Archive for October, 2015

October 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Tuesday banned a protest rally and march by trade union and civic society activists who lost friends and colleagues in Turkey’s bloodiest terror attack, but hundreds of people defiantly gathered for the protest.

The two suicide bombings on Saturday came amid political uncertainty in the country — just weeks before Turkey’s Nov. 1 election which is in effect a re-run of an inconclusive June election. The bombings raised fears that the NATO country, a candidate for European Union membership, may be heading toward a period of instability.

The blasts have further polarized Turkey as it grapples with more than 2 million refugees and tries to avoid being drawn into the chaos in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Dogan news agency video footage on Tuesday showed police pushing back a group of demonstrators trying to reach the rally to commemorate the 97 victims of the two blasts.

Plain-clothed police pushed at least two demonstrators to the ground and detained them. “Our brothers were killed! What are you doing?” a woman demonstrator was heard shouting. The Istanbul governor banned the protest citing “sensitivities at this time” and because the routes demonstrators planned to march along were heavily used by the public.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the Islamic State group was the main focus of the investigation. Authorities said Saturday’s attacks bore similarities with a suicide bombing that killed 33 activists at a town near the border with Syria in July. No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s explosions that also wounded hundreds.

The bombers likely infiltrated Turkey from a neighboring country, according to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus. He said several arrests were made in connection to the attacks but did not elaborate.

As with previous terror probes, authorities imposed “partial secrecy” on the investigation which even restricts defense lawyers’ access to information. The government has also banned the publication of images of the aftermath of the attack.

In Ankara, some 200 students held a brief sit-in at Ankara University’s faculty of political science to commemorate the victims. The youngest was 9-year-old Veysel Atilgan, who died in an explosion outside Ankara’s main train station, along with his father. He was buried on Monday following an emotional ceremony at his school.

The city is on edge following the blasts and on Tuesday, police detonated a suspicious bag found near the station’s VIP lounge, hours after Davutoglu visited the site to lay carnations in respect to the victims. The bag, however, contained food.

October 11, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Nearly simultaneous explosions targeted a Turkish peace rally Saturday in Ankara, killing at least 95 people and wounding hundreds in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years — one that threatens to inflame the nation’s ethnic tensions.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were “strong signs” that the two explosions — which struck 50 meters (yards) apart just after 10 a.m. — were suicide bombings. He suggested that Kurdish rebels or Islamic State group militants were to blame.

The two explosions occurred seconds apart outside the capital’s main train station as hundreds of opposition supporters and Kurdish activists gathered for the peace rally organized by Turkey’s public workers’ union and other groups. The protesters planned to call for increased democracy in Turkey and an end to the renewed violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.

The attacks Saturday came at a tense time for Turkey, a NATO member that borders war-torn Syria, hosts more refugees than any other nation in the world and has seen renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels that has left hundreds dead in the last few months.

Many people at the rally had been anticipating that the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, would declare a temporary cease-fire — which it did hours after the bombing — to ensure that Turkey’s Nov. 1 election would be held in a safe environment.

Television footage from Turkey’s Dogan news agency showed a line of protesters Saturday near Ankara’s train station, chanting and performing a traditional dance with their hands locked when a large explosion went off behind them. An Associated Press photographer saw several bodies covered with bloodied flags and banners that demonstrators had brought for the rally.

“There was a massacre in the middle of Ankara,” said Lami Ozgen, head of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions, or KESK. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the attacks were carried out with TNT explosives fortified with metal ball-bearings.

Turkey’s government late Saturday raised the death toll in the twin bomb blasts to 95 people killed, 248 wounded. It said 48 of the wounded were in serious condition. Selcuk Atalay of the Turkish Medical Association’s Ankara branch put the death toll at at least 97 and feared the toll could rise even higher, since several of the wounded were in serious condition with burns.

“This massacre targeting a pro-Kurdish but mostly Turkish crowd could flame ethnic tensions in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute. Cagaptay said the attack could be the work of groups “hoping to induce the PKK, or its more radical youth elements, to continue fighting Turkey,” adding that the Islamic State group would benefit most from the full-blown Turkey-PKK conflict.

“(That) development could make ISIS a secondary concern in the eyes of many Turks to the PKK,” Cagaptay said in emailed comments, using another acronym for IS militants. Small anti-government protests broke out at the scene of the explosions and outside Ankara hospitals as Interior Minister Selami Altinok visited the wounded. Some demonstrators chanted “Murderer Erdogan!” — referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many accuse of increasing tensions with Kurds to profit at the ballot box in November. Erdogan denies the accusations.

