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‘It will be a catastrophe’: fate of Syria’s last aid channel rests in Russia’s hands | Global development

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Just over half a mile away from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing connecting Syria and Turkey a 6th-century triumphal arch still stands, the remains of a Roman road stretching straight as an arrow on either side. For millennia this part of the world has been a crossroads of trade, culture and history. Today, it’s more important than ever.

Bab al-Hawa is Syria’s last lifeline, through which vital UN aid supplies for 3.4 million people living in the war-torn north-west of the country arrive. But before 10 July, the security council must vote in New York on whether to keep the aid flowing. What might seem like an obvious decision to outsiders is actually far from certain: Russia may use its veto power as a permanent member of the council to close the UN’s last access point, as it has managed to do with the other three aid crossings.

That the UN’s assistance for Syrians living outside the regime’s control could suddenly end this week is a reminder not just that the international community has failed the Syrian people, but how the conflict has broken the mechanisms built to keep the world safe.

Syrians refugees receive humanitarian aid in Idlib, 30 June
Syrian refugees in Idlib receive humanitarian aid, 30 June. Aid workers say 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies if the Bab al-Hawa crossing is suspended. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Compared with many areas deeper inside the country, Bab al-Hawa is an island of order and stability: manicured lawns and trees surround the crossing offices and the asphalt is clean and smooth. Hundreds of aid and commercial lorries pass through each day.

Employees inspect more than 30,000 tonnes of aid a month, about 60% of which comes from the UN. The vast majority – 87.5% – is food, with the rest made up of medicine, other health supplies, clothes, sanitation and hygiene equipment, according to the crossing’s spokesperson, Mazen Alloush.

Aid worker Bakri al-Obeid.
Aid worker Bakri al-Obeid. Photograph: Ghaith Alsayed/The Guardian

“If the UN aid entry is suspended, the crossing won’t close, but it will be a catastrophe,” aid worker Bakri al-Obeid said. “The knock-on effects would be huge: about 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies, 2.3 million will lose clean water, and half of the hospitals will lose funding. Food prices will go up and bakeries will close down.”

Across north-west Syria, need is acute. After a decade of war, the area is the last that remains outside Bashar al-Assad’s control, after military intervention from his Russian allies in 2015 turned the tide of the war in the government’s favour. The population of Idlib city and the surrounding countryside has swollen from one million to about 3.4 million as displaced people have fled the regime’s advance, with two-thirds living in camps or other makeshift accommodation.

The region is, for the most part, ruled by an Islamist militant group, leaving civilians trapped between the two forces. A 2020 ceasefire is routinely ignored: regime airstrikes regularly target civilian infrastructure, stretching the limited health facilities to breaking point.

Last year’s collapse of the Syrian pound sent food prices soaring, and the arrival of Covid-19 has exacerbated the level of need across the entire country – but the north-west is suffering the most.

“If the aid crossing is closed, we would have to shut down the hospital operations within a week,” said Dr Tarraf al-Tarraf, a urologist who switches to emergency surgery whenever there is a new wave of bombings. “It will be a total disaster … Closing Bab al-Hawa is using aid as a weapon.”

A mother and her baby at the Idlib camp, near the Bab al-Hawa border gate, Syria 30 June
A mother and her baby at the Idlib camp, near the Bab al-Hawa border gate, Syria 30 June. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

International aid has been deeply politicised since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. “It was clear right from 2011 that it was going to be hard to get the Russians to engage in any meaningful way,” a senior western diplomat said of early UN efforts to stop the regime’s violence against Arab spring protesters.

After it became clear that a series of peace talks known as the Geneva process, along with other diplomatic efforts, were not going to bring a timely end to the fighting, many at the UN decided to focus on what could be done to alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Eventually, in 2014, member states agreed on Resolution 2165, built on legal justifications, which allowed the UN to operate without the permission of the Damascus government and provide aid directly to rebel-held areas through four border crossings – two with Turkey, one with Iraq and one with Jordan.

“It was a very difficult negotiation, but we were able to push it through by taking advantage of the fact the Ukraine crisis was unfolding as well as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, putting Moscow on the back foot,” the diplomat said. “It was a huge breakthrough in our efforts to bring relief to the people of Syria. Even if it didn’t work as smoothly as we would have liked, it was a big step.”

