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Geopolitics

People Of Palmyra, Where ISIS Puts Syrian History At Risk

Locals in the city of Palmyra speak out as ISIS threatens the treasured ancient ruins of their city, after destroying its notorious Assad regime prison that scarred so many.

Palmyra, in 2011.
Palmyra, in 2011.
Omar Abdullah

PALMYRA — Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Syrian city of Palmyra used to attract tourists from across the world to visit its historic sites. Yet Palmyra and its historic ruins — an integral part of Syria's cultural and heritage — may be the Islamic State's next victim.

ISIS, which took over Palmyra in May, released a gruesome video on Saturday depicting the killing of dozens of Syrian army soldiers earlier this year. Twenty-five men were executed by teenagers in front of the historic amphitheater. The Assad regime's planes targeted the city with airstrikes the following day.

Campaigns to protect Palmyra's historic sites have begun to appear as fear grows that ISIS will destroy the ancient sites. In Syria, the prolonged bloodshed has resulted in the destruction of similarly important national landmarks, such as the historic market in Aleppo. Earlier this year, ISIS captured international headlines when its fighters smashed antiquities at the Mosul Museum in Iraq and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

For many Syrians, Palmyra evokes memories of a country that now appears to be fading into history. Musa, a 33-year-old pharmacist, grew up in Palmyra and used to work as a local tour guide in order to pay his way through university. He told Syria Deeply: "The old rocks that the Islamic State calls idols enabled me to continue my studies and become a pharmacist."

Musa speaks warmly of his time as a tour guide, of meeting visitors from around the world. His connection with Palmyra was personal. When ISIS planted its black flag in the city as it continued its advance across Syria, he realized "it was the end of Palmyra."

Desert love


"I felt like I would never see the citadel again," he said, referring to one of the famed local sites. "I felt that I would never see tourists roaming the streets of this city with local children following them and trying to get a foreign coin that they could show off to their friends."

Musa met his wife, who was a student at the University of Damascus at the time, in Palmyra while she was on a school field trip. "I was their tour guide," he remembered, saying that years later he proposed to her "next to one of the historic columns" in Palmyra. "I will not see lovers kissing in the middle of the desert anymore," he added wistfully.


His wife Batoul, an archeologist, says they used to celebrate their anniversary each year in the same place he proposed to her in the city. "We won't be able to celebrate it this year," she said, sadly. "They ISIS don't let us get anywhere near the antiquities."

Batoul, who says the columns are "part of Syria's soul," is scared for Palmyra's future. Explaining that soldiers from the Assad regime had already looted much of the city's historic and cultural heritage, she added: "There is nothing left but these columns, which have been here for thousands of years. They are the heart and soul of the city. If the Islamic State destroys them, the city will not have any memory left."



ISIS is motivated by a number of factors in its assault on ancient treasures across the Middle East. Denouncing pre-Islamic heritage as heretical is only one of the reasons that Palmyra is on the militant group's radar. For many Syrians, Palmyra was also known for housing one of the Assad regime's most infamous prisons, Tadmor, which ISIS destroyed with explosives in late May after taking control of the city.

A 2001 report by the international watchdog Amnesty International described the Tadmor prison as "designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners." Most of the prisoners had already been transferred elsewhere or released, but a handful of them were freed by ISIS fighters when the group took control of Palmyra.

"When I saw the pictures of the prison's ruins, I burst into tears," Musa said. "The pain that thousands of prisoners endured cannot be forgotten. I have many friends who have dark memories from inside that prison."

Crime covering crime


Nonetheless, Musa says that ISIS should not have destroyed the prison. He argues that the city's other history should also be preserved. "Our city has a dark history that is filled with horror and death," he explained. "I was hoping that one day it would be turned into a museum dedicated to the regime's brutality. What the Islamic State did was a crime that covers up another crime."



Haj Ahmad, in his late seventies, recalls his own relationship with Palmyra and its ancient history. "We live in an isolated location in this desert," he told Syria Deeply, "but these columns turned Palmyra into a world of its own."

He said the draw of the columns meant he met people from all over the world. "I used to go visit the old part of the city every Friday," Ahmad said. "To me, it represented the constant motion of history and the inevitability of change. Many civilizations passed through this place. Many kingdoms and empires rose and fell here."

But Haj Ahmad also experienced Palmyra's darker side firsthand. Imprisoned by the Assad regime for his alleged membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, he spent 23 years in the Palmyra prison. "I was never actually a member of the Muslim Brotherhood," he explained. "I didn't meet a member of the Muslim Brotherhood until I was in prison."

For many Syrians, the mention of Palmyra brings up memories of oppression and torture before heritage and history, Haj Ahmad explains. "We prisoners shared pain and torture," he said. "For five years after my release, I was too scared to be anywhere near the prison." 



Like Musa, Haj Ahmad struggles to believe that the Tadmor prison no longer exists. "We used to call that place the Bermuda Triangle," he said, "because when a person got stuck in there they needed a miracle to get out."


"Despite all the horror I experienced there, I didn't want the building destroyed," Ahmad said. "I dreamed of a free Syria, where the prison is used as an historic witness to all the pain that Syrians suffered. I wanted to take my grandchildren there and show them where I spent almost a quarter of a century because of a false accusation."

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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

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Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

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-Analysis-

BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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