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Tiny graves: Syrian refugees in Lebanon struggle for space to bury children

For Syrians in Lebanon, death brings a final indignity as the bodies of their loved ones are squeezed in along cemetery edges

The graves of the children are easy to discern, little bumps on the ground squeezed in along the edges of the cemetery. A rectangle of four small concrete blocks is enough to encompass one childs entire body.

No names are carved in marble, just overgrown, withered grass rustling in the breeze of the Bekaa Valley. In the cemetery named al-Rahma, meaning Mercy, only one Syrian refugee childs tombstone bears markings an illegible name etched into the stone with a rough tool, the mark of a despairing parent.

You see these little graves that we put on the side? Theyre all children, and theyre almost all Syrians, said Hosni Shuqayyif, the cemetery caretaker. There are so many children. We bury them in the corners, on the sides, or between the other graves, wherever there is space.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country after six years of war passed 5 million on Thursday. More than a million of those are registered with the UN high commissioner for refugees in Lebanon, compared with a prewar Lebanese population of 4 million, the per capita equivalent of the UK hosting 13 million refugees.

But in this tiny nation, with its 18 official religious sects, Syrians have endured many indignities from onerous visa procedures to poor treatment and humiliation at the border and residency offices, to child labour, sexual exploitation, and life in fragile plastic tents that collapse in winter, and the xenophobia of local politicians pandering to fearful followers.

And now, death brings a final indignity. Families of dead Syrians living in Lebanon are increasingly struggling to find a place to bury their loved ones, often leaving them for weeks or months in hospital morgues while they search for cemeteries that will take them. They struggle to scrape together enough money to pay off hospital fees, sometimes carrying them in cardboard boxes or in the backs of taxis and digging graves with their bare hands.

A tiny grave at al-Rahma cemetery. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

NGOs sometimes negotiate deals with municipalities to allow refugees to share cemeteries with the Lebanese, but they are growing overcrowded because of the large population of Syrians, often outnumbering locals by three or four times. Few landowners are willing to sell land to build graveyards, worried about plunging real estate prices and superstitions, and religious authorities are staying clear of the problem.

Most Syrians, who are banned from work, cannot even afford the $200-$300 cost of burial, including performing Islamic rites of cleansing, or shrouds and gravestones, and donors are few.

Theyre not finally at ease when they are dead, said Haytham Taimey, a Lebanese sheikh who runs the Development and Renewal Association, an NGO that helps Syrians find and pay for burial spots. Even human emotions, when youve lost somebody close to you, their basic right of mourning and saying goodbye, Syrians dont have that any more.

There is no comprehensive data for mortality rates among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR only finds out about deaths if a family opts to tell them, an unlikely step since it could mean a reduction in aid, or if a person who is receiving medical support dies in hospital. The organisation counted 2,087 deaths in 2015, though the number is likely much higher given the Syrian population and the limits on reporting.

A spokesperson for UNHCR said they were aware of problems finding burial spots, and while the organisation cannot assist with burial procedures, it provides counselling to families and tries to put them in touch with NGOs that can help.

UNHCR is aware of the general difficulties that Syrian refugees face in burying their loved ones in Lebanon, the spokesperson said. When UNHCR is alerted to specific issues, we ask our local partners to help refugees resolve this through dialogue. Local and religious authorities, local partners and municipalities are among the parties that could help refugees solve these issues.

In the past, Arab cemeteries often included a section labeled madafen al-ghoraba, or the graveyards of the strangers, for visitors who passed away a now defunct practice.

Walid Luwais, an official at the Islamic endowments authority, acknowledged that the issue amounted to a crisis, but said that even when the government buys land for a cemetery plot neighbours often refuse to allow the burial.

People dont want graves near them, its a popular superstition, said Taimey, the local sheikh. They love life and they dont want to open their windows and be reminded of the afterlife. They have to be hidden from view, though to be honest dead people are better neighbours, they never do anything to harm you.

Some municipalities have come up with solutions, allowing Syrians who live in refugee camps in their towns to bury their dead in a designated area of the cemetery, while turning away outsiders. One such town is Omariyah, which houses 15,000 Syrian refugees to 7,000 Lebanese, and where half of the local cemetery is occupied by dead Syrians.

