Why Does ISIS Destroy Cultural Heritage? ‘Social Control’ Is Now Emerging as the Dominant Reason


By Franklin Lamb


It is widely recognized that the damage done to our cultural heritage in Syria and to the heritage of those who will follow us, cannot be calculated.  Untold quantities of archaeologically vital artifacts have been looted, sold, displaced and discarded through industry-like efforts. 

Citizens of Syria who are increasingly resisting the “IS Caliphate” and risking their own and their families lives to flee ISIS controlled areas in Syria are often willing to discuss their experiences and to offer instructive insights. 

Among these patriots are regular citizens as well as the stellar nationalist employees of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) who this observer has interviewed extensively over the past nearly three years as they elucidate why ISIS destroys and loots our irreplaceable antiquities. This observer’s research has been augmented by other eyewitnesses, some who are themselves former jihadists or their victims, to ISIS looting and its distribution of franchises to sell off our shared cultural heritage give witness.

Heretofore, three varying but cogent explanations for ISIS’ rabid destruction of our shared cultural heritage have been commonplace. 

The first identified the well documented Islamic State iconoclastic antipathy towards their and our pre-Islamic past. The second is that the jihadists are generally considered to be profiting hugely from selling our looted antiquities. 

Thirdly there has been some evidence-but not compelling in this observers judgment, that jihadists are destroying our cultural heritage in Syria as ‘publicity stunts’ to get  attention on social media, with some motivated by profit and offering to sell Syrian artifacts via Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat.  Meanwhile, according to a US Congressional staffer this week, leftover artifacts are currently being sold by IS to locals at public auctions including but not limited to Raqqa, Mari, Dura-Europos and Deir al Zor.

With respect to the first and second explanations, it is well documented that ISIS has ransacked thousands of artifacts from dozens of World Heritage and archaeological sites in  Syria and that the profits from flogging cheap our cultural heritage helps IS meet its monthly budgets, more than 50% of which goes to pay salaries and multiple relatively generous benefits to its fighters and their families.  

Yet research by this observer on this subject concludes that ISIS looting income, contrary to many claims including a recent one by  CBS News that  reported that ISIS generated “hundreds of millions of dollars” from antiquities transactions, although that figure—which rivals the annual haul of antiquities sold legally throughout the entire world, has not been backed up by probative, material data. 

One expert, Randall A. Hixenbaugh, Director of New York based Hixenbaugh Ancient Art, told a Manhattan conference recently, “We’re looking at objects that are worth hundreds of dollars here. When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, where is the evidence of this? I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria.       Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”

On May 15, 2015 a raid by American Special Forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf who was in charge of  overseeing the excavation of our cultural heritage.    The raid also freed an 18-year old Yazidi slave woman, and captured a trove of documents that revealed far lower amounts from marketing cultural heritage artifacts than earlier estimated.  The raid also uncovered  many USB’s containing documents verifying that our cultural heritage artifacts are for ISIS just a natural resource to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.

Selling plundered antiquities is frankly not strategic funding for IS compared to oil, banks, taxes and stolen goods. Far from the initial claims that ISIS was making tens of millions or more from stolen antiquities, the true figures are likely far lower. Some antiquities can indeed be sold to the final buyer in Europe, the United States or Asia for large amounts.             But most of the material coming out of the ground in ISIS areas on a daily basis, such as pottery, glassware, coins, and architectural fragments are worth, at most, several hundred dollars at the final point of sale.

The total annual income of ISIS from antiquities is currently calculated by this observer and others who are more expert, at only a few million dollars; compared to, say, oil revenue, which for 2014 was estimated to be between $100 million and $263 million. 

Admittedly hard data is tough to come by and while Archaeologists can no longer visit most of Syria, they do monitor cultural depredation in Syria from the secure vantage point of outer space. Employing pretty amazing high-resolution satellite imagery as Oxford University’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) is doing as it instructs us and gives us hope for restorations of our cultural heritage in Syria with its One Million Images project.

This observer submits that there is a fourth and even more sinister reason that has not been much considered with respect to the Islamic State brand, which admittedly is an ambitious and seductive vision that has proven to be a fairly major social media success. He posits for dear readers consideration that the destruction and looting of our heritage underpins an intricate scaffolding of intense micro-managed social control over its captive populations, a system that is designed to intensely regulate individual behavior. 

This even applies with respect to where and when to excavate and to loot our antiquities with maps and time and date-stamped permits in hand, at assigned archaeological sites thought worthwhile to excavate and to strip of anything guessed to be of some value.

Recently ISIS has introduced a highly organized control over looting of our cultural heritage which is evidenced by satellite photos revealing neat rows of looting holes on archaeological sites. As noted above, ISIS considers antiquities a natural resource such as oil or gas along with its large-scale operation of theft of personal and real property. Its Department of Precious Resources (Diwan al Rikaz) which controls mines and minerals also now oversees antiquities and issues excavation permits. Diwan al Rikaz demands on average 20% of objects excavated, it also applies a sales tax and uses social media to augment its marketing while relying mainly on obedient citizens to do the excavation work while its fighters perform their jihadist duties elsewhere. Unlike oil extraction, antiquities looting are not a major guaranteed stream of income in fact locally the activity is a bit of a gamble. As in a Los Vegas casino, many can wager but with only a long shot prospect of a high payoff. The vast majority of artifacts currently being unearthed at sites in Syria are of great archaeological importance but little value on the art market.

Increasing its social control by regulating the theft and destruction of our past is now part of a wider and expanding organizing frenzy of the IS.

The ISIS glossy propaganda magazine, now issued in 14 languages, ‘Dabiq,’ named after a key site in Muslim apocalypse mythology,  and which bills itself as a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama’ah (community) frequently features ISIS attacks on Syria’s pre-Islamic heritage sites. 

             Typical of its taunting of those who value culture heritage is Dabiq’s recent comment:

 “Enemies of the Islamic State were furious at losing a ‘treasured heritage.’ The mujahidīn, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffar. (ed: ‘non-believers’). The kuffar had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity     that the Muslims of Syria should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.”  

 This sort of ISIS iconoclasm mirrors its other social control punishments. Dabiq recently featured a post-card size list of good citizen ‘reminders’ recommending that it be always carried by IS citizens:

            “Death for blasphemy against God, death for blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad, death for apostasy against Islam, death to both the penetrator and receiver of gay sex, hand and leg amputations for theft, more than two dozen violations such as drinking wine earn 80 or more lashes, while “highway criminality” brings death by crucifixion.”

Another sign of intensifying social control by ISIS is found in recently issued laws on Hijab wearing in Syria. According to  conversations of this observer with recent women   escapees from IS areas in Syria, all women past the age of puberty must comply with the following social control  rules on Hijabs or face draconian punishments. Specifically, all women in Syria must wear Hijabs that are thick and not revealing. “It must be loose (not tight). It must cover all the body. It must not be attractive. It must not resemble the     clothes of unbelievers or men. It must not be decorative and eye-catching. It must not be perfumed.” 

In the south Beirut Hezbollah neighborhood of Dahiyeh, where this observer currently resides, Shia women are known and appreciated for their attractive often richly colored            head coverings and scarves/hijabs and for their special way of tying them to one side under their chin that is quite distinctive, attractive and often are conscious fashion statements.  This is forbidden for all Muslims in IS areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere ISIS has control of populations on penalty of 80 lashes.

Further tightening social control is evidenced by ISIS which is currently introducing a higher organized and centralized control over looting of our cultural heritage which is evidenced by satellite photos revealing neat rows of looting holes on archaeological sites. 

ISIS considers antiquities a natural resource such as oil or gas along with its large-scale operation of theft of personal and real property. Its Department of Precious Resources  (Diwan al Rikaz) that controls mines and minerals also oversees antiquities and issues excavation permits, takes on average 20% of objects excavated, applies a sales tax and uses social media to augment its marketing which relies mainly on obedient citizens to do the work while its fighters perform their jihadist duties elsewhere.  Artifacts are now also       being sold, according to Syrian citizens who have fled, to locals at public auctions in Raqqa and Deir al Zor.

By controlling antiquities like other resources, ISIS inserts itself into countless holes in the ground. The real goal is not simply cash profit but rather it is psychological control over new ranges of behavior and thought of its subjects which is part of its totalitarian vision of absolute control. ISIS has transformed the pre-Islamic past of Syria into a forbidden zone, a mere natural resource to be exploited. But while the financial profits may be relatively small, more importantly it also offers ISIS yet another way to control the behavior and thoughts of its population, transforming them from captives into dependents of the “Caliphate.”  