In January 2020, however, arguing that the ground situation had changed, Russia used the threat of a total veto to cut the crossing on the Iraqi border; in July, it cut another in the north-west. (Al-Ramtha, on the Jordanian border, became less crucial after 2018, when the regime took back control of the area.)

Protests To Allow Humanitarian Aid To Enter Syria, Idlib - 02 Jul 2021
A human chain is formed by aid workers and activists during protests to keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open, 2 July, Idlib. Photograph: Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Today, only Bab al-Hawa remains – and the Russian delegation to the UN has hinted again that it will veto extending the resolution’s mandate when it expires next week.

Moscow has long maintained that all, rather than part of the UN’s aid to Syria should be distributed centrally through the Syrian government, blaming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant group in control in Idlib, along with Turkey, which backs some rebel groups, for not allowing aid from Damascus.

Children in camps along the frontier between Turkey and north-west Syria
Children shelter in one of the camps along the frontier between Turkey and north-west Syria. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Based on bitter experience, however, Syrians in the north-west know that if the regime controls the flow of aid, they are unlikely to see any of it. “When eastern Ghouta was under siege the only humanitarian corridor was with the regime,” said Obeid. “People there starved to death.”

Efforts to keep Bab al-Hawa open – and restore the other two crossings – have gone into overdrive in capitals across the world before the New York showdown. Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said it is crucial that member states understand the scale of the potential crisis.

“We have managed to run a massive aid operation for 10 years, supporting civilians on different sides of the front line. We need security council support to continue providing cross-border aid in north-west Syria, where there is artillery shelling and bombing virtually every day,” he said.

“The war is not over. Our cross-border operation from Turkey has proven to be the safest and most direct route. To cut off that lifeline would be a crime.”

While aid agencies have realised since the first crossing was closed in 2020 that they may need to make contingency plans to bypass the UN and rely instead on local partners, there is no real or immediate working alternative to Bab al-Hawa.

The vote is also being watched warily by Washington and Moscow as a harbinger of future relations. “The problem is that, even if Moscow doesn’t use its veto this time, it just kicks the can down the road for six months, or maybe a year, depending on how long the mandate is extended for,” said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Putting the lifeline of three million Syrians up for negotiations every six to 12 months, is an unsustainable situation. And Syrian civilians end up paying the price.”

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Twenty-five ethnic Pamiris killed by security forces in Tajikistan protests | Global development

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At least 25 people were killed on Wednesday by security forces in Tajikistan during a protest in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), where the Tajik regime has targeted the Pamiri ethnic minority.

The deaths mark an escalation of violence in the region. Conflict between the central government and the Pamiri has continued for decades, with the cultural and linguistic minority ethnic group suffering human rights abuses, as well as discrimination over jobs and housing.

The Pamir region has been the only place in Tajikstan where anti-government protesters still take to the streets, despite the authoritarian pro-Kremlin regime.

According to witnesses, several hundred residents of Khorog, the capital of GBAO, gathered at the weekend to call for the dismissal of the governor and the release of demonstrators arrested for participation in a protest in November, when three men were killed and 17 wounded by security forces.

Protests continued until Wednesday when, as people marched to the main square in Khorog, security forces blocked the road and allegedly started firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas at the protesters, killing at least 25 people.

Map of Tajikistan showing region

The Tajik government claimed “members of an organised criminal group” had blocked the highway “in order to destabilise the social and political situation”.

In a statement on the state news agency, Khovar, the interior ministry said: “Law enforcement agencies have begun an anti-terror operation … in a restive region that borders Afghanistan and China and has long been a flashpoint of tensions.”

The Tajik authorities claimed that arms and support from foreign “terrorist organisations” were coming in to the Pamiri region.

“The organised criminal groups did not comply with the lawful demands of law-enforcement officers to hand over their weapons and ammunition, and put up armed resistance,” the interior ministry said.

But activists said their protests had been peaceful. “The government is branding and naming the peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’, which is a complete fake, and then using that as an excuse to shoot at them,” said one Pamiri activist who cannot be named for security reasons.

During the Tajikistan civil war from 1992 to 1997, thousands of Pamiris were killed in what some human rights activists have described as “ethnic cleansing”.

In 2012, during clashes seen by many in GBAO as an attempt by the Tajik government to bring the autonomous region under its full control, at least 40 civilians were killed.

In February, parents of men killed by Tajik forces during a protest in November called on the international community to step in and protect ethnic minority groups.