Grave at Omariyah cemetary. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

It is a real crisis, said Mohammad al-Ahmad, the towns mayor, who helped institute the rule. He said it was still painful to turn away desperate Syrians. Imagine someone coming to you who cant find a place to bury his dead loved one. When he asks you: So where do I go with my dead relative? In Syria Im homeless, and here I cant even bury my relative. You dont know what to do. Of course he should have a burial place, he said.

For Syrians in Lebanon, that heartbreak is a daily occurrence, and the calls to Taimey and local youth organisations are too frequent. One man, who declined to give his name, had to carry his father in the back of a pickup truck for hours until he managed to find a burial spot in a cemetery late at night, burying him without a coffin.

Fighting back tears, he walked away saying: They want us to just throw our dead in the street.

There is no shortage of stories of the desperate plight of Syrians. One volunteer with a youth group in Saadnayel, a town that hosts about 26,000 Syrians, described how they had to bury a 50-year-old man who had been in a morgue for 40 days. Hospitals will often keep custody of corpses if the victim has no paperwork or if his family owes money.

There was a man who arrived in a taxi, and he had his son with him in a cardboard box, said Shuqayyif, the cemetery caretaker. A cardboard box. Not even a wooden casket. A cardboard box that probably had had potatoes or shoes in it. I saw that myself. And the father is there, digging with his hands to bury his child. Its heartbreaking.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/30/lebanon-no-space-syrian-refugees-graves-bury-dead

Beirut’s last public beach: residents fear privatisation of Ramlet al-Baida

A private development close to Beiruts last remaining public beach is sparking anger among residents who fear companies will leave nothing for the poor and middle classes encroaching further into a city that already lacks public space

Take a stroll down the golden sands of Ramlet al-Baida, Beiruts last public beach, and youll see families fishing and smoking shisha in ramshackle palm frond cabanas, boys kicking footballs under battered lamp-posts, and children building sandcastles in the waves. It is a rare outlet in a city where public spaces are few and far between. But at the beachs southern end, the scene abruptly gives way to looming cranes and men in hard hats driving rebars into a rising edifice of concrete.

The development, known as the Eden Bay resort a more than 5,000 sq metre project billed by its website as a sanctuary of luxury and refinement began constructionlast year, sparking outrage among beachgoers, civil society activists and public space advocates. The company behind the project says they have complied with the law and are set to inject vital investment and hundreds of jobs into Lebanons bruised economy. But many of the poor and middle class Beirutis who have been going to the beach for generations see it as an encroachment on one of the few public spaces they have left.

Poor people are trash here, says Hisham Hamdan, 59, glancing at the development as he lounges with a lunch of fish, hummus and vegetables alongside half a dozen friends. Its Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, he adds, listing a few prominent politicians and businessmen. Theyre mafiosos, all of them.

He plucks a cane topped with a bust of Nefertiti from the sand and gestures toward a row of apartment buildings. Look, he says. You know how much that is? Four million dollars. And everyone here has nothing. (Some nearby properties do indeed sell for that much.)

A little way up the beach, Abu Rami, a 43-year-old department store worker who asked to be identified by his nickname so he could speak freely, kicks a football with his son. When I was a bachelor I used to come out to Ramlet al-Baida every day, he says. Id run down here with my friends around six or seven and wed play football. Wed even come out and play football at night wed swim and play and stay out late. Everyone has memories like that.

Eden Bay resort is set on 5,188 sq metres of Beirut coast. Photograph: Achour Development

Now, he says, people are afraid private companies will overwhelm the beach, leaving nothing for the citys poorer people and middle classes. The way I see it, the people here need to come out and protest against these companies this is repression against the poor.

The roots of anger and suspicion go much deeper than one resort. For a city its size, Beirut has a shocking lack of public space. There is just one major central park Horsh Beirut, which was recently reopened to the public after years of closure while miles of Mediterranean coast are covered with luxury apartments, clubs, restaurants, hotels and resorts that charge hefty entrance fees. For the many Beirutis living on just a few hundred dollars a month, the price to bring a family into one of these clubs could amount to a major chunk of a months salary. If youre poor, you dont always have the right to enjoy the outdoors.

