Fighting for survival: Syria’s forgotten war

Eight-year-old Hividar Khalil shows off her golden earrings and plastic bangles. “This,” she says touching her earrings, “is my mothers. And this,” she says showing off her bangles excitedly, “are my sisters.” Living with her uncle and aunt in a refugee camp in Suruc — Turkey’s bordering town with Syria — she plays mostly without toys, unlike other kids who play with the things donated to them by the NGOs visiting their refugee camps. Instead, Hividar is waiting for her mother and sister to return from the battle in Kobani, so she doesn’t have to share everything with her cousins and can have her own paraphernalia.

Just like old times, back home in Syria. For Hividar and nearly 700,000 other Syrian children, women and men — alone or with families — who have taken shelter in Turkey, life has changed forever.

The widow of a YPG fighter who was killed in the battle for Kobani. PHOTO: FURKAN TEMIR

An estimated 2.3 million to 2.8 million Syrian refugees have fled their country since late 2011. They were seeking escape from President Bashar al Assad’s brutal regime that forced its citizens to live in abject conditions and tortured and bombed those who didn’t support his rule. Nearly 125,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands tortured in the Syrian civil war till date. What started as a battle between forces favouring and opposing Assad soon acquired sectarian tones and drew in neighbouring countries and global powers. In 2014, this chaos was capitalised on by the Islamic State or ISIS (known as Daish in the region) — the extremist group that branched out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Once the group made inroads into Syria and seized towns and villages, there was an increase in the influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. It is said to be one of the world’s largest forced migrations since World War II, which is rapidly transforming the Middle East but the world seems to have turned its back to the crisis. 

Not just her story

Originally from Aleppo, a Syrian city now contested by ISIS, Hividar is the only child left in her family, but she doesn’t know that yet. All she remembers is that her father was killed by the militant group early this year near her home and her mother and sister are fighting in Kobani along with other Kurdish men and women to get rid of the enemy. “They are fighting Daish, who killed my dad,” she says proudly. Her mother and sister died in Kobani late October when the battle against ISIS picked up momentum and the Kurds were fighting alone. “She is not always this cheerful and often gets anxious,” says her uncle Hamed Khalil. Hividar often weeps when she misses her family and insists on being taken to her mother. “We can’t tell her now. We haven’t decided when she [will be] ready.” The eight-year-old knows chilling facts about ISIS based on what she saw in Aleppo. “They always carry weapons on the street,” she says adding that they couldn’t leave their homes without their permission. “We couldn’t go to school because father used to say Daish will kills us,” she elaborates, adding that they also took many students from schools and beat them up. “They hate infidels and cut off their heads. They look scary.”

While a large number of Syrians have fled their homeland due to the conflict, many are still trapped inside as neighbouring countries are becoming increasingly stringent regarding refugees while international NGOs and the UN are grappling to offer alternatives. PHOTO: FURKAN TEMIR

Stories like that of Hividar’s are pretty common among these refugees. Those who manage to escape are survivors of great debacles and carry with them unimaginable tales of human suffering. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed in either the ongoing civil war or at the hands of ISIS. Scores of children, including infants, are living as orphans, waiting for their parents without knowing if they are dead or alive. People who had lives, homes, businesses and an education are now distraught and helpless. This was the case with Hividar’s elder sister Shillan, a medical student in Aleppo who gave up her education when ISIS took over their town. After their father was killed, Shillah, who aspired to become a doctor, became a fighter instead and joined the battle against the militant group with her mother. In Kobani, men and women fight ISIS side by side and often — although not always — their bodies are buried in the battlefield. 

Fighting for Kobani

The Kurds — an ethnic group also considered to be the largest stateless nation in the world — comprises of nearly 30 million people spread throughout northern Iraq and Syria, western Iran and eastern Turkey. Their struggle for Kurdistan — a land only for the Kurds which combines Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey’s Kurdish dominant areas — has been a long one and some areas declared independence. For example, the Iraqi Kurds gained autonomy in Iraq — which is now called the Iraqi Kurdistan — as an aftermath of the 1991 gulf war. But Kurds in other parts have still been striving for their own independent land in the region.

