June 25, 2017

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

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Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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skillsfuture_300x250

by Joshua Ip

Twenty years after humiliation
A nationalist strongman shouts defiance,
And vows to marshal his resurgent nation
Westwards past a crumbling alliance.

A waning oceanic superpower
Believing itself safe across the seas
Wants to be great again, decides the hour
Has come to turn inwards, withdraw, appease.

A league of nations formed to end all war
Instead becomes the system that effects it
By gathering to veto and ignore
The stormclouds. One by one the nations brexit.

A tribe of people from the Middle East
Wander through Europe. Men perpetuate
Stereotypes that spread and do not cease.
Easy to rail against, easy to hate.

“Countries aren’t what they used to be.
These immigrants! Now, wasn’t it much better
When the neighbors were as fair as we?
Our heritage requires a defender.”

A rising Asian nation eyes the treasure
All around it: living space, resources;
Preaches co-prosperity, and as the
World goes mad elsewhere, builds up its forces.

Local strongmen chafe at the restraints
Imposed on them by neo-imperialists.
The economic system’s skewed with taint.
The winners win. The losers seethe and hiss.

All diplomats uphold this orthodoxy:
Conflict should be nicely outsourced rather
Than directly waged; thus war by proxy.
Of course, one thing does not lead to another.

Everybody learned thinks a war
Lasts just a week. Is localised. Not here.
We’ve seen the horrors of world war before.
It’ll never come to pass. That much is clear.

But all the wheels are turning and in motion
And most of us are merely passengers.
Will someone strike the flint of charged emotions
And shoot an archduke or ambassador?

 

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Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Black clock showing 8.30

THE National University of Singapore (NUS) is investigating complaints of hyper-sexualised activities conducted during a recent orientation camp, which included the re-enactment of a rape scene between a man and his younger sister.

Read The New Paper if you want the full story, but here’s a glimpse of what reportedly happened: “The girl had to lie on the floor, then the guy pretended to kick open a door and say, ‘Kor kor coming.’ The girl had to respond, ‘Mei mei don’t want’.”

Other activities mentioned included asking female students which man’s bodily fluids she would like to drink, and cheers that “simulated a group of guys ejaculating on a girl’s face”.

Meanwhile the courts yesterday (July 25) had a number of real rape cases to deal with, the “gravest” among them a father who sodomised his own daughter when she was only 10. The girl suffered acts of sexual assault by her father until she was 19 and reported him to the police. The judge jailed the 51-year-old technician for 12 and a half years.

In a separate case, a 22-year-old man with slight mental retardation who tried to rape his step-niece in 2012 was jailed six years and given three strokes of the cane. She was four years old and he was 18 when the rape happened at home.

Teen suicides are up even as overall suicide rates fell last year. Reported suicide cases for young people aged 10 to 19 doubled from 13 in 2014 to 27 last year – though, the total number dipped from 415 and 409 over the corresponding period.

Counsellors said teenagers who lack supportive family and social networks were more at risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

A few more headlines to watch this morning: The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) yesterday (July 25) said it would continue to crack down on illegal financial activities such as money laundering after it found three major banks here to have lapses in relation to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal.

The warning was issued by MAS’ managing director Ravi Menon as the authority released its annual report. The three banks are DBS Singapore, UBS and Standard Chartered Bank.

Yet another “lone wolf” attack is being reported – in the Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture southwest of Tokyo, where a young man attacked residents at a facility for the disabled with a knife early this morning (July 26). The suspect is a 26-year-old former employee at the facility by the name of Satoshi Uematsu.

As many as 19 people are feared dead and more than 20 wounded, reported TODAY.

The attack follows four other separate incidents this past week in Germany, where a single perpetrator randomly attacked members of the public, leaving 10 dead and more than 50 injured.

In Syria, an explosives-laden car blew up yesterday in the heavily-policed capital Damascus, causing injuries and extensive damage, state media said. A UK-based human rights agency said that the blast took place near an Iranian school, and fatalities have been reported.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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skillsfuture_300x250

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A combination picture shows boys holding banners depicting Pokemon characters in these handouts pictures provided on July 22, 2016 by the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office. The banners read: (Top-R) "I am from Kafr Naboudah, save me". (Top-L) "I am trapped in Douma in Eastern Ghouta, Help me." (Bottom-R) "I am in Kafr Nabl in rural Idlib, come and save me!" (Bottom-L) "I am in Eastern Ghouta in Syria, come and get me!". Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

Video by Reuters

POKEMON Go is “played” a little differently in war-torn Syria.