Mohammad Ayoub, executive director of Nahnoo, a civil society group that advocated to reopen Horsh Beirut and is now working to revitalise Ramlet al-Baida, compares the citys situation to a house without a living room the space where a family comes together.

The salon is where you have to learn how to deal with your differences, because everybody owns it. You cant watch TV alone, so you need to discuss what to do. It teaches you dialogue, it teaches you democracy, it makes you feel a sense of belonging. This is why its important.

Ramlet al-Baida is Beiruts last public beach. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Such spaces are especially vital given the legacy of sectarian division left by the countrys 1975-90 civil war, he says. But a lack of sufficient public regulation has allowed developers to chip away at such spaces over the years, leaving only a handful open to the public. What do we own in the city? Ayoub says. We own nothing. Why are we here in the city; what can we do in the city? You have to pay for everything.

As one of the few exceptions, Ramlet al-Baida (white sands in Arabic) has long been a magnet for suspicions about developers intentions. Activists point to a 1925 decree declaring everything up to the highest point the waves reach to be public property. However, since the 1960s, a string of exemptions, loopholes, violations and favouritism bestowed upon developers has gradually eaten away at the coastline and left the beach one of the last bastions of free access, they say. The nearby Dalieh outcrop is also under threat, although construction hasnt started.

In a cluttered and dimly lit office in central Beirut, Ali Darwish, head of Green Line, a Lebanese environmentalist group, runs his finger over a satellite image of Ramlet al-Baida, ticking off the plots where he says private developers are bent on building. Ask any older Beiruti above 50 or 60 and they wont even know that this is [privately] owned, he says. Its enshrined, its anchored in our brains that this is public land.

Back in the late 90s, Darwish says his group discovered a plan which showed that former prime minister Rafik Hariri famous for his extensive postwar real estate dealings wanted to turn the area into a marina, an effort quashed by public lobbying. Controversy flared up again in 2015 when a judge permittedtwo companies owning plots on the beachto close them to the public.The judge reversed her decision, but activists were on high alert.

Security forces stand guard during a protest outside the gates of the Eden Rock development last year. Photograph: Thomson Reuters Foundation

Amid the atmosphere of distrust, civil society leaders have trouble seeing the Eden Bay development as anything less than a precursor to a full-scale takeover. Green Line has filed a suit to stop the project but pending a decision, construction has continued. If Eden Bay succeeds, activists believe other developers will undoubtedly follow. Darwish says one plot owner has already filed for a building permit a little further up the beach: This is the door-opener.

Achour Development expresses a very different view of the situation. In an office overlooking downtown Beirut nicknamed Solidere after the company Hariri founded before his 2005 assassination its lawyer Bahij Abou Mjahed, flips through a thick folder of documents which, he says, definitively prove the companys right to build on the land.

An assistant brings copies of the plots ownership records, the projects building permit, clearance from the order of engineers, and a map showing that the development is hundreds of metres from the part of the beach considered public.

Given regional turmoil, the new resort represents a courageous and ambitious project that will add hundreds of jobs to an economy badly in need of them, Abou Mjahed says. Lebanese departments are travelling all over the world to encourage investors to invest in Lebanon. If we create a war against this project, which has all the legal documents and all the legal permissions and permits and decisions, whats the message were sending to the investor? Come to Lebanon and invest, and in a moment somebody will decide that its a public area and stop you?

He says objections to the project are rooted in misunderstandings and, in some cases, conspiracy theories that assume the entire Lebanese government is arrayed against the public. Its against the laws of nature.

Back at Ramlet al-Baida, the nuances of the legal debate are of little interest to most beachgoers; many take it as a given that the system is rigged against them. There are politicians who are monopolising everything. They come down and take money and, so long, its over. They can do what they want, says Abu Rami, the department store worker. The Lebanese people need to stand together. Youll find people coming out and demonstrating against this repression, this theft three quarters of people are with them but they stay in their homes.