Many Syrian refugees, including those not from Kobani, have been supporting the Kurds in the fight against ISIS in the town which began in late September this year.  PHOTO: FURKAN TEMIR

In Syria, the 2.5 million Kurds gained de facto autonomy in three cantons just south of the Turkish border. One of these cantons, centred on the town of Kobani, became the target of ISIS assault, which has worried Kurds from all four regions. Losing Kobani to ISIS would disengage Kurds from the two other cantons in Syria and also disconnect them from Turkey. Hence, for the Kurds, Kobani is an existential battle.


Many Syrian refugees, including those not from Kobani, have been supporting the Kurds in the fight against ISIS in the town which began in late September this year. They believe it is their collective purpose to regain the town from the militant group responsible for the murder of their families and destruction of their homes in Syria. In the absence of sufficient weapons and logistics, people’s  massive support has assisted the Kurds in keeping the ISIS at bay so far, who are otherwise used to seizing towns much faster. Most of the fighters trying to save Kobani are the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Iraqi-Kurdish group called the Peshmerga also joined early this month, as the alliance to fight ISIS in Kobani expanded. Initially, the town was singlehandedly defended by the local Syrian Kurds, residents of Kobani and the YPG. The American airstrikes began only when YPG suffered from huge losses and a massive influx of Kurdish refugees spilled over into Turkey with horrifying stories that captivated the world’s attention. By that time, the battle had gone on for several weeks and caused enormous humanitarian crises.

The town has been almost entirely destroyed. Most buildings, offices, schools, homes and vehicles have been reduced to rubble. The streets stink of dead bodies of ISIS fighters and charred material. Medical and food supplies are running out for fighters and many injured have succumbed to wounds and died due to lack of medical facilities. Doctors operate from makeshift medical facilities, mostly inside the same buildings where the shootings are carried out. 

The politics of war

For ISIS, fighting the Kurds has been rather disappointing. When they first entered the town, flags were erected all over and information about their success and expansion was released through their website and social media. The Kurdish fighters inside — Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi — however, have put up a good fight against the militants so far. But unlike other parts of Iraq and Syria, where ISIS abandoned the towns and battles that were challenging to win, the battle for Kobani still rages on.

According to analysts, this war is not just about territorial gain for ISIS but also about PR. The usual largess displayed by ISIS on social media and massive circulation of videos of beheading of foreign journalists and aid workers indicates the group’s obsession with portraying itself as robust and undefeatable. Losing Kobani could destroy that image. The media attention to the Kobani battle has added further pressure. Many former ISIS fighters who fled to Turkey after leaving ISIS say that Kobani has become increasingly valuable to the group due to all the media coverage it is getting. “They will be humiliated in front of the world if they lose the battle to the Kurds, who have fewer weapons than they (ISIS) have,” says one of the former fighters on conditions of anonymity.

Watching from the sidelines

Meanwhile, Turkey’s enormous army has been vehemently criticised for standing idle on the border, watching Kobani being destroyed at the hands of a militant group. But for Turkey, the bigger concern has been defeating its archenemy, Assad. From meetings in think tanks in Washington and diplomatic enclaves in Ankara to Kurdish parliamentarians protesting near the Syrian border, Turkey’s president Erdogan has been accused of making a secret deal with ISIS in exchange for the release of 47 of its diplomats taken hostage by the group in Mosul, Iraq, in June.

Turkey is considered to be soft on ISIS and tough on the Kurds and recent events align with such accusations. Despite Turkey opening its border for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, giving them home on its land and providing aid for those living in the camps, the country has not allowed its border to be used to help the fighters in Kobani. This intensified the battle causing massive bloodshed and crises which could have been avoided if Turkey had helped.

It is believed that Turkey feared that if it helped Kobani from falling into ISIS hands, it would indirectly strengthen the Kurds — primarily the YPG, which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, a banned Turkish Kurdish group engaged in a civil war with Turkey for 30 years. In a controversial statement, President Erdogan also called the banned Turkish Kurdish groups PKK, “more terrorist than ISIS.”