Increasingly the Obama administration and its allies are frustrated regarding the subject of the need to protect and preserve Syria’s Endangered Heritage. They remain less than confident that ISIS plundering of our heritage in Syria as part of its intensifying social control in its “Caliphate” can be stopped anytime soon.

Yet at the urging of the White House, last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked on  H.R. 1493, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act and  favorably reported the measure for full consideration by the Senate.

The original bill which passed in the House of Representative in June 2015 called for the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of State as the new United States Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, commonly referred to in Washington as a “Cultural Czar”.   The new language which was designed to obtain early passage, recommends that the President should establish an inter-agency coordinating committee to coordinate and advance the efforts of the executive branch to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk.”

The mandate of the new inter-agency committee, to be chaired by an Assistant Secretary of State, includes working to protect and preserve international cultural property in Syria while working to prevent and disrupt cultural heritage looting and trafficking in Syria.  

The legislation’s mandate also includes protecting sites of cultural and archaeological significance while seeking to provide for the lawful exchange of international cultural property from Syria.

Franklin Lamb’s recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, An International Responsibility to Preserve and Protect, is available on Amazon/Kindle, Smashwords, and other ebook sites as well as in hard-copy in Arabic and English. Lamb is currently based in Beirut and Damascus and reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Just like in Iraq, Syria’s cultural heritage being looted and mainly finishing up in the USA



Looting has become the greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria


Franklin Lamb

Kalat al-Numan citadel, Idlib province Syria

Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?

During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis, war damage inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.

Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations plunder and the traffic in cultural goods in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.

Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da’ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq. Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $ 20 million from looted artifacts during 2014 and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria’s cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market.

The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers’ market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries, Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, it is also a seller’s market.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads for trade, and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just w0 miles form Aleppo.

“Syria is the worst-case scenario. It is the worst situation I’ve ever seen. Satellite imagery shows massive, mechanical looting of sites,” says France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums. Palmyra, another ancient settlement founded around 2000BC, has also been partially stripped by illegal excavations and plunder. What is true with respeoct to looting in Syria obtains also in Iraq and Libya.

Last month Syrian authorities confiscated three busts from Palmyra (Tadmor) dating from 200AD that had been hacked off a tomb. But looting and illegal trade in antiquities has been escalating over the past nine months with large numbers of antiquities of dubious provenance being found on the rapidly growing illicit antiquities market. A majority of looted artifacts from Syria are being held in antiquity investment storage pits and other stash-sites for future sale at higher prices once the buyers’ market glut of cultural heritage artifacts dissipates.

One of the main problems with combatting looting is that many looted artifacts end up in someone’s house — as a status symbol. Eyewitness accounts report that reliefs and mosaics looted from archaeological sites in Syria being built into walls above fireplaces in homes in the region and no doubt also in the west. Those to whom these cultural heritage artifacts belongs will never see them again given that the main market for looted antiquities has moved from Europe and the United States to Asia, particularly China, where a ravenous appetite for archaeological artifacts continues to spread.

Looting also threatens to deprive Syria of one of its best opportunities for a post-conflict economic boom based on tourism, which, until the conflict started 18 months ago, contributed 12% to the national income. Partly for this reason it is not surprising that looting carries a fifteen-year prison sentence in Syria. With no end in sight for a regional conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 the prospect for ending looting of Syria’s cultural heritage must be viewed as pretty bleak. Once a site is looted it is largely destroyed it as an archaeological site. The knowledge sought and uncovered that comes with how, with what, and where an object was found, is lost, probably forever.

As documented by a just released assessment of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage sites using high-resolution satellite imagery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project documents the growing problem in remarkable detail Dura Europos, Ebla, Hama’s Waterwheels, Mari, Raqqa, and Ugarit. The soon to be released second part of the assessment will present the projects finding and analysis regarding Apamea, the Island of Arwad, Maaloula, Qasr al-Hayr ach-Charqi, Sites of the Euphrates Valley, and Tartus (Tripoli).

American experts have claimed this past week that there has been a 150% percent increase in American imports of Syrian cultural property between 2011 and 2013. An investigative report by the German broadcaster NDR documented evidence that Syrian antiquities looted by terrorist groups were being sold through German auction houses. The report revealed how Syrian conflict antiquities were smuggled as handicrafts, laundered with obscuring or outright false documentation, and then sold on the open market. It also exposed the transfer of antiquities to Gulf States, where they were falsely “re-documented” for resale in Western Markets.

There are just a few positive signs that looting Syria’s cultural heritage can be curtailed.

According to Gaetano Palumbo, the World Monuments Fund program director for North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, there is general agreement among many of the top auction houses to be more cautious about what they auction. At the most UNESCO meeting regarding Syria a representative from Christie’s was present and claimed that they are scrutinizing artifacts carefully and not putting anything on sale that is not clearly provenanced. Just last year Christie’s withdrew six works of art in a sale in London that had been stolen. “We work closely in partnership with UNESCO, Interpol, the US Department of Homeland Security and Scotland Yard’s art and antiques unit. And we have strict procedures to ensure we only offer works of art which are legal to sell,” Christie’s said in a statement to The National newspaper. Yet, according to Desmarais, these promising signs are offset by a whole range of smaller actors are involved in trading is Syria’s looted cultural heritage and these include some of the smaller auction houses, crooked dealers and the underground internet, known as the darknet.

The International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Emergency Red Lists which document cultural objects at risk of looting in Syria, include clay tablets that preserve some of the earliest writing in the world, intricate stone carvings and coins, in addition to the dozens of other items. They are expanding their lists for public distribution to governments and law enforcement agencies.

What must be done immediately?

Global awareness of the serous assault on the cultural heritage of all in Syria is growing but much more needs to be done according to France Desmarais of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). “As long as it will be chic and posh for you to have an archaeological piece in your living room that guests can admire, we’ll be talking about this. We need to get this message across that it’s a crime. Collecting looted antiquities is a white-collar crime. People have died for this. People buying looted artifacts from Syria are feeding insurgencies, the purchase of arms, financing of foreign extremists and mercenaries and other types of criminality.”

There are two main agreements that deal with looted and trafficked antiquities. One is the 1970 UNESCO convention, which from an international law perspective is weak and exacts at most a slap on the wrist for violators. A stronger convention is the 1995 UNIDROIT convention. It potentially could enforce more robust international law. Yet, for this very reason far fewer countries have ratified this convention fearing it might target their citizens, auction houses and museums. Moreover, quite frequently the law is different in the source country from which artifacts are looted than in the country to which it’s smuggled or in which it is sold. A defense lawyers dream come true.

Amidst the maelstrom of violence in this region, the 2003 UN a resolution calling on all 197 UN members to stop the trade in Iraqi antiquities without verified provenance also applies to Syria. And the European Union has recently banned the import of antiquities from Syria, but inexplicably this prohibition has not been followed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Interpol has drawn up ‘red lists’ of material known to be stolen from Syria and UNESCO has held workshops on how to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage property from Syria and elsewhere. The workshops include national authorities, Interpol, local community organizations, scholars, artists and local citizens and auger well for enhancing global involvement to combat looting.

A petition signed by many archaeologists and accompanied by 17,000 signatures was sent to the UN in September and a ban is expected in the near future. In addition, a new law in Germany could point the way forward. This will require a certified export license for an antiquity in order to secure an import license. The dealers will inevitably argue that it presumes guilt, but it doesn’t, any more than hygiene certificates for food do. And it won’t be perfect — there will still be forged certificates, but it’ll make a big difference according to Sam Hardy a London based antiquities researcher and blogger.

All countries could help target looting of our shared cultural heritage in Syria in a major way if they adopted the Germany’s law that will oblige dealers and collectors to present an official export license for any ancient artifact showing where the object originated, in order to receive an import license. The German government seeks to cut the supply of illicit antiquities to the market, and thereby cut the flow of money to looting and smuggling mafias and militants.

There is also an urgent need for international support to the institutions in the relevant countries through the provision of training and education programs and financial support. Work to control the border in neighboring countries to prevent the smuggling of cultural property. Provide technical and substantive support to the work of documentation of archaeological sites in the relevant countries.

It is nearly unanimously agreed at the United Nations that it must establish additional controls to prevent smuggling and illegal excavation and to identify and put into effect control mechanisms in each of the 197 UN member states so as to eliminate the trade in looted and smuggled artifacts by encouraging the filling in of gaps in national laws in order to combat and close down channels of smuggling. Another pressing need is to increase the number of specialists who work in customs offices and at airports and seaports. Given the past decade of increased screenings of passengers and cargo searching for drugs, explosives, weapons, hazardous chemicals etc. adding looted antiquities to the list should not be all that problematical for national and international authorities.

