JOBAR — Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter Abu Ali stood grinning and waving at me with his right hand. Two of his middle fingers were missing.
“Look at me, I’m like a Ninja Turtle now,” he said, dry humor intact.
It had been three months since I last saw Abu Ali, who used to fight on the front lines of Jobar, a rebel-held district in the eastern city limits of Damascus. “My rifle exploded,” he said, beginning the story of his last few months, of how he lost his fingers, preparing his extra-sweet tea. “This was back in June, while we were fighting in Deir Sleiman,” a village close to rebel-held Marj al-Sultan military airport, east of Damascus.
“We managed to push the enemy back in that day from four buildings and killed a few of them, and then we found five AK-47s and about 800 AK-47 bullets.”
He looked at where his two fingers used to be. “The joy that I felt for those goddamn bullets,” he said, “is something I truly regret.”
FSA fighters in Jobar and the neighboring suburbs of eastern Ghouta are encircled by regime forces. Arms and ammunition are not easy to find. Ordinarily, the discovery of a case of ammunition would be like stumbling onto a treasure chest.
But the threat of sabotaged bullets has created a new headache for the outgunned rebels.
A week later, Abu Ali and his fellow rebels were engaged in a bloody battle, armed with the fresh ammunition supplies.
“It was one hell of a fight. I spotted four Iranian soldiers trying to escape. I took aim and shot the first guy, then the second,” he said. “But when I shot at the third, bam! There was a huge explosion. That was the last thing I heard before I passed out.”
He woke up in a pool of blood to find his rifle had mysteriously exploded into seven pieces.
“It looked like it exploded from the inside out. At first I didn’t understand anything, and then I started to feel pain in my right arm. I woke up again in the field hospital to see my two middle fingers missing. How did it happen? Simple: explosive bullets.”
The regime's “bullet trap”
It was the first time I had heard about exploding bullets. I began to ask the other fighters about it and was told about a man named Abu Zaid, a commander in the Asood Allah battalion, who was killed in action on July 4.
The only thing clear about Abu Zaid’s death is that his rifle mysteriously exploded, similar to Abu Ali’s.
“I’m almost sure my dad was killed by an explosive bullet that shattered his rifle and sent a splinter into his chest near his heart, causing him to bleed to death,” said his son, also named Zaid. “My dad was a very brave man, and he was always on the front lines even though he was a commander. The regime used a very cheap trick to kill him because they can’t get a man like him in a fair fight.”
Abu Zaid and Abu Ali are only two suspected victims of the so-called “bullet trap,” which has become the latest way to die on the front lines of east Damascus.
In September, the Asood Allah issued a warning to fellow FSA formations about the TNT-filled ammunition that was wounding and killing their men.
“An explosive bullet is filled very carefully with highly explosive material and built to have exactly the same shape and weight of a normal bullet, so the fighter doesn’t realize the difference,” said Abu Basheer, a weapons expert with Asood Allah.
“When he shoots, the rifle explodes instantly, causing severe injuries to the rebel, not to mention destroying the rifle. The trick is they put just one or two explosive bullets in a stash of about 300. It’s a deadly trap, so I advise fighters not to use any bullet they seize right away. Wait until after the battle and let an expert examine them to make sure there are no explosive bullets.”
I went back to Abu Ali to tell him what I had learned from Abu Basheer, but he was dismissive.
“In the end, death has so many ways to visit you in this country,” he told me. “You can either live in constant fear of the death that surrounds you, or you can live life to the fullest free of fear, shouting, ‘I am here!’ to this deaf world.”
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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