Families have demanded that the soldiers responsible for killing their sons be brought to justice and urged the United Nations to intervene.

Guards in old-fashioned shako hats salute two men as they walk through huge golden doors
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, right, at Monday’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Photograph: Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/EPA

Tajikistan’s president of 28 years, Emomali Rahmon, who met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Monday, is seen by the Pamiri as wanting to take control of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Neil Clarke, head of the legal programme at Minority Rights Group International, told the Guardian: “The deteriorating human rights situation in the region is leaving the population, who are mainly Indigenous peoples and ethnic and linguistic minorities, at serious risk of harm.

“We now believe that without urgent measures, the situation could escalate towards increasing conflict,” he said. “The widespread harassment of the population of GBAO by authorities including the police, security and military personnel appears increasingly systematic. These include wide-ranging forms of surveillance and invasions of privacy, arbitrary detention and the use of coercion to obtain signatures and/or public statements against the will of the individual.”

Since November security checkpoints have been reinforced, and hundreds of people who took part in the demonstrations have been arrested or banned from leaving the region. Clarke said the latest deaths marked renewed efforts to suppress the Pamiri.

“Authorities have reinstated a blockade on internet connection in the region and have again begun to arrest and detain prominent civil society leaders and independent individuals under the alleged pretext of an ‘anti-terror operation’,” he said.

“Pamiri people are not the terrorists. We are calling for urgent measures by Tajikistan authorities to de-escalate the developing conflict, by restoring and ensuring the respect for human rights in GBAO and most urgently call on authorities to release the activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and others who have been detained and interrogated by security forces, without due process, as part of efforts to silence the voice of Pamiri activists.”

Since crackdowns on opposition groups in 2014 in Tajikistan, it is thought that 15 activists who left the country have disappeared in Russia or Turkey.

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Anne Frank: who gave her up to the Nazis? | International

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A book published in the Netherlands in January has caused a stir with it’s claim that a local Jewish notary was the one who revealed the annex in which Anne Frank and her family were hiding to the Nazis, whosubsequently deported the young girl, her sister, and their parents, to a concentration camp.

The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation, is authored by Canadian biographer and poet Rosemary Sullivan. The Betrayal recounts the work of a team made led by Dutch journalist Pieter van Twisk and including American Vince Pankoke, a former FBI agent It has been released throughout the world and encountered no problems, except for in the Netherlands where the publisher Ambo Anthos, withdrew it in February, apologizing “to anyone who was offended.”

The group set out to address the fate of Anne Frank as a cold case — an unsolved crime — and have used artificial intelligence and data processing as well as consulting a behavioral psychologist. They considered why a respected Jewish notary might have informed the Nazis of the Frank family’s hideout at 263 Prinsengracht in the Dutch capital. Over six years the team has ruled out about 30 suspects and scores of possibilities, attempting to fill gaps in information as time has elapsed.

Of the Frank family that had been hidden in the annex, only the father, Otto Frank, returned from the death camps. His daughter is a global icon, with her diary and her fate a symbol of innocence in tragedy.

Sullivan’s book says it is “almost certain” that the Dutch Jewish Council had a list of locations where people were in hiding, on which the Frank family’s may have been included.

The book notes that Arnold van den Bergh, a member of the Council, had contacts in high Nazi circles. So, “he could have given that list up at any time.”

To approach a cold case, one begins by reviewing all previous investigations for new clues. Speaking to EL PAÍS by phone, Vince Pankoke says that in this process one might speculate on what happened, and analyze the personality and biography of the suspects.

Pankoke says that, “we are not 100% sure,” the team found that van den Bergh was the most likely person to have triggered the raid in which Nazi police found the Franks.

“Although we cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” continues Pankoke, the team felt compelled to share their conclusions, because “it could have been a time bomb if discovered by anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi groups,” adding that the notary would have done so to save himself and his own family.

The speculation in the book has troubled several Dutch historians who specialize in the Holocaust and in the Dutch Jewish Council itself.

Bart van der Boom, a professor at the University of Leiden, says there is no evidence that the Council had the addresses of people in hiding.

Council members were respected people in the Jewish community, who “believed that opposing the Nazis would be much worse” than accepting the creation of the Council, a Nazi initiative.

“The idea that they would give a list to the Nazis is ridiculous,” says van der Boom.

“Jewish leaders did not decide who would be deported and they did not take charge of gathering people for it.” That suggestion, adds the professor, “is one of the numerous errors of the book.”