There is also a great need for international support for countries through the provision of training and education programs and financial support. Specifically, working to control the borders in neighboring countries in order to prevent the smuggling of cultural property while at the same time providing technical and substantive support to the work of documentation of archaeological sites.

In addition there is an urgent need to establish controls to prevent smuggling and illegal excavation and to identify and put into effect control mechanisms in each of the 197 member states of the United Nations so as to eliminate the trade in of looted and smuggled artifacts by filling in gaps in national laws in order to combat and close down channels of smuggling. Another pressing need is to specialists who work in customs offices and at airports and seaports. Given the past decade of increased screenings search for drugs, explosives, weapons, hazardous chemicals etc. adding looted antiquities to the list should not be problematical for national and international authorities.

As Dr. Maamound Abdel-Kardar, Syria’s Director General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM)pointed our this month during a Conference on the subject in Berlin, that the international community has yet to effectively join the fight against the looting of our shared cultural heritage. Our global village needs to provide direct aid to the archaeological and cultural institutions of Syria which faces dire consequences from the looting of archeological sites.

The Germans rebuilt Dresden and the Syrians will rebuild Aleppo!

12 December 2014

By Franklin Lamb

Aleppo’s old city

With the Syrian army deep inside Aleppo’s old city

This observer has long sought an extended visit to the old city of Aleppo which is also one of this cradle of civilizations cultural and educational centers. Despite being in a continuing war zone, the visit materialized when security authorities granted permission and assistance to this observer to complete research finalizing more than two years of research across Syria on the subject of Syria’s Endangered Heritage: The Story Of A Nations Fight To Preserve Its Cultural Heritage.

Several visits to damaged archeological sites and quality briefings soon turned a few days into more than a week with more than a two dozen detailed evaluations and analyses during meetings with Syrian nationalists among them, M.B. Shabani, Director of the Aleppo National Museum. Another was with Professor of Islamic Science, Bouthania Chalkhi and a group of her faculty colleagues and researchers at Aleppo’s 80,000 plus student university. Aleppo University, like nearly all of Syria’s institutions of higher learning has paid a bitter price for keeping its classrooms open. On January 15 2013 the School of Architecture was shelled and more than 90 students and visitors on campus were killed. By shocking coincidence, Damascus University’s School of Architecture was similarly shelled only five weeks later on March 28, 2013, killing more than 15 students.

Two military commanders, currently with their troops deep inside the old city near the ancient Citadel, seemed more like college philosophy instructors than military men, as they discussed the massive destruction inside the old city including more than 1,600 khans and souks.

This observer and another American, a special young man from Maryland who is studying Arabic in this region, was guided along with two colleagues on a long nighttime tour and briefing among alleys inside the ancient burned out and blasted medina souk. Sometimes as we paused our army guide would comment on how parts of the souk might be salvageable and how he felt anger at what was wantonly inflicted in the area now under his command. Our military escort advised us that our tour of the remains of this UNESCO World Heritage site was the first such visit allowed since its destruction more than 18 months ago. He even joked that nearly a month ago a team with the BBC was offered a more limited tour but that a famous female BBC Middle East correspondent, one of this observers favorites, turned back after penetrating the warrens by less than 50 yards.

Surely not the first or last time that Yankees have followed up Brits to complete a task, our interpreter from Damascus giggled.

For hours we trudged through the widely reported massive destruction observing the burned detritus of what were formerly historic “khans” which for centuries traded and sold specialty items as noted below. The tour left one in numbed disbelief over the extent of the destruction.

Among the most historic souks in Aleppo’s old city, verified by this observer as having been destroyed on 9/29/2012, all within the burned out covered alleyways of Souk al-Madina, include, but are not limited to the following. This partial list is presented as a condolence to Syrian artisans and citizens whose lives have been deeply, negatively, and irreversibly damaged. Wanton destruction of a significant part of the shared global heritage of us all.

  • Khan al-Qadi, one of the oldest khans (specialized souk areas) in Aleppo dating back to 1450;
  • Khan al-Burghul (Bulger), built in 1472 and the location of the British general consulate of Aleppo until the beginning of the 20th century;
  • Souk al-Saboun (soap khan) built in the beginning of the 16th century was the main center of the soap production in Aleppo;
  • Souk Khan al-Nahhaseen (coppersmiths), built in 1539. The general consulate of Belgium was at this location during the16th century. Before its destruction it including more than 80 traditional and modern shoe-trading and production shops;
  • Khan al-Shouneh, built in 1546 was a market for trades and traditional handicrafts of Aleppine art;
  • Souq Khan al-Jumrok or the customs’ khan was a textile trading center with more than 50 stores. Built in 1574, Khan Al-Gumrok was considered to be the largest khan in ancient Aleppo;
  • Souk Khan al-Wazir, built in 1682, was the main souk for cotton products in Aleppo;
  • Souk al-Farrayin was the fur market, is the main entrance to the souk from the south. The souk is home to 77 stores mainly specialized in furry products;
  • Souk al-Hiraj traditionally was historically the main market for firewood and charcoal. Until its destruction it reportedly included 33 stores mainly dealing in rug and carpet weaving and products;
  • Souk al-Dira’, was perhaps the main center for tailoring and one of the most organized alleys in the souk with more than 60 workshops;
  • Souk al-Attareen for more than a century was the vast herbal market and in fact was the main spice-selling market of Aleppo. Before its destruction it was a textile-selling center with more than 80 stores, including spice-selling shops;
  • Souk az-Zirb was the main entrance to the souq from the east and the place where coins were being struck during the Mamluk (18th century) period. All of its 72 shops featured textiles and the basic needs of the Bedouins;
  • Souk al-Behramiyeh, located near the Behramiyeh mosque had more than 20 stores trading in foodstuffs;
  • Souk Marcopoli (derived from Marco Polo), was a center of textile trading with 29 stores.
  • Souk al-Atiq specialized in raw leather trading with 48 outlets;
  • Souk as-Siyyagh or the jewelry market was the main center of jewelry shops in Aleppo and Syria with more than 100 outlets located in 2 parallel alleys.
  • The Venetians’ Khan was home to the consul of Venice and the Venetian merchants.
  • Souk an-Niswan or the women’s market, was an area where accessories, clothes and wedding equipment’s of the bride could be found;
  • Souk Arslan Dada, is one of the main entrances to the walled city from the north. With 33 stores, the souk is a center of leather and textile trading;
  • Souk al-Haddadin, is one of the northern entrances to the old city. Located outside the main gate it was considered to be the old traditional blacksmiths’ market with more than 40 workshops;
  • Souk Khan al-Harir (the silk khan) was another entrance to the old city from the north and was built in the second half of the 16th century. The silk souk hosted the Iranian consulate until 1919.
  • Suweiqa (small souk) consisted of 2 long alleys: Sweiqat Ali and Suweiqat Hatem, located in al-Farafira district which contained markets mainly specialized in home and kitchen equipment.

One is left distraught over the seeming futility of even contemplating rebuilding this world heritage site. Would it require half a century to reconstruct, as was required in Dresden Germany following three days of firebombing by British and American planes, which began on February 13, 1945?

There are many questions to be answered whether rebuilding would ever authentically restore Aleppo’s old city to what it had been for centuries.

Would “restoration” render it a sterile or glitzy place with the main focus on the tourist dollar? Which countries would help rebuild it and where would the money come from, and could Syria and her experts influence and oversee the reconstruction? One professor of Archeology at Aleppo University asked, “Could a rebuilt Medina souk ever again be ‘my neighborhood, the cherished neighborhood of my youth and of my family over preceding generations?” Many of the individual souks, maybe 12 feet by 10 feet were valued at close of one million dollars and restoration would cost hundreds of millions.

Locating experts in areas amidst fairly intense government security concerns and measures which are much greater than in Damascus was not always easy. It was compounded by the fact of 2 hour per day electricity and water shortages, yet one still had the opportunity to discuss and learn from a cross section of this community including academic, governmental, business and citizen activists.

Three tentative conclusions arrived at by this observer from fascinating and heart felt discussions include one from Professor Lamis Herbly, Chairperson of the Archeology department of Aleppo University. This warm and elegant lady’s eyes welled with tears, being the mother of two youngsters and who worries daily about the safety of her children while insisting that they stay in school despite the dangers, described her and her communities losses. She also expressed the concerns of her academic colleagues that if and when reconstruction begins in the old city of Aleppo that it must be done with utmost care and under Syrian experts’ control. She explained what she meant was that reconstruction in Syria not mirror what was done in Beirut to renovate the ‘downtown’ area which separated Muslim and Christian militia along the ‘green line’ during Lebanon’s 15 year (1975-1990).