Syrian opposition groups have taken advantage of the global Pokemon craze to draw the world’s attention to the plight of children caught up in the country’s five-year civil war. Photographs of children in besieged Syrian towns holding pictures of Pokemon characters and appealing for help were published by the Syrian National Coalition, an alliance of Western-backed activist and rebel groups.

Their release is an attempt to capitalise on the success of Pokemon GO, which challenges players on smartphones to go to real-world locations to capture the cuddly monsters using the phone’s camera.

“If you are looking for a Pokemon, you can find it in Syria,” the coalition said on Twitter through their communications arm – the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office.

Many Syrians feel the world is ignoring a conflict that has killed more than a quarter of a million people, displaced half the population, and left hundreds of thousands trapped by either government or rebel forces.

One photograph of a child with the Pokemon character Pikachu reads, “I am trapped in Douma in East Ghouta. Help me.”

Douma is a suburb of the capital Damascus, which is besieged by government forces. Bombardments are a daily occurrence there and in the surrounding neighbourhoods, which hold thousands of civilians according to the United Nations.

Rebel fighters have also besieged government-held towns in the north of the country, and have fired rockets and mortars into government-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo and Damascus.

(Reporting by Reuters TV)

 

Featured image and video by REUTERS.

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skillsfuture_300x250

by Yen Feng

AT 23 years old, he is one of the youngest Singaporeans to be dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in recent memory.

He would have recently finished his National Service, which may be why he thought to bring his army boots to fight in Syria. It seems he had tried to go into business, but failed. Desperate for a cause (or maybe he was bored), he went online and found a sense of kinship with the Kurds and their fight against ISIS, the terrorist group.

Perhaps it was then that he thought: I may not be a businessman, but I’m still a soldier.

Wang Yuandongyi is one of four men being investigated by the G under the Internal Security Act (ISA), said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) this afternoon (March 16). The other three are Mohammad Razif bin Yahya, 27; Amiruddin bin Sawir, 53; and Mohamed Mohideen bin Mohamed Jais, 25. Wang is youngest among the four.

All four men came under scrutiny for “undertaking or intending to undertake violence in overseas armed conflicts” – but the similarities end there for Wang.

He had not engaged in any religious studies in Yemen, the other three did.

He had not performed any armed sentry duties, the other three did.

He had not been ordered to shoot and kill, the other three were.

But he was no less guilty than the three other men, said MHA.

Since December last year, he had been planning to travel to Syria to join a Kurdish militia group to fight against ISIS. A month later, in January this year, he put his plans into action. He bought plane tickets, boarded his flight, and left Singapore to go to another country, hoping to then make his way to Turkey before travelling overland to Syria.

It’s unclear why the ministry did not identify this country in its statement – perhaps said country preferred not to be linked to suspected terrorists.

In any case, someone who knew of his plans tipped off the G and MHA asked the country’s authorities to help. They did. Wang was turned away at the gates and put on a plane back to Singapore, where he was arrested and placed under a Restriction Order (RO) that came into effect this month.

He would have to use those SAF boots another time.

Beyond these details in the statement from MHA, there is very little we know about Wang. But even with so little, his case stands out from other cases made public by the G in recent years involving the ISA and potential terrorist activity. For these reasons, we should know more about who he is and how he found sympathy for a cause that by the looks of it has very little to do with him.

Let’s start with the name.

What kind of a name is Wang Yuandongyi? Chinese? It sure sounds Chinese – and nothing like the names of most people who have been detained or investigated for terrorist activity under the ISA in the past.

He’s probably not Muslim. That’s if you assume when the MHA said Wang’s motivations were not “ideologically driven”, that it meant based on religious teachings.

So, what’s a possibly Chinese, probably non-Muslim young Singaporean man doing caught up in a religious sectarian war against ISIS?

It wasn’t so long ago that a video clip about whether people would die for Singapore went viral, creating conversations everywhere about what it means to be Singaporean.