Turkey’s reluctance to help in Kobani also delayed US action to help the Kurds. But losing Kobani is as symbolic for the US as it is for ISIS. As Kobani started succumbing to ISIS in mid-October, the US jumped in to help with aid and airstrikes since they could not afford to watch the militant group triumph in yet another town. It was a policy shift when the US finally sent aid, food and supplies to Kurdish fighters in Kobani and the Turkish government allowed Peshmerga to cross over from its border into Kobani to assist YPG battling ISIS. The Kurds fighting inside say that these developments have been tremendously helpful.

Nowhere to run

The fate of Kobani will soon be decided, but the witnesses of the battle have already learnt a lot from the regional and international fight against ISIS. The mass murders, public beheadings, recruiting and training child armies and a long list of other abuses by the group, however, have not pushed the international community enough to take immediate action against this militant force.

Meanwhile, problems persist for those living with these atrocities on a daily basis. Hividar’s mother or sister will not return. She might have to grow up without an education that could teach her the actual history of Syria. She might not be able to follow her dreams, or even discover them, in the despondency of refugee life. Worst of all, she might never be able to go back to her country, just like many other Syrians. Recently, many civilians who wanted to flee Syria have been trapped inside, as neighbouring countries are becoming increasingly stringent regarding refugees while international NGOs and the UN are grappling to offer alternatives. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently published a worrying joint report, saying the worlds “doors are closing” for Syrian refugees.

Kiran Nazish is an independent journalist. She has covered human rights, conflict and militancy from different countries mostly in South Asia and recently the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq. She tweets @KiranNazish

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014.

Neelum-Jhelum: Petition filed against ‘illegal’ surcharge


A petitioner has approached the Islamabad High Court (IHC) claiming the Neelum-Jhelum surcharge being charged from electricity consumers every month is illegal.

The petitioner, Imdad Hussain, has nominated the secretary of the Water and Power Ministry and heads of National Electric Power Regularity Authority (Nepra), Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and Islamabad Electric Supply Company (Iesco) as respondents.

Yasir Mehmood, the petitioner’s counsel, told the court that the respondents had imposed the charge through a notification issued on January 4, 2008. That notification, which is valid till December 31, 2015, was issued prematurely, illegally, without jurisdiction and is an abuse of power, he stated.

The petition said that presently electricity from the Neelum Jhelum Power Project is neither being supplied nor utilised by the public, thus its forcible advance payment is unconstitutional.

It also states that the levy is also in violation of Article 157 (2) (b) of the Constitution which provides that a tax on consumption of electricity can only be imposed through a law and that too by the provincial government.

The petitioner also pointed out that none of the relevant laws, such as the Electricity Act 1910, Wapda Act 1958 and the Nepra Act 1997, provide for imposition of surcharge for an under-construction project.

The petitioner requested the court to declare the surcharge illegal and restrain the respondents from collecting any amount in consumers’ monthly bills. Justice Athar Minallah will take up the petition on Monday.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.

Relief for consumers: PM calls for power tariff cut by Rs0.46 per unit


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has directed the water and power ministry to propose an electricity tariff cut by Rs0.46 per unit as fuel price adjustment for the month of October.

According to an official statement from the PM House, the move is likely to bring relief to the consumers in their monthly electricity bills after it is cleared by the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (Nepra).

The statement said the government has submitted details of fuel consumption and energy mix to Nepra, which will now conduct public hearing on the government’s submitted details and will notify the reduction in tariff accordingly.

The ministry’s spokesperson said the government has submitted its proposal for reduction in electricity tariff to Nepra which will decide on the issue in its meeting scheduled on Monday.  “Although it is the prerogative of Nepra to increase or reduce tariff but the PM has directed the water and power ministry to propose slashes in tariff in view of the recent fall in fuel prices in the market,” he said.

Apart from that, power plants will have to follow strict merit, which the PM has devised for electricity producer sas they should use efficient plants for electricity generation in order to save fuel consumption, he added.