Why? Maybe people are distracted, he says. Theyre busy just getting by.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/02/beiruts-public-space-last-beach-residents-fear-privatisation-ramlet-al-baida

John Kerry’s two-state plan still falls short in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict | Rashid Khalidi

Kerry made another push for peace in the Middle East, but the whole discourse gives Israel the upper hand

As 2017 dawns, the ghost of Lord Balfour still haunts us. Just as the British foreign secretarys 1917 declaration considered only how the Zionist movement could serve the interests of the greatest power of its day, so has the recent speech of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, advocating a two-state solution addressed mainly the interests of todays superpower and its protg, Israel. There has been some progress since 1917: there is no mention whatsoever of Palestinians or Arabs in the Balfour Declaration, whereas Kerry paid ample lip service to the Palestinians, albeit always in relation to Israels concerns and desires.
Lost in the uproar caused in some circles by the condemnation of Israeli settlements embodied in Kerrys speech and in UN security council resolution 2334 is the fact that, in line with previous US policies on Palestine, both ignore basic rights of the Palestinian people, and the requirements of international law, of justice and of equity.

However, this is not just about Israels metastasizing colonial settlement project, important though that is. Much as they may have enraged Israels government and its American enablers, the Obama/Kerry parameters and UNSC 2334 are simply inadequate as the basis for a lasting solution. This problem did not start in 1967, and it will not disappear simply by resolving the settlement issue, which in any case neither parameters nor resolution will do.

Although the Obama/Kerry parameters are likely to be consigned to oblivion like those of Bill Clinton 16 years ago, it is worth examining them to see how Israel-centric the entire discourse on Palestine is.

Much like the Balfour declaration, these parameters were in fact tailored point by point to Zionist desires. Thus they cite UN general assembly resolution 181 in support of the recent Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But instead of that state being confined to the generous frontiers laid down in 1947 in UNGA 181 (which promised more than half of a country with a large Arab majority to its Jewish minority), the Palestinian state is to be restricted to 22% of mandatory Palestine. Moreover, it is to be demilitarized, and will only come into being, if ever, after yet another transitional period. Israelis have had independence and sovereignty for 70 years. The Palestinians will have to wait, yet again, for theirs.

The parameters enshrine the land swaps beloved of peace processors. This innocuous term is in fact designed to allow Israel to snatch even more than 78% of Palestine, exchanging worthless desert for prime real estate.

The Kerry/Obama parameters refer to a just, agreed, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. How can such a solution be just if descendants of the majority of Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 are explicitly denied return to their homeland? The parameters note that refugees suffering must be acknowledged. Where is the vital acknowledgment that carving a Jewish state out of a majority Arab country necessarily and inevitably caused that suffering?

These parameters call for freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo, without recognizing that for 50 years Israeli governments have shredded that status quo, desecrating Muslim cemeteries like Mamilla and Bab al-Rahmeh, demolishing ancient Ummayad buildings discovered south of the Haram, and much else, in the race to dig down to the only strata that matter to nationalist Israeli archaeologists. They add that Jerusalem should not be divided again like it was in 1967, without addressing the fact that the unification of Jerusalem has been a cover for 50 years of land theft and subjugation of more than 400,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites.

Then the parameters address the holy of holies: Israels legitimate security needs. These are treated as unconditional and absolute. In practice they are so elastic that they have been used to deny pasta to besieged Gazans. Typically, the focus is on security for the Israeli occupier, not for the occupied Palestinians who are in fact utterly insecure. Security for Israel is paired with the end of occupation. The latter is conditional: it comes only after an agreed transitional process and with the involvement of Egypt and Jordan, which for decades have closely collaborated with the Israeli security services, often against the interests of the Palestinians.

Finally, the parameters call for an end [to] the conflict and all outstanding claims as part of a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. How is that to take place if basic Palestinian claims are ignored, while all serious (and some outrageous) Israeli claims are addressed?

The Balfour Declaration was issued at the height of the imperial age, when colonization was still in good odor. It laid down a blueprint for the dispossession of the Palestinians, tearing a regional wound that is still unhealed. One hundred years later, the colonial settler project that Lord Balfour blessed still bulldozes its way through Palestine, and the Palestinians remain in limbo. We have yet to see the parameters of a just, equitable and secure solution that gives both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples the equal rights they deserve.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/31/israel-palestine-two-state-solution-flaws-john-kerry-plan

Qatar wins approval to turn US embassy in London into hotel

Westminster council accepts plan to build 137-room hotel in Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square

The Qatari royal familys property company has won approval to turn the US embassy in London into a luxury hotel.