Wang Yuandongyi is a reminder that we also need to be able to talk about why some of us – no matter what race or religion – would die for another cause and country.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4270078348/in/photolist-7vkgwu-9ty7U-ejd5dV-6136mt-5ynkPk-kH84E-4uvRHT-bzGLss-e94Q4-Yx4GJ-rbQdWr-5FvJH3-95FTBM-6T24YX-5Cdkz7-4Wdzti-Afy4X-68GVik-6rmSqc-rYNaiD-qVyCum-7vgsev-5drWst-9wKyGd-dagTsX-toMj7-5dwhw5-dJJQ4W-Yx4Jy-z33fy-24sTEp-LxmHA-qcBr6Q-24sTze-6GzycS-5YFMWT-5oPwQ9-wVZwnF-bJAipR-rpZFKP-e3oar-6rmSuK-62VZzV-qCq93b-5yUzwm-aeM9u5-t9ng4s-qeYbeE-u6SEA-6DRDP6
Old key chain toy representing a tiny version of the Earth globe. It shows a coarse division into major countries and regions of the world. The shapes of the continents however are pretty inexact. It is showing the Middle East and Indian Ocean regions.

THIS week has been a terrible one for the world, with two terror incidents across two continents within a day of each other – and it seems there has been yet another attack in Burkina Faso today. With calls for solidarity and condolences by everyone from world leaders to social media users, the world stands united in the face of such acts of terror.

Speaking of unity, US President Barack Obama attempted to deliver a rallycall in his last State of the Union Address before finishing his full eight-year term in office, but received either fiery or chilly responses from the Republicans as usual. With the race to be the next president heating up, it doesn’t seem like the US is going to get much (political) unity soon.

For an example of a fiery response, do check out the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s speech about the recent reports of famines occurring in Syria.

Moving away from the political front, the global arts scene has lost some of its greats this week, with the passing of British cultural titans David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Both will definitely be much missed by their friends, loved ones, and fans.

The all-white nominees of this year’s Oscars have also garnered more than a few raised eyebrows from people, especially when it was previously announced that more would be done to introduce greater diversity in the awards show. Are words being eaten now, or is this part of the “doing more”?

Here’s what this week in the rest of the world looks like, on a map. Interested to know more about the world’s happenings for this week? Read on.

Ahmed Davutoğlu

“We will continue our fight against terrorism with the same resolve and will never take a step back.”

On Tuesday, suicide bombers attacked Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, Turkey, killing ten Germans tourists in the deadliest attacks on Germans abroad in more than 13 years. In its aftermath, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu has pledged renewed efforts against future terrorist threats.

Joko Widodo

“We all are grieving for the fallen victims of this incident, but we also condemn the act that has disturbed the security and peace and spread terror among our people.”

On Thursday, a series of explosions and a gunfight broke out on Jarkarta’s Thamrin Street, a major shopping and business district which houses foreign embassies and United Nations offices. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack which killed at least seven people, five of which were the attackers.

David Bowie

“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

Singer, songwriter, record producer, painter, and actor David Bowie passed away last Sunday of cancer. Widely considered an innovator in his field in the 1970s, many emotional tributes have been paid to his theatrical style of performance, and the impact he had left on the music and film industry.

Ban Ki-moon

“Let me be clear: the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime.”

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned all parties involved in the Syrian civil war for using food as a weapon. Famines have been a common occurrence in Syria after all belligerents started withholding food from civilians. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have been denied humanitarian aid.

Barack Obama

“The future we want […] all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. […] It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reflected on the achievements made by Americans in his past seven years, such as the robust recovery of the economy after the 2008 global financial crisis. While there was the usual heavy criticism of Obama by the right, the official Republican response acknoweledged “there was plenty of blame to go around” for the gridlocked government.

Alan Rickman

“Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”

Most noted for his powerful character portrayals, British stage and film actor Alan Rickman passed away on Thursday, after a long battle with cancer. Tributes have poured in from many of his colleagues and contemporaries, including J. K. Rowling, and Daniel Radcliffe, who worked with him on his most famous role from the Harry Potter franchise – Professor Severus Snape.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs

“We have got to speed it up.”

When the Oscar nominations were released on Thursday, the awards show found itself at the centre of a long standing controversy over racial representation in film and cinema. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the current President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (who is also the first African American to hold the title) expressed her disappointment in the all-white Oscar nominations.

 

Compiled by Joshua Lim, Cindy Co and Abraham Lee.
Featured image by Flickr user Horia Varlan. CC-BY 2.0
If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!
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Grey and red coloured alarm clock showing 8.30, on top of a

A MINUTE of silence will be observed this evening at the French Embassy for the victims of the terror attacks that took place in Paris last Friday evening. In Paris itself, police continue to hunt for Abdeslam Salah, 26, a Brussels native and brother of one of the seven terrorists. France also launched yesterday retaliatory airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

In the international G20 summit that usually discusses economic issues, world leaders including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to work together to fight terrorism and tighten border and aviation security. A draft statement is expected to be issued as they wrap up the two-day summit that ends today.