Van der Boom goes on to say that the Dutch Jewish Council “was criticized by everyone after the war for collaborating with the occupier, and there were Nazis who tried to blame it to save themselves.”

In the book, van der Boom says that the cold case team points to a German translator’s statement that they had heard the Council had the lists, and “that information is not credible.”

Indeed, in the historian’s expert opinion, the book is “an amateur work; all smoke and mirrors.”

Van der Boom has written to Rosemary Sullivan, in an appeal, he says, to her academic conscience. He tells EL PAÍS that Sullivan responded “that she trusts the research.”

Both van der Boom and his colleague, Bart Wallet, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Amsterdam, are particularly appalled at a sentence by the author in the English version.

After stating that van den Berg, who died in 1950, “saved his family by giving the Nazis addresses, including 263 Prinsengracht,” Sullivan writes: “Perhaps he also paid a price. He died of throat cancer. In a strange way, it was appropriate: he lost the ability to speak.”

Wallet states firmly that an academic peer review process would not have permitted the book to be published in its current form.

Pieter van Twisk, the Dutch journalist, admits that the team expected criticism, especially in the Netherlands.

“I was not prepared, however, for the toxic atmosphere [that has been] created,” says van Twisk.

“We were not [deliberately] looking for a Jewish traitor, as has been suggested, and we believe that Otto Frank knew or suspected who ratted them out, because he said he did not want his children to suffer for it.”

“There are specialists who agree with us and do not dare to speak in order to preserve their reputation. It’s ridiculous.”

It also seems to van Twisk that the Dutch publisher Ambo Anthos has dropped the book for fear of a lawsuit by members of the van den Bergh family: “I didn’t want to go to court with victims of the Holocaust.”

Pankoke, for his part, indicates that the book “is Rosemary Sullivan’s interpretation of the interviews she did with us and the reports of our work. There is a difference between what she interprets and the investigation itself.”

At any rate, Pankoke notes, “collaboration with the Nazis and the fate of Anne Frank” is a highly sensitive topic in the Netherlands.

The other main piece of evidence presented in the work is an anonymous note about the betrayal, sent after the war to Otto Frank. The original has not been found, but a copy of the writing, known to academics, was among the documents of a Dutch police investigator, Arend van Helden, who investigated the matter between 1963 and 1964. The note says that Van den Bergh revealed the Franks’ hideout to the Nazis, and that the department that received the tip-off “had a list of addresses (of Jewish people in hiding) also provided by him.”

Forensic examination by Pankoke’s team confirmed that the copy “had come off Otto Frank’s typewriter a couple of years before 1959.”

The team explored whether “the note was taken seriously in its day and if the lead was good.”

After discovering “that due diligence, an adequate review, had not been applied to confirm the allegations,” Pankoke’s team deemed it a legitimate piece of evidence.

For Bart Wallet, the person who wrote it “misquotes the Nazi institutions, showing a lack of inside knowledge to make such a statement about the notary.”

Such notes, Wallet continues, were frequently sent between people after the war “as gossip, or to settle scores.”

In Wallet’s opinion, if the list of hidden Jews had existed, “we would be facing one of the greatest traitors of the war and it would have been known, preventing his return to civilian life.”

To all of the above, there are added doubts about the whereabouts of the notary after the beginning of 1944. Anne Frank and her family were found by the Nazis in August of that year. Pankoke points out that van den Bergh “was trying to go unnoticed or else he hid, because details are missing here.”

However, another Dutch historian has just found a wartime diary with an entry that places the notary in the town of Laren, near Amsterdam. Van den Bergh obtained the necessary documentation to pass himself off as only partly Jewish, and thus had freedom of movement. But a Nazi colleague who wanted his office had gotten that declaration annulled.

Due to this, and with his three daughters hidden since the end of 1943, the two historians consulted believe that van den Bergh and his wife went into hiding at the beginning of 1944, according to reports from his descendants in the 1970s, as the family had survived.

Regarding the response of historians in the Netherlands to the book, Pankoke suspects a case of “academic arrogance.”

“When historians don’t like our findings, they reject them. That the notary went into hiding does not prove that he did not give the lists to the Nazis before, or later.”

“In addition, academics state that he was a good person,” but, “I know from experience that decent people can do terrible things,” the former FBI agent concludes.

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Under the volcano: a year after Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, people of Goma start to rebuild their lives | Global development

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