimation 200 people in a literal ring of fire.  The man who owns the gas station next to Ahmad’s mothers shop drove his car through a point to create an opening so people could escape.  The exploding propane cylinders are what he said kept more people from running in to help.  As he continued in post fire salvage work, Ahmad found the sole casualty, the baby, lying lifeless on the ground of what used to be a structure, with hands badly burnt.


Fact Finding Perspectives: Accusations of Foul Play

The Shawish, whose brother lost his child in the fire, was skeptical of the preliminary stated causes of this being a cooking fire or generator malfunction.  He was positive that no one was cooking in his brother’s tent located next to his own tent at the time the fire started and this is the place they were told was the origin of the fire.  There was no electricity active at the time and the generator was turned off.  All he knows is that his wife saw their mattress was on fire and when she pulled it outside, she saw fire dripping down from the roof.  Some used this image as evidence for casting blame on a deliberate man-made fire, leaning towards Hezbollah taking action on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments.

Many people I spoke with pointed fingers at other possible sources.  The most damning accusations were hurled at the government as initiating this fire.  Residents explained that in the long years of this crisis, donor fatigue had hit the country hard lately and much less aid money was coming into Lebanon from foreign supporters.  Because all NGO money and private donations have to filter through the government for declared processes of registration, the popular belief is that they skim some off the top and that a tragedy like this was a way to prime a donation surge once again to line the pockets of money hungry officials.

In light of this, when residents were asked what their immediate needs were that the international community could help provide, many were quick to advocate direct aid that circumvents government channels as they believed they would never see the benefit of that.  No official government organization was contacted to comment on these accusations.

With the overwhelming number of sources from which I heard accusations of foul play, it is worth noting that no exact cause of the fire has yet been pinpointed.

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