In local news, more than 2,000 flats in Bidadari will be launched over the next two weeks. Housing and Development Board (HDB) said yesterday that residents in the new housing estate that will eventually house about 10,000 units will have more options to travel without using cars. These include cycling routes and bicycle and car sharing programmes. Bidadari, once a cemetery site, is one of the hottest HDB estates in the upcoming “mega” sales exercise for its prime location in the North-East. Of the 2,139 flats to be launched soon, more than half will be four-room flats with the others comprising of two-room, three-room and five-room units.

The Land Transport Authority has also announced that it will start putting in “priority zones” at all new bus interchanges and transport hubs. These designated areas near the boarding berths will allow the elderly, pregnant women and those with disabilities to board first. The first transport hub to implement the zones is the Joo Koon hub which begins operating on Saturday.

Speaking of the elderly… the family of an 86-year-old woman who died from a lung infection is claiming that she died because of the haze. Singapore General Hospital (SGH), the hospital that treated Madam Pang Moy, however, said she died “due to complications brought about by the infection, which was not haze-related“. It did not elaborate on how it came to that finding, reported TODAY.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof. 

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Temple of Bel. Image sourced from Flickr user: Verity Cridland

by Gillian Lim

THE Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, the ancient city of Syria, is the latest to fall as part of the Islamic State campaign. The 2,000-year-old Unesco-listed World Heritage Site was blown up two days ago by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The extremist group, first formed in 1999, seized the ancient city in May, and the city has seen nothing but destruction ever since. In the month of September alone, there have been 222 air raids, 239 destroyed houses and three destroyed archaeological sites.

We round up some of these amazing monuments that have been destroyed, some of which hold thousands of years of culture, heritage and history.

1. Arch of Triumph, Palmyra

The Unesco World Heritage-listed Arch of Triumph was located in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, and was blown up two days ago on September 4, Sunday.

The arch had been “booby-trapped” for weeks, like several other monuments in the area, said Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums, Mr Maamoum Abdulkarim. He was also informed him that the arch was destroyed on Sunday, and this report was also confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who added that ISIS had blew up the arch, but left the colonnades in place.

This paints an alarming picture of the entire ancient city of Palmyra, and Mr Abdulkarim warned that “we are living through a catastrophe”.

The arch was an “icon of Palmyra” – it was situated at the entrance of the ancient ruins’ historic colonnaded street. One of the most recognisable sites of the ancient city, it was known to the locals as the “Bridge of the Desert” as it linked the Roman Empire to Persia and the East. It was built 2,000 years ago.

The Arch of Triumph consisted of one large arch flanked by two smaller ones, and the top of the arch was decorated with “beautiful geometrical and plant ornaments”, said Mr Abdulkarim. As the arch opened into Palmyra’s Colonnade, it was considered as one of the many jewels of the ancient city’s ruins.

2. Temple of Bel, Palmyra

The Temple of Bel dates back to 32 AD, and was a temple built in dedication to the Semitic god Bel. It was considered one of the most important religious buildings of the first century, and saw a unique merging of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture.

It saw two explosions in the month of August – one on Sunday, August 30, which saw minor damages, and a later explosion the next day saw its destruction.

Mr Abdulkarim called the site the “most important temple in Syria and one of the most important in the whole Middle East”, and said that the iconic columns of the temple were still standing after the Sunday explosion. “The frontal columns and the cella (interior) of the temple do not appear to have been damaged,” added Mr Abdulkarim. This was supported by witnesses, who said that the walls were still standing.

However, a larger explosion on Monday destroyed the main building of the Temple of Bel, as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity. This was confirmed by satellite photos, and also by UNOSAT Manager Einar Bjorgo.

The Temple of Bel had been the centre of religious life in Palmyra, and held various shrines within its walls. The temple also had various carvings of the planets and zodiacs on its walls, and had reliefs illustrating myths drawn from Babylon. Serving as a church in the late antique period, and later on being incarnated as a mosque, it represented a shared identity for Palmyrenes of all backgrounds and heritages: It acted as a sanctuary for not just the god Bel himself, but of all the gods – an inscription dated to 25 AD hailed it as homage to Phoenician gods, Aramaean gods, and Arab gods.