One professor declared the reconstruction of downtown Beirut and the filling in of Beirut harbor with thousands of years of antiquities as Saudi financed, behemoth Mercedes Benz earth movers shoved much of Lebanon’s history into the sea to make way for upscale fancy tourist attracting shops catering to rich Gulf tourists (of whom there are very few these days). “So they can buy yet more jewelry and Paris fashions?” she asked. Someone else joined in saying what happened in Lebanon was a cultural crime.

“Downtown Beirut is an obscenity,” one PhD candidate, a young lady who formerly lived near the old city insisted. This student is among those who joined efforts that began nearly two decades ago to preserve and protect one of Aleppo’s two remaining synagogues in the Samoua neighborhood. She vowed that citizens of Aleppo must not and will not allow what happened in Beirut to happen here in Aleppo.

Another concern, discussed with citizens in Aleppo is the often expressed worry over whether other countries that unfortunately had, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, a hand in the destruction of much of Syria cultural heritage would be willing to help with its preservation and reconstruction. This observer, who has studied the subject over the past two years in Syria shared this concern, but sought to assure Aleppo interlocutors that indeed many governments acknowledge with gratitude the work of the Syrian people in protecting our mutual global heritage, in the custody of country’s people for millennia, share their horror over what has happened and indeed want to help as soon as a lasting ceasefire can be achieved. This subject was one of the most frequently raised by both experts and average citizens in Aleppo.

Archeological and restoration experts in Syria tend to agree with international research findings that estimate that despite the vast heartbreaking destruction, looting, politically motivated desecration of countless mosques and churches as well as thousands of years of pagan artifacts, that approximately 96 percent of our shared cultural heritage in Syria can be repaired, restored, or even replicated when no other option in available. What is urgently needed before more damage is infected is a ceasefire or freeze in place and is being discussed by UN mediators. Objects that have been blow up in a frenzy of ignorance and malevolence are lost and irreplaceable. The tens of thousands of illegally excavated and looted priceless antiquities now scattered to private collections and speculators have been routed through, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Iraq and Jordan. They must be returned as part of a massive international antiquities retrieval campaign that should include an expanded role for Interpol, auction houses and governments as well as international institution of the UN. One student at Damascus University told this observer recently that she and fellow students have started an international campaign focusing on auction houses and governments seeking the return of stolen Syrian antiquities. They have named their student led organization: “I’m Syrian and I need to go home. Please help me.”

One of life’s seeming wonderful incongruities is experienced by visitors all across Syria these days. It has to do with the human spirit. Examining and contemplating just the one example of damage to our shared global heritage in Aleppo, as depressing and discouraging as any of the damage done to our shared global culture heritage one might be excused for becoming cynical and even somewhat catatonic as one observes and studies the desecration and destruction here in Aleppo and in so many other areas.

But not the Syrian people. Rather than slump and becoming crestfallen, this observer finds Syrians resolute and even somehow inspiring in their determination to preserve, protect and restore our cultural heritage. Space allows for one example.

This observer spent an afternoon this week next to the glowing fireplace on a cold rainy day in the warm and cozy office of Mohammad Kujjah, Director of the 1924 founded Archeological Institute of Aleppo. I was joined by some of his staff, all experts on preserving archeological treasures. One taciturn scholar sitting next to me, who I thought appeared to be on the verge of nodding off, saddening perked up and squeezed my arm to get my undivided attention. He then proceeded to further light up the bookcase lined office by presenting a brilliant lecture that, were he asked, this observer would entitle something like:

The Germans rebuilt Dresden and the Syrians will rebuild Aleppo!

He began with fascinating comparisons between what was and what was done to Dresden beginning on February 13, 1945 and what happened to Aleppo’s old city on September 28, 2012. Dresden was carpet bombed by 722 RAF and 527 USAAF bombers that dropped 2431 tons of high explosive bombs, and 1475.9 tons of incendiaries. The high explosive bombs damaged buildings and exposed their ancient wooden structures, while the incendiaries ignited them. The massive wooden structures, like in Aleppo, burned to the ground. The resultant firestorms killed an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 people, although the total number is disputed. Dresden, an historic center held no strategic value. The war in Europe was coming to an end, and the city was packed with refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. It is widely believed that the bombing was a revenge attack for the German bombing of Coventry as well as a show of force.

As he spoke the professor displayed for his guests a large photograph of Dresden taken in early March of 1945. The high explosive bombs damaged buildings and exposed their wooden structures, while the incendiaries ignited them. The massive wooden structures of Aleppo’s old city also burned to the ground.

The archeologist lectured his rapt American audience, seemingly also to the delight of his Aleppine colleagues on how Aleppo reconstruction could be achieved and he spoke of the Syrian peoples will that it shall be done.

All people of good will who accept their personal duty to join the people of Syria in preserving, protecting and restoring our shared global heritage can take solace from what this observer witnessed an exhilarating demonstration of the sublime capacities of our shared human spirit as we help to salvage our cultural heritage.

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Gloves Come Off in Lebanon


In General I agree with Mr. Lamb, the Sunni-Shia dispute is political, not religious, therefore, he should have mentioned that arround 30% of Lebanon’s Sunnis are pro-Hezbollah, that the ongoing war in Libya is a Sunni-Sunni war because there is no Shia in Libya. BTW, Mr Lamb covered the Nato war on Libya.

How Mr.  Lamb would explain the ongoing terrorist war on Egypt’s army, on the Suni Kurds in kobani and Irbil  and the Sunni tribes in Iraq??/

Gloves Come Off in Lebanon

Sunni-Shia Bellum Sacrum Fault Lines Deepen
Gloves Come Off in Lebanon

Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, Husseiniya, South Beirut

Historically, the term “religious war” (Bellum Sacrum) was used to describe various European wars among Christian denominations spanning mainly the 16th to the 18th century such as the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) which spread widely throughout Europe and on to North America, Central America, the also to the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. There were dozens of other intra-Christian religious wars the seeds of which began to sprout shortly after the death of Jesus Christ.

The Encyclopedia of Wars, by authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, estimate that only 7% of the 1,783 wars they chronicled involve religion. Lebanon is one of these and is still mired in a cold war phase of its 15 year (1975-90) Civil War, from which Lebanon yet to recover. Religious differences are one of the major causes on Lebanon’s many problems today and it is within this context that the mushrooming intra-Muslim war between Sunni and Shia is spreading and intensifying. Sunni comprise approximately 90% percent of the followers of Islam and their increasingly vilified coreligionists, Shia Muslims, 10%. This month Lebanon’s Shia are commemorating Ashoura and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in 680 under increased security with additional checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah forces because Da’ish and al Nursa have announced their intent to target the Shia worshipers.

Many among Lebanon’s older Sunni and Shia generation, report that as youngsters they were not aware of Shia-Sunni antagonisms nor did they harbor animosity with their neighbors. Sometimes inter-marrying, sharing holidays and developing strong friendships with each other. “That is all changed now, perhaps until End Times” according to an employee at Beirut’s Dar al Fatwa in the mixed neighborhood of Aisha Bikar near the American University of Beirut.

The gentleman and his colleague elaborated:

“Everyone alive today in Lebanon and for many generations to come will have their family’s lives negatively affected by the rapidly spreading sectarian hostility. The Sunni-Shia hatred is poisonous—it’s the new political Ebola virus! Can it be eradicated? How can we stop it from engulfing the Middle East or has it already done so?” Another added, “And forget about the Christians! In a few years’ time there will probably not be enough of them left in the Middle East to matter.”

To this observer, the spiraling sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon appears to be coming mainly from Sunni groups and militia who vent a laundry list of complaints against their fellow Muslims. Many but not all stemming from Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war still raging across the anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east.

Members of the two Muslim sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. But there are Sunni-Shia differences in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization and are based in part over a political dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam and adhere to traditions and practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction – literally “Shiat Ali” or the party of Ali and they claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.

In Sunni ruled countries, for hundreds of years Shias made up the poorest sections of society and today many view themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression as some extremist Sunni doctrines continue to preach hatred of Shia. 

Some argue that the Shia-Sunni Bellum Sacrum is more political than religious. If true, [IT IS TRUE] the mutually destructive conflict now intensifying in Lebanon would share much in common with other religious wars which were basically political conflicts justified in the name of religion. Iran which supports some Shia militias [ Iran supported Suni hamas and Islamic Jihad] beyond its borders is in conflict with some Sunni countries, especially regional neighbors who support Sunni militia. Lebanon’s hemmed population-Sunni and Shia has been put in a difficult situation caught up also in spill-over from the Syrian civil war. Teheran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders is essentially matched by the Sunni Gulf states with Shia and Sunni leaders often seem to be in competition as the latter continue to strengthen their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.

