Al-Mouadamiyah's ordeal is not over yet. After being one of the targets of the Aug. 21 chemical attack, this stronghold of the Syrian rebellion, located in the southwestern suburbs of Damascus, is now facing such a severe siege that its inhabitants are starting to starve to death.
According to local sources, nine people have already died from lack of food: Seven of them were young children, the other two were women. Another 90 children have been placed under observation in a makeshift hospital in the basement of a building.
The Syrian National Coalition, the major organization of opponents to Bashar al-Assad, accused the president of deliberately "starving" the 12,000 people who are still hiding in the town and urged the international community to act to prevent a "humanitarian disaster".
"We have almost nothing left to eat," says Koussai Zakariya — the English alias of a young student who was rapidly promoted to spokesman for the local revolutionary council, when contacted via Skype. "We exhausted our food stocks two months ago. We're surviving on olives and the few vegetables we managed to grow. The town's children are dying of hunger right in front of their parents."
One of the most recent victims was a toddler, Rana Obeid, aged 13 months. A video uploaded on YouTube shows her lifeless and scrawny body. She died on Sept. 23 because her mother, herself victim of undernourishment, had stopped breastfeeding her and it's been impossible in recent months to find formula or natural milk in town.
"The situation is disastrous," warns Emadeddin Rachid, one of the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, currently based in Turkey but originally from Al-Mouadamiyah. "They haven't had bread for five months now."
Some of the inhabitants, who live in army-controlled neighborhoods, are reportedly reduced to eating grass and twigs. "Most of those who try to flee are shot down by snipers," Rachid says.
Loyalist troops have encircled Al-Mouadamiyah since December 2012. With the neighboring town of Darayya, it is a key link in the rebels' strategy to move in on the capital. Learning from their incapacity to remove them with the usual raids and search operations, the Syrian authorities opted for another technique: containment and exhaustion. Their goal is to prevent the armed rebels from approaching Damascus and especially Mezzeh's military airport, the centerpiece of the capital's defense system that is adjacent to Al-Mouadamiyah.
The regime is not ready to release the pressure, especially as it knows that local fighters have at their disposition a huge arsenal that they took from a nearby military base in the summer of 2012.
"The town's defenders are very well armed," Emadeddin Rachid confirms. "There are several hundreds of them and they have rocket-launchers."
He says that the resistance claims to be part of the Free Syrian Army, the armed branch of the Syrian National Coalition — nationalists and moderate islamists. "The main two brigades are al-Fajr, commanded by a 55-year-old dentist, and al-Fattah, headed by an engineer," Rachid says.
The Syrian army has tightened its grip, little by little on the town, which used to count 60,000 inhabitants. Its hospitals were bombed, followed by its bakeries, its grocery shops and mosques. Power was cut, as well as telephone and water. Supplies first came through diverted routes that became more and more difficult to use, then they almost dried up completely.
"In the hospital, we're using bed sheets instead of bandages," Koussai Zakariya says. He hasn't left the town in almost two years. "We manage to charge our computers' and our phones' batteries thanks to homemade generators that use cooking oil as fuel. These devices are the only things that connect us to the rest of the world."
On Oct. 2, the UN Security Council voted unanimously for a declaration enjoining all parties of the conflict to allow for humanitarian aid convoys to travel freely in the country. The text, hailed by Western diplomats, is met by indifference in Al-Mouadamiyah.
Without real international pressure, the inhabitants fail to see how the Syrian government would accept to end the siege. "It's like in Homs last winter: The regime wants to push the people to their breaking point," Emadeddin Rachid says. "The difference though is that Homs is a big city and that fighters were able to escape through tunnels. In comparison, Al-Mouadamiyah is very small. Nobody can escape. There's going to be a massacre."
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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