The temple consisted of a central shrine, a colonnaded courtyard, and several other ruins that include an amphitheatre and some tombs.

ISIS later issued photos of proof and the aftermath of the destruction, revealing that just a single arch of the Temple of Bel is left standing.

3. Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

The Temple of Baalshamin was built more than 2,000 years ago: its earliest phase can be dated back to the late second century BC, and its first altar was built in 115 AD. The temple was substantially rebuilt in 131 AD, and it became a structure of giant stone blocks, fronted by six tall columns. It was dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and rain, Baalshamin, whose name literally means “Lord of the Heavens”.

Uncovered by Swiss archaeologists in 1954 – 1956, the Temple of Baalshamin was one of the most complete ancient structures found in Palmyra. The temple was originally part of an extensive precinct of three courtyards, and represented a combination of ancient Syrian and Roman architectural styles.

Satellite images taken on August 27 confirmed that the temple had been destroyed, although when exactly it was destroyed is unknown – the last known satellite image confirming the existence of the temple was on June 26. The Syrian Observatory said the destruction took place in July, while Dr Abdul-Karim said the militants bombed it on Sunday, August 23.

The UN training and research agency (UNITAR) said the main building had been completely destroyed, but the surrounding columns “seem to be less affected” and that the destruction of the historical temple is an “immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity”. Local witnesses to the destruction said that ISIS had been laying explosives around the temple for a month.

The destruction of the temple came just days after ISIS fighters beheaded Khaled al-Assad, the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of Palmyra. After being held hostage for over a month, the extremist group posted photos of his body on the internet because he refused to reveal where the ancient city’s treasures were hidden.

4. Three ancient tower tombs, Palmyra

Tower tombs are sandstone constructions, built to hold the remains of the ancient city’s richest families. Mr Abdulkarim said the tombs were the “best preserved and most beautiful” in the city of Palmyra.

Three of these tower tombs were destroyed by ISIS, and the news was only confirmed by the testimony of witnesses and satellite imagery of the sites from Boston University. The tombs were destroyed 10 days ago, said Mr Abdulkarim on September 4. This would mean that the tower tombs were actually destroyed on August 25.

ISIS had destroyed at least seven tower tombs since the end of June, said the ASOR Syrian Heritage initiative in a report on September 3. They added that these seven tower tombs were destroyed in two different phases of destruction: In an earlier destruction phase, the Tomb of Iamliku and the Tomb of Atenaten were destroyed. The last round of destruction occurred between August 27 and September 2.

One of the tombs, the Elahbel, was built in 103 AD. It was four stories high, had an underground floor and was the most prominent example of Palmyra’s distinct funerary monuments. The other two tombs that were bombed were famed for their intricate scenes etched into their walls – the Tower of Jambalik and the Tower of Ketout was built in 83 AD and 44 AD respectively.

Mr Abdulkarim said the tower tombs were symbols of the economic boom of Palmyra in the first century AD, when it dominated the caravan trade between East and West from its oasis in the desert.

In Unesco’s listing, the tower tombs were singled out as the “oldest and most distinctive” of Palmyra’s funerary monuments. It also described the fronts of Tower of Elahbel as “an arch with sarcophagus halfway up, which in ancient times supported a reclining statue… Corridors and rooms were subdivided by vertical bays of loculi (niches for the dead) closed by slabs of stone carved with the image of the deceased and painted in lively colours”.

5. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq

Nimrud flourished between 900 BC and 612 BC, and was a city in the Assyrian kingdom located on the banks of the Tigris River. It is one of the world’s most important Assyrian archaeological sites, and was bulldozed by ISIS in March earlier this year.

The extent of the damage of the city was not specified, and the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said only that ISIS would continue “to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity” with the act.

The destruction of Nimrud came a week after a video showed ISIS militants using sledgehammers to destroy stone sculptures and other centuries-old artifacts in the Mosul Museum. The museum held 173 original pieces of antiquity and was being readied for reopening, when ISIS invaded the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

The World Monuments Fund, a group dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places, named Nimrud as one of the sites where the two Assyrian kings, Sennacherib and Ashurnasirpal II, had records of their successful military campaigns inscribed on the walls of their palaces. Nimrud also yielded “thousands of carved ivories, mostly made in the 9th and 8th centuries BC”, and the city was the richest collections of ivory in the world at that time.

Featured image The Temple of Bel Palmyra by Flickr user Verity Cridland, CC BY 2.0. 

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