Lebanon is paying a big price. Lawmakers failed on 10/29/2014 for the fifteenth time to elect a new president over a lack of quorum at parliament they will “try again” on 11/19/2014 with likely the same result because those holding power want a deadlock. Only 54 members out the 128 in Parliament showed up, well short of a quorum. The others were instructed to boycott by their parties, including the pro-Hezbollah Change and Reform and Loyalty to the Resistance blocs of the March 8 alliance. Their motive, their opponents the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance claim are purely political. The latest failed session was also boycotted by Speaker Nabih Berri, the Shia leader of the pro- Bashar Assad, Amal militia with Berri insisting he is simply trying to encourage ‘dialogue”.

“It has never been this bad” explains the proprietor of a neighborhood grocery store, agreeing with ever more of his fellow countrymen, as now opening curses both sides in public.

A few brief examples from the past week illustrate the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia clash.

As the Hezbollah [ And christian Free Patriotic and Marada movements ] continues boycotting Parliamentary electoral sessions due to disagreements with the mainly Sunni March 14 camp over a compromise presidential candidate. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, himself a presidential candidate, this week accused Hezbollah of “blocking Parliament in to order to blackmail political blocs into electing, their puppet, Michel Aoun.” Aoun who is as anti-Palestinian as Geagea is, denies media speculation “ that the ongoing obstruction is no longer a political maneuver, but an attempt to target Lebanon’s political system,”

Hezbollah is also being accused of joining the Syrian war and sacrificing Lebanese young men while killing many innocent Syrians solely on orders from Tehran. According to one March 14th Member of Parliament, “No one believes, not even the Hezbollah leadership that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to protect Lebanon whose people are paying a big price for their adventure. “ Sunni opponents of Shia Hezbollah, including the spokesman for the March 14th alliance claim that “terrorists” or the so-called ‘Takfiries” would never have come to Lebanon if Hezbollah had not invaded Syria and started killing Sunni.” [ Did Hezbollah Invaded Libya and Sinai]

The largely Sunni families of the 27 captive troops and policemen being held for ransom by the al-Nursa front are blaming Hezbollah and the Shia leader of Lebanon’s Internal Security Force, (ISF) Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, for not acting seriously to negotiate their loved ones release from captivity for purely sectarian reasons. On 10/30/14 the families threatened again to escalate their protests and have been burning tires at the Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut while their relatives captors, al-Nusra Front, in increasingly setting up sleeper cells and advocating for the Sunni community in Lebanon is also accusing the ISF director of not being serious are obtaining the release of Sunni captives.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame University – Louaize and Saint Joseph University decided this week to suspend student elections for the current academic year as sectarianism spreads. “The political and security situation in Lebanon, which could impact the campus, will not allow the students to practice their democratic role positively,” USJ board of members said in a statement. Religion is a factor in this conflict also according to campus security guards on the scene trying to maintain order.

The United Nations has warned again this week that foreign religiously motivated jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale and some with religious motives and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism”. More than 1,500 foreign fighters are streaming into Syria each month, a rate that has increased since US airstrikes against Da’ish (Isis) began last month (9/23/14). The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeds 16,000, and the pace eclipses that of any comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights just announced that 560 people have been killed in airstrikes since they began. That group counted 32 civilian deaths, including six children and five women.

The Pentagon estimates that each of the more than 600 US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq costs the American taxpayer approximately $ 9 million which given the claimed “kill count” means each death costs roughly $ 1.4 million each, militiamen or civilians. The rate of jihadists arriving just in Syria, again according to the Pentagon, were 12,000 in July, and 7,000 in March. But other US government’s estimates for just Syria put the jihadist arrival figures at currently 1,500 each month with the numbers accelerating and increasing coming to Lebanon. There are higher estimates according to U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who rank “Democracy Success Story and Arab Spring Winner” Tunisia as the country contributing the most jihadists currently arriving in the Levant.

As noted above, many of the religiously motivated jihadists are coming to Lebanon, especially up north near Tripoli which has seen heavy fighting between Sunni and Shia backed militia. If one credits their social media, several want to fight Hezbollah which they often label the “Party of Satan” and “Iran’s militia.”

On 10/30/13 Saudi National Guard Minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, directing his comments to the KSA’s arch foe Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nassrallah proclaimed that “The parties embracing terrorism in the region have become well-known.” Within minutes Saudi media outlets open with commentary and statements like those currently appearing in Lebanese media outlets such as Naharnet: 

“Yes those supporting terrorism they are the same who killed Rafik el Hariri and the remaining M14 leaders. They are the same who refuse to abide by Lebanese justice and deliver the accused/witness for investigations, they are the same who in order to remain in power, decide to destroy their country and kill their people and allow a huge inflow of terrorist into their land to show a worse alternative.”

Sentiments shared by some in the Sunni community who, unlike during the years following the 2006 July war, and Hezbollah’s widely acknowledged success against the Zionist regime still occupying Palestine, are no longer reluctant to criticize openly Shia Muslims generally and Hezbollah specifically.

Where this all ends is anyone’s guess but a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, even limited area by area as Washington, Tehran and Moscow are discussing would perhaps help—or, as various analysts and some serious scholars postulate, the latest Sunni-Shia manifestation of Bellum Sacrum may take a long time to control if not resolve. Tens of years or centuries they advise only time will tell.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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New Book on UNRWA Brings Palestinian Refugee Problem into Focus


refugees camp

Edited by Sari Hanafi, Leila Hilal and Lex Takkenberg, American University of Beirut

Routledge, London and New York (ISBN 978-0-415-71504-1)

Reviewed by Franklin Lamb

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established by a UN mandate on December 8, 1949—specifically to deal with the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees following the Nakba, or the establishment of the state of Israel.

In the absence of a solution to this ongoing problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed the UNRWA’s mandate, most recently until June 30, 1917, yet over the years the agency’s objectives and focus have evolved. This new volume, edited by Sari Hanafi, Leila Hilal, and Lex Takkenberg, provides a close up look at how the UNRWA functions while emphasizing the centrality of the Palestinian refugee issue in this region and beyond. Packed with a useful bibliography and numerous footnotes, the book provides a key analysis of the UNRWA’s fieldwork as well as a broad scope of relevant information that probably, one imagines, is unavailable elsewhere. In short, it is a book that is long overdue.

The UNRWA has of course been especially in the news of late following the latest nearly two-month aggression against Gaza, and there is perhaps now more than ever a thirst for greater understanding of this conflict that has dragged on for more than six decades and its impact on those most adversely affected—and from that standpoint, one of the most useful benefits of the volume is the context it provides to the non-specialist about the workings of this unique humanitarian agency, offering a dossier of essential information for researchers, diplomats, mainstream and activist media and, perhaps most importantly, the general public.

Ever since its creation, the UNRWA has been regularly attacked politically by vested interests—whether they be rightwing Zionists across Lebanon’s southern border who consider the agency’s very existence a threat to their continuing occupation of Palestine, or anti-Palestinian politicians in Lebanon itself, casuists and dissemblers still peddling the long-debunked claim that UNRWA promotes tawtin, or naturalization. Attacks of this nature seem to come with the territory. In any event, those of us who’ve advocated civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, including the right to work, will especially welcome Sergio Bianchi’s chapter on community participation and human rights campaigning, and also Terry Rempel’s overview of the UNRWA’s approach to refugee inclusion and involvement in community affairs. It has been four years since the enfeebled and highly politicized Lebanese parliamentary effort got off to a start with the supposed intention of remedying blatant discrimination against Palestinians—a group who face nearly 60 percent unemployment in Lebanon because they are blocked from working in more than 20 professions. Those of us left bewildered by the sham “reform” effort taken up by Parliament in August of 2010 will find Bianchi’s analysis invaluable for grasping what went wrong.

With regard to Palestinian refugee camps, the book breaks ground with four excellent chapters on camp improvement/reconstruction in relation to community development. One key subject area here is the UNRWA’s embarkation since the turn of the century in the launch of much needed projects entailing large-scale reconstruction (in Jenin, Neirab, and Nahr el-Bared Camps) and improvement (in Talbeyeh and Deheishe). A second crucial area involves the agency’s recognition of the failures of camp administration “from above,” resulting in initiatives to “consult the community” in camp improvement/reconstruction efforts. However, as Sari Hanafi demonstrates in Chapter 6, the UNRWA, as a “phantom sovereign,” has held consultations, but they have often been on an interim or ad hoc basis—and the author advances a strong and compelling analytical criticism of UNRWA for not playing a more significant role in camp governance, especially when the popular committees have obviously failed to do so efficiently. (The reasons for these failures are many, including the committees being appointed and not elected as well as bereft of financial resources and unrecognized by Lebanese authorities.) Still Hanafi illustrates some new, yet modest to date, signs of more substantial UNRWA involvement in camp governance.

