In A Syrian Opposition Enclave, Where Faith In Diplomacy Is Long Gone

Even as diplomatic pressure grows on the Assad regime, inhabitants of the Djebel Akrad mountains are doubtful that anything less than are a military intervention can make the difference.

A UN Military officer surrounded by citizens of Homs (UN)
A UN Military officer surrounded by citizens of Homs (UN)
Boris Mabillard

AKKO - A pro-revolutionary television station is showing Kofi Annan's press conference on the violence in Syria. But in the large guest room, no one is paying attention. Fadi's family and guests, who have come over to drink tea and discuss the news, would rather see the latest coverage of demonstrations and fighting. The inhabitants of the northern town of Akko expect more from the international community than another Kofi Annan proposal.

Located between the city of Idlib and the Turkish border, the Djebel Akrad mountains shelter about fifteen villages, mostly Sunni, all mobilized against Bashar al-Assad's regime. Thanks to the population's support, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has made the region one of its sanctuaries. But since April, the Syrian Army has led several forays into the Djebel.

"Armored vehicles descended upon the villages, and helicopters machine-gunned our houses twice," explains Fadi as he shows the ruins of a crumbled house. "Where is the international community when our brothers are tortured, our houses bombed, our children killed? It is silent," he adds. Since the implementation of Kofi Annan's peace plan, repression hasn't diminished here, quite the contrary.

The UN observers did not come to these insurgent villages. Faced with Assad's army, the villagers feel powerless and alone. They haven't heard of the international condemnation of Syrian security forces for their repression, or the coordinated diplomatic of the past two days to expel Syrian ambassadors from a growing number of countries.

After anger, bitterness prevails. Locals here have harsh words for China and Russia, but the Syrian National Council and the UN also take a hit. They are all accused of leniency towards Assad.

Syria has been abandoned

It's the same story with exiled Syrians in Turkey, where half of the Djebel's 15,000 inhabitants have fled. In Reyhanli, one of the refugee camps, symbolic tombs have been erected for China, Russia, the Arab League and Kofi Annan, even though the refugees are reluctant to show the latter, to avoid hurting Western sensibilities.

After his Friday sermon, the sheikh joins Fadi in his living room. He also supports the rebel cause. "The entire world has abandoned us, but we are not alone, we have God, and only he will give us victory." Everybody nods in agreement, "inch'Allah" (if God is willing).

Abu Ramadan, the highest-ranking FSA officer in Djebel, is more pragmatic. "We can't win without military support from the international community. We need a military intervention, with a no-fly zone and bombing of army positions. At the very least we need weapons."

The conversation heats up, and everybody has their take on cynical diplomats. "In Libya there was oil, and that's why NATO intervened. The world has imposed economic sanctions on Syria. They are strangling us, but there has been no effect on the repression."

Nobody in the room mentions peace. "It's too late," explains Fadi. Behind him, two teenagers are playing with Kalashnikovs left against the wall by their elders. "Victory will come from the sky, from the bombs that will topple the regime."

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - United Nations

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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