February 24, 2014
TOULOUSE — They didn’t imagine “that it would be so hard.” Maybe that was because everything before their arrival in Syria had been so easy.
Y. and A. are 15 and 16 years old respectively, 10th graders at Arènes High School in the southern French city of Toulouse. Over the course of a few weeks, they became convinced that they should go and fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
In just a matter of days, they managed to organize and carry out their journey to a Jihadist camp. But it didn’t take long for them both to become disillusioned, which forced them to figure out how to head back home to France.
Since Jan. 31, they have been questioned for “criminal association in relation to a terrorist undertaking.” While in custody they have recounted to investigators of the Central Directorate of Homeland Intelligence (DCRI), the French intelligence agency, just how simple it was to arrange and execute their perilous journey, beginning in mid-December.
Like millions of French people who travel, they booked their flights online. While A.’s mother did not have a credit card, Y. was able to use his father’s to buy two tickets to Istanbul. A. invented a school trip as an excuse — his friend wrote the fake letter to the parents — and stole cash from his mother to reimburse his friend and finance the costs once they arrived.
Auto-suggests on Facebook
On Jan. 6, when they were supposed to return to school after the Christmas holidays, the two boys set off as if it were a normal day. But instead of going to school, they took the bus to the Toulouse Airport. Their journey abroad would begin there without a hitch, because authorizations to leave the country are no longer required for minors in France.
They were prepared. In Syria, they had a contact who provided them with the roadmap. To find him, there was no need for a special network or underground movements. Facebook was enough. Thanks to the social network’s auto-suggests, the two friends came across user Abou H., whose photo showed him bearing a rifle, and whose account described him as, “The fighter at Allah’s service.”
Abou H. claimed to be in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city in the north of the country, where the heart of the battle against the regime is taking place. After communicating for a bit, he asked the two teenagers if they wanted to come to the country. No big sermon was necessary. The recruiter simply provided instructions and practical information.
The destination was Hatay, in the southern tip of Turkey, some 40 kilometers from the border and just over 100 kilometers from Aleppo. In Istanbul, their connecting flight was canceled. It was there that the two teens began having their first doubts after one of them called his mother, who burst into tears and begged for him to return. But they chose to board the first flight that took them to another southern city, Adana, a bit further from Syria, and they finished their journey by bus.
After a night at the hotel, the boys arrived by taxi in Reyhanli, very close to the Syrian border. They traveled the last few kilometers in a car driven by one of Abou H.’s contacts. During the short ride, they caught a glimpse of one of the big refugee camps. A few hundred meters away from Syria, the man stopped the car. They took their belongings, and ran across the border. On the other side, another man and another car were waiting for them. They were safe and set to meet Abou H. in a village located between Aleppo and Idlib, a hotbed of the rebellion.
It was time for the first military briefing. Abou H. outlined the clashes raging in the region between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the local Islamist groups and the “al-Dawla,” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a militia made up of foreign jihadists who were gaining ground.
An atmosphere of suspicion
The two teens quickly felt lost. Y. told investigators that he only realized they were enrolled in the al-Nusra Front — a group linked to al-Qaeda — days later. In the house, there were fighters from all over the world. A week later, they were transferred to Idlib, because, according to Abou H., the FSA was approaching their village and wanted to kill the foreign fighters.
The waiting in Idlib continued, along with around 20 other French-speaking members. They then returned to the first village, where a training camp was set to open. Communicating with the 30 other foreigners — Chechens, Kazakhs, Tunisians — was not easy, having learned only bits of English back at school in France. A. also spoke some basic Arabic, which made him the translator. The two boys could only describe their comrades to investigators by saying they looked like “Shaggy in Scooby-Doo.”
From one house to another, each day looked just like the last. They awoke at 6 a.m. for prayer, breakfast and chores. The living conditions were austere — no hot water, no heating, and a prevailing atmosphere of suspicion. Entertainment was non-existent, and when Y. tried to play a game on his computer at the camp, he was “told off.”
Still, despite almost constant surveillance, both regularly went to the village’s sole Internet café to communicate with France.
Spread the word
These exchanges were even encouraged by the group’s leaders, who made the aspiring fighters pose with weapons before asking them to upload the pictures to their Facebook profiles, in order to “encourage people to come over.”
But the experience for the two boys actually had the opposite effect. A. gave in first. He found the other French speakers in the group to be “lame” thugs, and that a war between rebel groups formed an “illicit Jihad.” And being forced to stay out in the cold to get “used to it” was not really a pleasant experience.
More mundanely, they simply missed their families. According to the teenagers, they were not harmed physically but they had to put up with constant “moralizing” rhetoric.
Eventually, both A. and Y. managed to return home. Waiting on the other side of the border in Turkey — on Jan. 26 for A., the 27 for Y — were their families. While their journey had made news in France, it was French intelligence officials who welcomed them when they got off the plane. They did not return as heroes, or even wayward children, but as suspected terrorists.
This leading French daily newspaper Le Monde ("The World") was founded in December 1944 in the aftermath of World War II. Today, it is distributed in 120 countries. In late 2010, a trio formed by Pierre Berge, Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse took a controlling 64.5% stake in the newspaper.
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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?
October 16, 2021
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
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
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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