Muna Budeiri addresses the subject of perceptions of Palestinian refugee camps as temporary spaces. Many scholars and political commissars in the camps consider that this “temporariness” symbolizes the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland. Admittedly, the camps are politically exceptional spaces, but they should not be an exceptional urban space. Budeiri eloquently puts it that refugee camps should not exist as slums, nor as traditional refugee camps, but as a camp cities. Each one of these, in Budeiri’s view, would thus become in essence a “spatial archive” of the Nakba (catastrophe)—but I would add that while labeling cities (Yarmouk, Ain el-Hilweh, etc.) as “camp cities” does indeed preserve the memory of the Nakba, we should be careful not to keep camps in their slum form simply for the sake of memory.

Nell Gabian, in Chapter 11, points out the importance of the new version of UNRWA that insists on the “self-reliance” of the Palestinian refugee (as highlighted in UNRWA’s 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 Medium Term Plans”). However, Gabian demonstrates that refugees perceived the slogan as a “pull back,” and she warns of the danger of a purely technical understanding of self-reliance, one that leaves out the protection and rights of refugees.

In Chapter 13, entitled “Palestinian Refugees and a Durable Solution: A Role for UNRWA,” Rex Brynen offers readers a clear and succinct overview of the broader complexities faced today by the UNRWA as well as the problems confronting the Palestinian refugee community as a whole—both those still under direct occupation as well as those waiting in the diaspora for return. Brynen focuses on the challenges UNRWA faces not just from its political enemies, who blame it for any number of ‘the-sky-is-falling’ woes, but also from a generally under-informed public which views it in a variety of ways—as a link to the more powerful “international community,” or an idea more vague and aspirational, or even as a Trojan Horse, as it is viewed by some—all of which, of course, being popular views held by the public, become subject to interpretation and manipulation for political purposes.

Finally, Leila Hilal’s essay, “Business as Usual? The role of UNWRA in Resolving the Palestinian Refugee Issue,” presents to the reader a very informative and interesting analysis of the role of UNWRA, founded as a temporary emergency humanitarian agency in the late 1940’s, and how over time pressures have forced the expansion of the agency’s activities, while at the same time it has to date resisted engaging publicly in a campaign for durable solutions.

Each of these 14 very readable essays presented in this very remarkable volume—UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees: From Relief and Works to Human Development—is an important contribution that gives all of us a better understanding of the Question of Palestine as well as the  role and work of this vital, lifesaving, enormously successful UN agency. It is a book that will, one hopes and imagines, become an enduring and important resource in libraries internationally and a tool for those actively working to achieve justice for Palestine.

Source: Al-Manar Website

27-10-2014 – 14:05 Last updated 27-10-2014 – 4:0


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Will Seif al Islam Lead the Expulsion of the ISIS Affiliate, Al Fajr Libya?

Time Will Tell

Andrei Murakhovsky, a Ukraine-born doctor working in Zintan, said out of Seif al-Islam’s gangrenous fingers, only a small part of his thumb and index finger needed to be removed. (Reuters)

by  Franklin Lamb,

with the Abu Baker al-Siddiq Brigade, Zintan, Libya

A second interview by this observer with Seif al Islam Gadhafi, formerly the heir apparent to his father Moammar, was sought and finally arranged as a follow up to an earlier one focusing of my interest in the Imam Musa Sadr case.

That case involves a great crime against a great man and conciliator and his historic cause, and exposes those who betrayed him in Lebanon and two other countries while swearing their personal devotion and shedding crocodile tears over the past 36 years.

That research is nearing completion and publication awaits DNA results from body samples more credible than the ones offered by the Bosnia laboratory two years ago and immediately demonstrated to be fraudulent.

The story of why that particular lab was chosen and by who goes to the essence of the current stonewalling campaign with respect to informing the public about what exactly happened to Imam Sadr and his partners on 8/3l/1978 in Tripoli, Libya. It also identifies who instructed Gadhafi to kill them over the strong objections from the PLO’s Yassir Arafat who spoke with Gadhafi and tried to save the trio of Lebanese Shia.

But our discussion soon turned to other subject as Seif’s jailers may have taken seriously my joke that if they extended the original 20 minutes I was granted to two hours, I would deliver to them 10 US Visas and they could fill in any names the might choose.

Truth told, of course I could not even get myself a passport renewal as former US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman reportedly sneered at a US Embassy Christmas party a few years back,

“Lamb will serve ten years hard time in the Feds for hobnobbing with terrorists (Hezbollah in those days…who knows today?)  when we get him back home.”  

I admit that Jeff and I both have a problem with Hezbollah.

His is because Hezbollah just may liberate Palestine and mine is that Hezbollah needs to do more in Lebanon and use 90 minutes of Parliament’s time, where it has the power, to grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the right to work and to own a home. But that is also another story and Hezbollah continues to report that they are ‘working on the problem but it’s politically complicated.”

Meanwhile, Da’ish (IS) is metastasizing fast in Libya through its main affiliate al Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) and plans to add Tripoli, to its Islamic Caliphate along with Baghdad, Damascus, Amman and Beirut during the coming months and if necessary, years.  This, according to Seif al Islam and representatives of the Zintan brigades based southwest of Tripoli as well as two representatives of other tribes and militia moving toward supporting the still vital Gadhafi regime remnants.

Libya may be the lowest hanging ripe fruit within easy reach of Da’ish (IS) and its growing number of affiliates, according to US Ambassador Deborah Jones during a recent visit to the US Embassy in Malta, to discuss her own problems in Libya which include the 8/31/14 take-over by al Fajr Libya (FL) of the US embassy compound barely a month after it was evacuated and moved to Tunisia for the second time since February of 2011.

Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the media in Washington recently that “the embassy was not really closed, but had moved out of Libya”.  One Religion Professor at Tripoli University joked last week that “Kerry is correct, the US embassy is here but it’s in a state of occultation. We can’t see it but it’s around and watches us.”

A Libyan photographer who was at the embassy compound when Al Fajr Libya (FL) arrived reported that the Da’ish (IS) affiliate had moved into buildings inside the embassy complex claiming that they would ‘protect it’ as they carted off boxes of documents for ‘safe keeping.’ FL is described by a former Dean at Tripoli U. as between al Nusra and Da’ish (IS) with a fragile partnership between the two and presenting to the public “ A Good cop-Bad cop tag-team with differences to be worked out once all the infidels are vanquished.

Libya, as with the Arab Maghreb, is on the cusp of a new wave of Islamist groups, and is moving beyond al-Qaeda of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Abdelmalek Droukdel, to Baghdadi’s ISIS and its widely perceived logical offshoot ISIM being planted in North Africa and the Sahel. The threat of the Da’ish (Islamic State is already deeply anchored and expanding in the now lawless Libya, according to UN envoy Bernardino León.

Several Libyan organizations recently announced their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. This has confirmed a speculation that IS has penetrated Libyan public institutions. The Ansar al-Sharia group, affiliated with ISIS, has declared authority during the last several days over the coastal city of Darna which is located strategically between Benghazi and the Egyptian border – just 289 km (179 miles) and 333 km (206 miles), respectively.

Countless militia are forming, merging, changing names and lying low as perceived interests dictate.  Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria was retitled, revitalized and repackaged to enhance its appeal on social media as has the Furqan Brigade of the AQIM in Tunisia. Ansar Al-Sharia is another one becoming very active.

The Uqba bin Nafi Brigade, has just declared allegiance to ISIS as has the Islamic Caliphate in the Islamic Maghreb. al-Ummah Brigade, which operates out of Libyan coasts and airports, another is  Al-Battar is attracting pro-ISIS elements. Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (the Islamic Youth Shura Council), or MSSI.

According to Libyan sources and journalist Adam al-Sabiri, writing in Al Akbar, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asked these elements to deploy to the Libyan front to counter the attacks by the Libyan army led by Khalifa Haftar as part of Operation Dignity seeking to “purge Libya of terrorists.”

Libyan friends, some from three years ago, advise that more people have been killed in the past three years than during the 2011 revolution and they now fear a Somalia-like “failed state” given all the weapons, lawlessness, and growing number of Islamists. The South of Libya has not been spared the lawlessness, as tribal battles continue for control of a lucrative smuggling trade. Friends point out that the country no longer even bothers to celebrate the National Holiday commemorating the 10/23/2011 “total liberation of Libya.”

