In Damascus, A Mother Torn From Her Family

There are many victims in the civil war in Syria. One woman in the capital, whose husband and children have managed to flee to Egpyt, suffers a particular kind of fear and solitude.

“I am a prisoner in my own home"
“I am a prisoner in my own home"
Ali Safar

DAMASCUS — Samar reaches for her phone and dials the number she has now memorized by heart. She waits, then gets the voice mail asking her to leave a message. She sighs and hangs up, clearly frustrated. She decides to go personally to the Egyptian Embassy in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh.

Her journey, which she makes on foot, takes two hours, during which she must pass several regime checkpoints. Previously, soldiers did not pay much attention to women passing through, but these days, they take extra care examining ID cards, especially those of veiled women. Overt religious expression is more likely these days to translate to sympathy with the increasingly Islamist revolt, and Sunni women are more commonly veiled than Alawites. But since Samar was not wearing the hijab, the soldier manning the checkpoint let her go through quickly.

When she arrives at the embassy, one of the security guards stops her and asks that she wait while he makes a call. Two minutes later, she gets her answer. She has been denied entry to Egypt.

Samar says nothing and walks away.

She has been separated from her husband and two children since the end of the summer, when they fled the bloody conflict on a flight to Cairo. The Egyptian authorities allowed in her Palestinian husband and children, who carry the father’s nationality. Samar was rejected because of her Syrian passport and was instead deported to Beirut International Airport.

Under the now-deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Syrian nationals were allowed into Egypt visa-free, one among many measures of solidarity. But after the June 30 military coup of Morsi’s presidency, mounting unrest, compounded by rising anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, led to a reversal of the visa regulations.

At the time, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman said that Syrians would be welcome with entry visas, which are normally available at the Cairo International Airport. But in effect, many have been barred from entry. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are currently more than 125,000 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.

“At the end of August, after I was deported, I applied for a visa at the Egyptian Embassy here in Damascus,” Samar said. “They said I should come back in 21 days. They were a month late to get back to me, and then my application was rejected. I was advised to reapply and I did so. After a month, another rejection.”

“They don’t grant the visa to anyone,” she added.

Samar’s husband tried to apply for her through the Tahrir Administrative Complex in Cairo, but that application was also rejected.

“I’m back here to try my luck once again, like the tens and hundreds of other Syrians whose families live in Egypt,” she said. “One day, dozens of us gathered in front of the embassy. An employee stepped out to say that there is no need to come personally to know if our applications were successful or not. That we could call them … but they never pick up the phone.

“In the end, I tried to appeal to the ambassador as a mother’s plea for being away from her children for months. But they refused, saying they don’t have such a thing. According to them, the matter is in the hands of the Egyptian security.”

When asked what she would do after her latest application was rejected, Samar answered, “Nothing. I will spend my time waiting!”

Alone in an war-torn city

The journey to the embassy nowadays is no simple matter. Samar, like so many others, goes each time on foot. With security on lockdown, the roads are all either blocked or partially restricted for vehicles.

Samar returns to her home in the al-Shughur neighborhood of Damascus and calls her husband to fill him in. Despite her best efforts, she cannot stop herself from crying. Her husband, who has been exhibiting symptoms of depression, tries to comfort her.

Samar speaks of her days spent alone in Damascus.

“I am a prisoner in my own home," she says, noting the shelling that has arrived in the capital. "I never leave unless it’s absolutely necessary."

As soon as it gets dark, she closes all the doors and spends all her time talking to her husband and children over the Internet. When the power goes off, any means of contacting them is no longer available, even on the landline because to the damage to the infrastructure. "I often sleep waiting for the power to come back, hoping to get back in touch with the children,” she says.

Samar’s neighborhood is relatively safe. There are no clashes there, but the area is often shelled. The opposition accuses the regime forces of the attacks, while state media accuses “the terrorists” of launching them. The warring sides point fingers, while the lives of residents descend into hell.

Civilians like Samar try to flee, usually to neighboring countries, in search of a safe place to pull themselves together and find opportunities to move forward. There, they will either wait for the end of the war or seek asylum, whether legally or illegally via smugglers who provide them with routes into European countries.

Once Samar is able to reunite with her husband and children, the plan is for the family to follow the latter route. “My husband has decided that we will go by sea,” she said. When we point out that travelling by sea could mean death by drowning, as has happened to hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians recently, Samar is despondent.

“To die with some hope of surviving our current reality is better than to live with despair filling our hearts because of what’s happening in Syria, or to die of a mortar shell launched by our own people.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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