Westminster council agreed Qatari Diar Real Estates plan for the Grade II-listed building in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, on Tuesday. The nine floors, three of which are underground, will include up to 137 hotel rooms, shops, restaurants and bars.

The US state department agreed to sell the building to Qatari Diar in 2009 to fund a new embassy in the Nine Elms regeneration project south of the Thames. Estimates put the Grosvenor Square sites value at 500m before it was made a listed building, which would have reduced the value because of restrictions on development.

Qatari Diar, part of the Qatari Investment Authority, has snapped up several high-profile London properties including the former Chelsea barracks, the former Olympic athletes village and most of Canary Wharf. Qatari investment interests also own Harrods and substantial stakes in Heathrow airport, Sainsburys, Barclays Bank and IAG, the parent company of British Airways.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/16/qatar-wins-approval-to-turn-american-embassy-into-luxury-hotel

After the hajj: Mecca residents grow hostile to changes in the holy city

As millions of hajj pilgrims return home, Meccas two million locals are left struggling with the impacts of their changing city. Much of old Mecca has been razed and rebuilt to make room for growing tourism, forcing out residents

Millions of hajj pilgrims are preparing to head home, after five days performing ancient rites, revering a God omnipresent in the city of Mecca.

They have stoned figurative devils, they have slept in the worlds largest tent city, they have drunk water from the Zamzam well together: a heaving throng of nearly two million people from all over the world.

Circling the Kaaba, the black cubic epicentre of this sanctuary city, pilgrims would have looked up to see one of the minarets of the Grand Mosque, dwarfed by Abraj al-Bait clocktower, a much-maligned luxury hotel and commercial complex and the second-tallest building in the world.

Next year, they will see the Abraj Kudai, the largest hotel on Earth.

Indeed, though rebuilt throughout the centuries, the minarets like much of the city are now relics of a pre-modern Mecca. Cranes and scaffolding now dominate the central skyline, reminders that the city is undergoing a massive state-run expansion to be able to handle ever-increasing numbers of annual pilgrims in the future.

Mecca is flooded by pilgrims every year, but it is also a city of two million residents facing increasing structural stresses. Photograph: Ahmed Mater

But as much as these pilgrims as much as any Muslim belong to Mecca for those five days, they are but spiritually home. When it comes to the city they visit out of religious obligation and devotion to God, most are transient figures, who will leave no indelible mark on the city. They leave behind two million locals, who are struggling with the impacts of the changing nature of their city.

In the 1960s, before travel became more affordable, hajj pilgrims numbered roughly 200,000. According to Meccas mayor, today there are two to three million of them, with an additional 12 million performing the lesser pilgrimage of umrah, which can be done at any point throughout the year. Faced with a dip in oil prices, revenue from Meccan tourism is expected to become a greater source of revenue for the Saudi Kingdoms economy. Under its current plans, the city expects to add several million more pilgrims a year by 2020.

Estimates vary, but only a handful of Meccas millennium-old buildings remain. Ottoman fortresses and hills have made room for the royal clocktower. The prophets first wife Khadijahs home is now the site of public lavatories. But very little is said about the thousands of homes and neighbourhoods destroyed to make way for the citys expansion. Thirteen of Meccas 15 old neighbourhoods have been razed and rebuilt to make room for hotels and commercial spaces.

Construction cranes now dominate Meccas skyline. Photograph: Ahmed Mater

No one knows this better than Sami Angawi.

An architect who now lives in Jeddah, Angawi spent his childhood in his familys ancestral home of Mecca. Like many Meccans, then as now, his father was a local guide to pilgrims there for umrah or hajj. As a boy, Angawi has said he would help his father carry around pilgrims shoes while they prayed.

The Angawis lived in Shab Ali, the neighbourhood said to have been the place of the prophet Muhammads birth. But their home was demolished as part of the first organised expansion of the Grand Mosque in the 1950s. Angawi told Al Jazeera last year that his family was forced to move two more times as the city continued its forced expansion.

The 65-year-old architect is also the founder of the Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting Mecca and Medinas historic sites. They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment, Angawi told the Guardian in 2012.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/14/mecca-hajj-pilgrims-tourism

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