“It’s a cruel joke” my friend Hinde advised as she explains that many Libyans yearn for the stability of the Gadhafi days. “Maybe wanting to turn the clock back is the same in Iraq and Egypt and Syria?” she wondered.

“The rampant regional, ideological and tribal conflicts are worse than the rule of the dictator,” said Salah Mahmud al-Akuri, a doctor in Benghazi. “Some Libyans are looking back to the old regime.”

Amidst all the chaos, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni claimed last week that groups loyal to the IS, such as al Fajr Libya, are presently in control of the city of Derna and other Libyan towns and have begun summoning townspeople to public squares to witness declarations of fealty to Da’ish (IS), even beginning their signature public executions.

Libya’s “government” claims that its “army” is preparing to expel Fajr Libya (FL) and retake the capital, as more militia rush to join FL. Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani’s said in a statement this week that he gave orders to the government forces to “advance toward Tripoli to liberate it and to free it from the grip of al Fajr Libya”. The Libyan embassy in Washington told a House Foreign Affairs committee staffer that they expect that residents in Tripoli will launch “a civil disobedience campaign until the arrival of the army.”

Walking around the former “Green Square” this observer saw no signs of this rather he observed citizens stocking up on necessities or packing their cars. Later, Thani added, military forces in the strife-torn country “have absolutely united to also recapture Libya’s second city Benghazi from the local IS affiliate, al Fajr Liyba (FL). Leading one to wonder whether the Libyan “army” will fare better than Maliki’s did in Mosul and Anbar.

According to students and staff at Tripoli University, (known as Fatah University during the Gadhafi decades) a few of whom this observer first met in the summer of 2011, and who lived the political events in their country since while some of their friends and relatives, as in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, are preparing to leave and start a new life somewhere.

Hasan, a Gadhafi supporter I was with nearly daily three years ago in Tripoli still curses what, “NATO| did this to our country.  The Gadhafi regime was changing as you know Franklin, but the reformers were prevented from making the changes that Seif al Islam and his associates got their father to agree to.

Remember when Saif said

My father wants to live in a tent where he is most happy and write a history of the Jamahiriya (land of the masses). He will offer advice but have just a ceremonial role out of politics?  You remember that?  We believed Seif didn’t we?. Anyhow,  khalas!, Libya is finished! NATO gave it to Da’ish just as they gave Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to Iran.”

Libya is now moving beyond al-Qaeda of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Abdelmalek Droukdel, to Baghdadi’s ISIS and its widely perceived logical offshoot Islamic State in the Islamic Maghreb (ISIM-Damis) now expanding in North Africa and the Sahel. Former rebels who fought against Gadhafi have formed powerful militias and seized control of large parts of Libya in the past three years.

Back in mid-august of 2011, the late American journalist Marie Colvin and I stood on the balcony of the Corinthia Hotel opposites the still empty Marriott where some kid was practicing sniping from the roof, at my expense, as I pointed out to Marie a body floating just off the beach of the Mediterranean across the road.

We walked over and examined it and decided while it was dressed in religious garb the man may have been an army deserter; there were increasing numbers in those days, because of his military style boots. We alerted some militia guys driving along the corniche who said they would report the body and before long an ambulance did arrive.

Two of the militia waded out waist deep and pulled in the bloated body to shore, unlaced his tan leather boots while holding their noses from the stench. They then threw the new boots in the back of their pick-up and drove off with no more than a smiling ‘shukran habibis’ (thanks dears). Later that day Marie and I counted a column of 143 pickups with AK-47 jubilant fist waving rebels entering along the coastal road toward downtown Tripoli having come from battles in the east around Misrata.

In the next few days we discussed how there seemed to be countless ‘free-cigarettes, $200 on the first of each month and your personal Kalasnikov’ militia popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain. Three years ago one of their battle cries was “Death to Gadafi—Yes to Freedom!” Today one hears around Tripoli another slogan from the lips of young men many of whom may be the same, chanting, “Death to the kafirs (disbelievers,” or infidels) Yes to Islam!Abas (that’s all!”

Seif el Islam still resides at his cell in Zintan which, even though jail is jail, has been upgraded from when he was captured in the Sahara making his way toward Niger and his finger was cut off as a warning.

Seif, has proposed talks and is ready to participate in bringing together Libya’s warring parties and aiding the transition to what he claims he was working on before the February 17, 2011 uprising in Benzhazi which quickly spread.

Seif’s team would likely include his father’s cousin and confident Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, former Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kane, long-time Libyan diplomat, the widely respected Omar el Hamdi now is Cairo, and Seif’s sister Aisha, now living with his mother and children in the Gulf.

Seif has no illusions of returning Libya to the past, but argues that elements of the former regime deserved to be heard. “

We were in the process of making broad reforms and my father gave me the responsibly to see them through. Unfortunately the revolt happened and both sides made mistakes that are now allowing extreme Islamist group like Da’ish to pick up the pieces and turn Libya into an extreme fundamentalist entity in their regional plans.”

With respect to Seifs trials, whether ins the Tripoli courthouse or at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the odds of  either  happening anytime soon, ior at all, are fading as negotiations for an arrangement are reportedly progressing.

A solution is being sought, according to sources at the Justice Ministry in Tripoli because there are many problems with Seifs case which was supposed to begin earlier this year, and the case has been criticized by a number of international actors. Not least for which how Libya and the ICC have handled their cases.

For example, Human Rights Watch has accused the Libyan government of failing to provide adequate legal representation and the ICC it has been unable to compel the Libyan government to allow it access — just one of many challenges to the ICC’s legitimacy in recent years.  Meanwhile it is likely that Seif’s jailers, who increasing respects and admires him, may have other ideas that would enhance their own standing in Libya.

In addition, certain NATO countries are said to be privately discussing with Washington, Paris London and Bonn the idea of finding a role for Seif and certain of his associates and family members in “the new Libya.”

According to Seif, and former regime officials, several NATO countries have sent messages claiming they did not intend for his father to be killed but were searching during the summer of 2011 for a refuge for his father in Africa. Seif does not believe them.

Seif al Islam still has substantial influence among tribes still loyal to Gaddafi as well as former regime officials in the army and government. The delegation Seif could assemble, including Ahmad  Gadaff al-Dam, would benefit from the latter’s still strong connections with Arab governments, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as some European countries.

More on this and other subjects related to Seif and the growing international recognition over the need for  expulsion of Islamists from Libya, and a possible significant role for Seif, are expected to be discussed publicly soon.


River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!


Avoidable Humanitarian Crisis at Lebanon Border Crossing Sparks Anger in Syria

Syrian refugees

Franklin Lamb

Syrian Immigration HQ, Damascus neighborhood of Marjeh

Chest high metal crowd control barriers manned by armed guards—since late September they have stood outside the Arrivals Hall on the Lebanon side of the Masnaa border crossing with Syria. For Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing the continuing violence next door and trying to get into Lebanon the message is clear:

almasnaa55Don’t come within 40 meters of the Immigration building, and don’t even dream about coming to the staffed counter with any documents. None of you is welcome. Ninety eight percent of you will not be allowed in, and those who are better leave within 24 hours and have a valid airline ticket to prove your intention to depart.

Over the past few years, this observer has crossed at the Masnaa border crossing fairly frequently. Yet never have I seen such an avoidable humanitarian disaster for families seeking to get out of war-torn Syria. And it is reportedly much the same at the Jordanian border. Many refugees have found themselves squatting here—first in the heat, and now in the cold autumnal nights that increasingly are seeing cold rainfall. No other option seems available to them than to try to enter Lebanon, this as they express the forlorn hope that God in his mercy will help them.

Syrian refugees patiently wait

And so here they sit, bewildered, outside the Immigration building, exhausted, little if any money in their pockets or purses, with their children thirsty, hungry, and often crying. Nearby are the local offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the staff are overwhelmed, and the fact that Lebanon hasn’t signed the 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t make things any easier for them. Extending humanitarian assistance to refugees has never been embraced by certain anti-Palestinian politicians in Lebanon, who apparently see no value in it for themselves, but that being said, it is a fact that the sheer numbers of refugees entering Lebanon now has added to pre-existing problems with respect to infrastructure, chronic water and electricity shortages, massive unemployment, exploding sectarian conflicts, and the like.