“The water and power ministry is also following strict merit order for electricity generation to ensure efficient and economical fuel mix in the power generation to benefit the consumers,” he said.

He said inefficient plants consumed much fuel which caused hikes in tariff. “The above mentioned energy mix show that power producersare following merit for plants strictly,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.

Substance abuse: Survey records high level of drug use in the country


At least 6.7 million Pakistanis, or about six per cent of the country’s population aged between 15 and 64, have been using drugs in the last 12 months, according to Drug Use in Pakistan 2013 Survey Report presented in Quetta on Saturday.

Cannabis, opiates, heroin, cocaine along with medical tranquilisers and painkillers are among the types of drugs used. “This is the first-ever report on use of drugs at the provincial level,” said Cesar Guedes, representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The study shows Pakistan’s population aged 15 to 64 suffers from the debilitating effects of substance abuse. “Although 4.25 million individuals are thought to be drug dependent, treatment and specialist interventions are in short supply, available to less than 30,000 drug users a year,” the report noted.

Cannabis is the most commonly used drug, with prevalence among 3.6 per cent of the population, equivalent to four million users nationwide.

An estimated 860,000, which makes 0.8 per cent of the population, are regular heroin users and 320,000, 0.3 per cent, are opium users while 1.06 million people use both—1 per cent of population (aged 15-64 years). “The highest prevalence of opiate users was found in Balochistan, where 1.6 per cent of population uses either heroin, opium, or both. “The majority of drug users in this study fell between 25 and 39 years of age,” said the report.

Previously undetected in the country, trace levels of methamphetamine are now being reported with around 19,000 people estimated to have used this stimulant in the past-year.

“The number of People Who Inject Drugs (PWID) is estimated to be 430,000 nationwide or 0.4 per cent of the population,” stated the report, adding that among PWID, 73 per cent reported sharing syringes claiming lack of access to sterile injecting equipment.

“Among the general population, only 13 per cent can accurately name three modes of HIV transmission,” the report found. The report further noted that 1.5 per cent of population, or nearly 1.6 million people, reported non-medical use of prescription opioids (painkillers) in the past year.

“Men were found to use more drugs than women for most drug types, women were more likely to misuse tranquilisers and sedatives as well as amphetamines,” the report said.

The highest prevalence overall of any form of drug use was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where 10.9 per cent of the population had used an illicit substance in the past year.

Due to its large share of the population, Punjab had the highest number of drug users and people who inject drugs (PWID), with 2.9 million people using illicit substances in the past year, and around 260,000 people who currently inject drugs. “Cocaine use is negligible in most areas of the country, its use was reported in Pakistan-administered Kashmir where approximately 2,300 people had used cocaine in the past year,” revealed the report.

The survey showed nearly all regular opiate users reported having no access to drop-in centres or similar low threshold services in their area. Some 95 per cent in Balochistan and 93 per cent in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa 93 per cent had no access, while 86 per cent and 77 per cent in Punjab and Sindh reported having no access to such services, respectively.

“The information contained in the report will form the baseline for future planning,” Cesar told reporters.

Balochistan Health Minister Rehmat Saleh Baloch said that the ministry is collaborating with UNODC for prevention of both drug use and spread of HIV among people who inject drugs.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.

Gujranwala rally: Qureshi blames PML-N’s ‘negative politics’ for destruction of PTI hoardings

GUJRANWALA: As supporters of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) allegedly torch hoardings of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) hours before Imran Khan is due to address a rally in Gujranwala, PTI vice-chairperson Shah Mehmood Qureshi termed the act as ‘negative politics’ of PML-N, Express News reported on Sunday.

Claiming that the government was creating hurdles for PTI, Qureshi stressed his party knows how to defend itself.

Qureshi further said it was the responsibility of the government to provide security to Imran Khan who is a national leader.

Reportedly, PML-N supporters have also been collecting eggs, tomatoes and shoes to throw at PTI leaders during the rally today. Police have arrested four suspects in this regard.

Denying these allegations, PML-N MPA Taufiq Butt said his party’s leadership has instructed everyone to ensure the rally was held peacefully.