A Pause In The War, Returning Home In Syria

The Damascus suburb of Barzeh
The Damascus suburb of Barzeh
Ahmad, Youmna al-Dimashqi and Karen Leigh

DAMASCUS — Despite relative calm after months of heavy fighting, Syrians returning home to the Damascus suburb of Barzeh are finding their homes in need of repairs that are often too pricey to take on alone.

At the beginning of the year, in besieged suburbs of Damascus and in rural villages within the province, local opposition officials signed temporary cease-fire agreements with the Syrian government. Rebel fighters put down their weapons and, slowly, civilians were allowed to return to the long-embattled neighborhoods.

Barzeh, a northwest suburb of the Syrian capital, was one of the first communities to recognize a cease-fire with forces of President Bashar al-Assad, following more than a year of violence.

The area had been a site of near-daily fighting since March 2013, and many residents who fled say that they couldn’t wait to return home.

But once they did, many found their homes reduced to rubble — though they had left, the fighting had continued — along with failing local job markets and economies. Many are still unable to afford the sky-high cost of rebuilding.

When it was announced in early January that civilians were allowed to return, ousted residents rushed back to the city. They found entire streets leveled. According to estimates by United Nations officials who visited Barzeh, it was one of the hardest hit in the Damascus area. The level of destruction to homes and commercial spaces here hit 75% to 85% in peripheral areas, and 100% along the front lines.

Abd al-Rahman al-Shami, a member of a local civilian council that is surveying the damage, says that four months after the cease-fire was signed, nearly 300 families have returned — just one-third of Barzeh’s original 35,000 residents. He says the majority have not returned primarily because they cannot afford the cost of repairing their homes.

Short supplies, high demand

Because they are in short supply, construction supply prices in the suburbs have skyrocketed by about 400% over the past two years. The price of a 50 kilogram bag of cement in Barzeh now runs to 1,000 Syrian pounds ($6.70). One cubic meter of sand has reached 4,000 pounds ($27) and the average price of window glass is approximately 1,300 pounds ($8.75). The majority of those returning are unemployed, and can’t afford to buy much beyond food and other basic supplies.

In Barzeh — Photo: HamaEcho

Restoration costs obviously vary depending on the level of damage. While the cost of fixing a partially damaged house might run 75,000 pounds ($500) for broken windows, doors and ceiling repairs, it can cost as much as 400,000, or $2,600, to rebuild a home with more extensive damage.

If they want to return to their old homes, most residents must cover the costs out of their own pockets. Abu Haitham, who is married with three children, says he had to borrow money from friends to restore his home. Since his return, he has redone two of the four rooms, using clear plastic sheets instead of glass as a cost-cutting measure.

He “believes that glass will be the first victim of any shell that might fall on the neighborhood in the future.” He adds that most of his neighbors, who have also chosen to return, borrowed money from relatives or were forced to sell their gold or other valuables.

One man, Abu Amer, used metal boards to cover the holes left in the walls by shelling. He will go on living in his battered house no matter how it looks to the outside world, he says, because he refuses to be homeless again.

There have been minor attempts to alleviate the burden. A local NGO funded by Syrian and international donors provided residents with some free construction supplies, but as donor funds dried up or were diverted to more immediate needs such as food and medical aid, the service was discontinued.

Despite the economic pressure on civilians, Barzeh’s cease-fire agreement is widely considered more successful than similar ones in neighboring areas, and the town has enjoyed a modicum of stability. But despite its slow rebuild, the landscape here is haunted by scenes of fierce fighting. Entire neighborhoods, including the once-bustling Dahr al-Mistah and al-Ghammeh, remain ghost towns.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

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.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— 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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