All of which can make for some harrowing scenes at the border checkpoint. During this observer’s most recent crossing, a Syrian gentleman sat on the roadside with his wife, five children, and one grandchild, explaining to me how the family had lost everything in Homs. No other choice had they than to try and seek safety in Lebanon, since Egypt and Jordan are refusing entry to Syrian refugees. His oldest child, a lovely girl named ‘Rasha,’ who appeared to be in her mid-20s, sat nursing her infant son as we talked. Rasha’s husband, he informed me, had been killed by a mortar last spring on a day he had gone out shopping for food near the old city of Homs. In desperation, the gentleman suggested that I purchase his daughter and her baby, because he saw no future for them and he could no longer provide a home for them. Plus the baby appeared ill.

After my long explanation of why, for several reasons, this was not possible, he stated his belief that my being an American meant that the Lebanese guards would allow me to enter with Rasha and her baby; they in turn could live with me until the crisis ended, and on second thought, I did not even have to pay him anything. Just save her and her baby. With respect to the Lebanese border guards, his idea was unrealistic. Most Americans do tend to be liked around these parts, and most of us try to be goodwill ambassadors because we love our country and her ideals. But it is not the case that Americans can bend immigration regulations, nor should it be. Before the crisis, Syrians and Lebanese could simply take a road not patrolled, avoiding border crossings and formalities altogether, but these days that is very dangerous.

I gave the gentleman my card and a little money in case his family and he were somehow able to get over the border, and promised him that if they were successful I and friends would try to help. I have heard nothing more from him. But I have learned, from a couple of NGOs, that encounters such as I experienced are not all that uncommon these days, with women and children stuck at the Syrian-Lebanese border being bought and sold—and with bribes sometimes offered, and occasionally paid. The frequency of this is difficult to assess, and the reality may be exaggerated, but certainly not exaggerated are the facts of the increasingly inhumane conditions that Syrian and Palestinian refugees face in Lebanon—a country in which they are denied some of the most basic, elementary rights by the government, and where they also run the risk of harmful brushes with various militias and hooligans.

A man walks in a burnt makeshift Syrian refugee camp after it was attacked by residents of the neighboring eastern Lebanese village of Qsarnaba near Zahle in the Bekaa valley on December 2, 2013. (Photo: AFP / STR)

Discussions I have had—with staff at the central Immigration office in Damascus as well as Syrian human rights associations and Syria-based Arab journalists who have researched and written about this subject—reveal not only a bleak picture of the humanitarian situation, but also a growing level of disgust in Syria over what is happening to their countrymen in Lebanon. Cases of Lebanese discrimination and harassment targeting Syrian refugees, including violations of international customary law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, have become commonplace. In addition, Syrians increasingly are falling prey to violence. Human Rights Watch said it had documented a string of attacks by Lebanese residents against Syrian refugees in August and September. Those interviewed described being stabbed, shot and beaten, and several claimed that they were either too afraid to report the crimes, or that they had and their stories had been dismissed by security forces when they did. HRW said that attacks it documented were most often carried out by private citizens, but in several cases they appeared to have “the tacit support” of authorities, and the international organization has urged security forces and local authorities to step up protection of Syrian refugees.

“Lebanon’s security forces should protect everyone on Lebanese soil, not turn a blind eye to vigilante groups who are terrorizing refugees,” said HRW Deputy Middle East Director Nadim Houry.

One especially taxing problem is the financial cost exacted by Lebanon for Syrian refugees to register a baby. In Syria, anyone from Lebanon, or from any country for that matter, can register a newborn for the equivalent of 1,000 Lebanese lire (around 66 US cents). The process takes around fifteen minutes. But not so in Lebanon. According to a report by the Taanayel General Hospital in central Bekaa, the number of new babies born to Syrian refugees, since March 2011 when the crisis began, has exceeded 15,000, just in the Bekaa Valley alone. In North Lebanon, the UNHCR estimates more than 5,000 births, and the Syrian Embassy in Beirut says there are now approximately 6,000 births per year among displaced Syrians in Lebanon. But for many of these parents, the registration process is nearly impossible.

First they must obtain a certificate from the hospital or midwife indicating the date of birth—generally not a big problem, but then the baby must be registered at the office of the local Muktar. That is if they can prove legal residence, and if the local Muktar is willing to help, which is not always the case. Sometimes he wants a fee, and in some reported cases a bribe, in order to forward the paperwork to the Directorate of Personal Status. If the parents are lucky, their application might then be sent to the Exterior Ministry for another approval, and finally may reach the Syrian Embassy to complete the process of registering the newborn. But the process can be delayed or scuttled along the tortuous procedural path for any number of reasons, including escalating anti-Syrian sentiment in government offices and among certain confessions and political parties. According to one Syrian refugee, the minimal fees charged by Lebanon, plus the traveling back and forth to different offices and locations so as to follow up on the procedures, can cost close to $500, with no success guaranteed. The amount is a fortune for most refugees, but an even greater concern for Syrian parents is having no nationality for their children. Says Joelle Eid, of the UNHCR press office, the offspring risk being added to “the stateless Kurds of Syria, since 1960, whose number of births in Lebanon is currently around 840 children.”

One chilling reason that the Kafkaesque procedures violate basic humanitarian principles is that they are forcing Syrian refugees to smuggle their babies into Syria in bags, since of course the infants would not be allowed to cross the border from Lebanon without full documentation. It is estimated that over the past 24 months more than 50 Syrian newborns, passing through Masnaa, have died from suffocation or drug overdose while being hidden from immigration officials. Parents usually are not sure how much of what drug to give their babies in order to keep them quiet and sleeping as they sneak them through the border, and too many are not waking up—all so that the parents can make it back over the border, back into their perilous, war-torn homeland, so that they may register their children’s births—in Syria, since it’s practically impossible to do so in Lebanon.

It is but one of the current abuses that are causing outrage in Syria and among advocates of human rights everywhere but it is not the only one. Both the UNHCR and HRW are accusing the Lebanese Army of committing “serious” violations against refugees, including in Ersal, where more than 200 Syrian refugees, including minors, were arrested without charge. The arrests took place September 19-24. Other reports accuse the Army of evicting, without any pretense of due process, a large number of refugees living in private homes. Then on September 25, the retaliatory measures reached a peak with a crackdown in the area of Ras al-Jafar, affecting nine informal communities with a total population of around 5000. One report states that during the raids, tents were burned in one of the random communities, completely destroying 96 tents. The raids were coupled with a large campaign of arrests targeting especially males. Some 300-500 people were detained, and while most, though not all, have been released, reports have emerged of physical and verbal assault, intimidation, and humiliation—claims that are corroborated by UNHCR photographs, including of shackled Syrian refugees laying on the ground exposed to the elements.

An Army spokesperson has dismissed as “lies” another allegation about the torching of tents in Ersal last week, yet random raids are becoming commonplace at scores of these “informal tent settlements,” as UNHCR refers to the fetid, sewage-soaked camps—camps which soon will be covered in snow and ice. Often in these camps more than 20 people will live in a tent that is intended for one family. Most of the tents are covered with nothing more than nylon, and more than 50,000 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley are now living in these kinds of settlements—that’s 50,000 out of a registered total 275,000 in the area.

In addition to these calamities, more than 45 municipalities have imposed curfews on Syrian nationals, a move widely seen as a racist practice and one also in violation of international humanitarian law and the 1951 Convention. HRW comments that the curfews “contribute to a climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices against” the refugees. Curfew violators are reportedly given a warning or, in some cases, are “taken to the municipality for questioning” where they may be detained for hours.

The reports have fueled anger among lawyers in Damascus, at the Lawyers Syndicate across from the Cham Palace Hotel, where seminars have discussed the legal problems facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In addition, the Faculty of Law at Damascus University is considering setting up a legal defense team to help Syrians in Lebanon challenge arbitrary and discriminatory applications of Lebanese laws.

“Syria helped them (the Lebanese) many times during their 15-year civil war and during the 2006 July war!” commented a teacher at a government primary school visited by this observer last week. “We gave them everything they needed. Our government buildings, social services, free medical care, free education, schools, hygienic conditions, peace and quiet, food and sometimes cash stipends. What about us? Is this the Lebanese way of saying ‘thanks’ to the people of Syria?”

She then exclaimed, “Someone must stop these attacks on our families.”

A savvy graduate student in Damascus by the name of “Ahmad” commented to this observer and to his Palestinian friend from Yarmouk camp, who having lost her own home due to shelling, now volunteers helping Syrian refugees forced to live in some of the parks in Damascus, that ISIS (Da’ish) and al-Nusra will almost assuredly be cognizant of these problems, and poised to capitalize on them, as they prepare to extend their caliphate into Lebanon—and he probably has a point.

Among the many reasons Lebanon should immediately desist in the targeting of Syrian and Palestinian refugees is that they are pushing many toward supporting those that the Lebanese government claims to be opposing.


River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Blog!

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