- - Thursday, September 7, 2017

CAIRO — In a grim irony, as a series of cease-fires in major portions of the country take hold in Syria, local activists around the country say the de-escalation of violence is revealing for the first time the scale of destruction wreaked by the 6-year-old civil war and the massive needs of the survivors to rebuild their homes and their lives.

But amid the carnage are signs that the slow business of rebuilding has begun.

According to the United Nations, at least 500,000 Syrians have been killed and millions injured or displaced over the course of the conflict, which escalated from civil disobedience to civil war in spring 2011 after 23 boys from Daraa, a city in the country’s southeast, were arrested by security forces and tortured.

Since then, entire cities and villages have been reduced to shells of buildings or rubble. Agricultural land has been bombed, factories destroyed. As the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad battled Western-backed rebel groups, Islamic State and other jihadi groups seized large swaths of the country, sparking a separate clash with U.S.-backed forces that still rages.

The White Helmets civilian defense group estimates that 85 percent of Daraa was destroyed in the four-month assault on the city, disabling water and power systems. Millions of refugees spilled into neighboring countries and into Europe as well.

Now, say aid workers, the real work begins.

“Every day we have about 100 refugees coming back from Jordan hoping things will get better soon,” said Sara Al-Horani, a coordinator for the White Helmets. “The situation is better now after the cease-fire — at least we don’t have airstrikes on the city.

“Instead of pulling out dead and wounded from buildings, we are opening roads, removing debris and have begun a campaign to remove unexploded cluster bombs.”

About 20 Daraa civilians trained in mine clearance and bomb defusing have arrived along with returning refugees. Their work is slow and painstaking. They say they are thankful for small blessings.

“We aren’t as scared when we hear explosions now because it’s likely to be other White Helmets removing land mines and disassembling bombs,” Ms. Al-Horani said.

The Daraa de-escalation zone, brokered by Jordan and Russia, seems to be pointing the way for additional involvement of other Sunni Arab states — especially Egypt — in the return to some kind of normalcy for other war-ravaged districts near the Syrian capital and the agricultural heartland near the central city of Homs.

“Egypt regards Syria as an integral part of its history and national security, and it has never taken part by any means in the bloodshed in Syria,” said Ahmed Jarba, head of the Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Movement, a Cairo-based Syrian opposition group. “They’ve been an honest broker.”

A new round of negotiations involving Russia, Turkey and Iran on the Syrian conflict is scheduled for mid-September in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, focusing on deployment of the respective countries’ military forces and maintaining de-escalation zones.

Aid deliveries

Since the signing of the de-escalation pacts, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent began delivering aid to parts of the country where the Assad government had prevented the entry of food and medical assistance.

The promise of delivering humanitarian aid to the established de-escalation zones was a key condition for the opposition accepting the cease-fire.

“Over the past week, the ICRC has been able to get food and medicine to 20,000 people in the northern Damascus suburb of Barzeh, and our team could move 47 trucks of these supplies to Rastan in Homs province,” said Ingy Sedky, an Egyptian national who is the ICRC’s Damascus spokeswoman.

The assistance arrived in the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus just before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which began on Sept. 1.

It has made a difference, local aid workers said.

“Social visits increased, and the people were happier at Eid because the attacks have stopped and the fronts are quiet right now,” said Huda Khayti, the director of Ghouta Women’s Center. “But the food from the United Nations trucks was only enough for about a quarter of civilians in the town.”

Ms. Khayti’s organization provides courses in home economics and home repair and upkeep for women whose husbands and sons have been imprisoned or killed or simply disappeared during the war.

The center is also advocating to get women represented on East Ghouta’s 25-member town council, which until now has been exclusively male.

“If Syria is really going to be reconstructed, women have to be given decision-making power and not just assigned to implement plans made by men,” Ms. Khayti said.

Meanwhile, town councils in the severely damaged escalation zones are scrambling to set up classrooms with Syria’s school year scheduled to start on Sunday.

UNICEF is trying to conduct a needs assessment for schools in the formerly inaccessible rebel-held areas.

“What we do know is 1.7 million children are out of school inside Syria and that one in four schools cannot be used,” said Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s Middle East communications chief in Amman, Jordan.

Secondary education is rarely available in the most war-battered parts of Syria.

“Families faced a choice between keeping their homes or sending their children to school,” said Ms. Al-Horani. “International assistance is just beginning to reach us, and while we may be late in starting, our hope is to have the elementary schools welcoming the students by the end of the month.”

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