Later Saturday, thousands gathered near Istanbul’s main square denouncing the attacks and also holding the government responsible. The Turkish government imposed a temporary news blackout covering images that showed the moment of the blasts, gruesome or bloody pictures or “images that create a feeling of panic.” A spokesman warned media organizations they could face a “full blackout” if they did not comply.

Many people reported being unable to access Twitter and other social media websites for several hours after the blasts. It was not clear if authorities had blocked access to the websites, but Turkey often does impose blackouts following attacks.

At a news conference, Davutoglu declared a three-day official mourning period for the blast victims and said Turkey had been warned about groups aiming to destabilize the country. “For some time, we have been receiving intelligence information based from some (Kurdish rebel) and Daesh statements that certain suicide attackers would be sent to Turkey… and that through these attackers chaos would be created in Turkey,” Davutoglu told reporters, using the IS group’s Arabic acronym.

“The (Kurdish rebels) or Daesh could emerge (as culprits) of today’s terror event,” Davutoglu said, promising that those behind the attacks would be caught and punished. Davutoglu said authorities had detained at least two suspected would-be suicide bombers in the past three days in Ankara and Istanbul.

Authorities had been on alert after Turkey agreed to take a more active role in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State group. Turkey opened up its bases to U.S. aircraft to launch air raids on the extremist group in Syria and carried out a limited number of strikes on the group itself. Russia has also entered the fray on behalf of the Syrian government recently, bombing sites in Syria and reportedly violating Turkish airspace a few times in the past week.

On a separate front, the fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels flared anew in July, killing at least 150 police and soldiers and hundreds of PKK rebels since then. Turkish jets have also carried out numerous deadly airstrikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

Erdogan condemned Saturday’s attacks, which he said targeted the country’s unity, called for solidarity and canceled a planned visit Monday to Turkmenistan. “The greatest and most meaningful response to this attack is the solidarity and determination we will show against it,” Erdogan said.

President Barack Obama offered condolences to Erdogan in a phone call Saturday. The White House said in a statement that Obama affirmed that the U.S. will stand with Turkey in the fight against terrorism.

Critics have accused Erdogan of re-igniting the fighting with the Kurds to seek electoral gains — hoping that the turmoil would rally voters back to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Electoral gains by the country’s pro-Kurdish party caused the AKP, founded by Erdogan, to lose its parliamentary majority in a June election after a decade of single-party rule.

The attacks Saturday, which even surpassed twin al-Qaida-linked attacks in Istanbul in 2003 that killed some 60 people, also drew widespread condemnation from Turkey’s allies. Turkey’s state-run news agency said President Barack Obama called Erdogan to extend his condolences. The Anadolu Agency, citing unnamed officials, said Obama told Erdogan the United States would continue to side with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. It quoted Obama as saying the U.S. “shared Turkey’s grief.”

Erdogan earlier said the twin bombings aimed to destroy Turkey’s “peace and stability.” Anadolu said the two leaders agreed to talk more in the coming days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her condolences, calling the attacks “particularly cowardly acts that were aimed directly at civil rights, democracy and peace.”

“It is an attempt at intimidation and an attempt to spread fear,” she said. “I am convinced that the Turkish government and all of Turkish society stands together at this time with a response of unity and democracy.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “there can be no justification for such a horrendous attack on people marching for peace… All NATO allies stand united in the fight against the scourge of terrorism.”

Saturday was the third attack against meetings of Kurdish activists. In July, a suicide bombing blamed on the Islamic State group killed 33 peace activists, including many Kurds, in the town of Suruc near Turkey’s border with Syria. Two people were killed in June in a bomb attack at the pro-Kurdish party’s election rally.

“This attack (Saturday) resembles and is a continuation of the Diyarbakir and Suruc (attacks),” said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party. He held Erdogan and Davutoglu’s government responsible for the latest attack, saying it was “carried out by the state against the people.”

In the aftermath of the Ankara attack, the PKK declared a temporary cease-fire. A rebel statement said Saturday the group is halting hostilities to allow the Nov. 1 election to proceed safely. It said it would not launch attacks but would defend itself.

The government has said there would be no letup in its fight against the Kurdish rebels. “Our operations (against the PKK) will continue until they lay down arms,” Davutoglu said late Friday. __ Burhan Ozbilici in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.


October 11, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has appointed a team of investigators to look into the circumstances leading to the Taliban’s brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz as well as a U.S. airstrike that destroyed a hospital and killed at least 22 people there, his office said Saturday.

The five-man delegation appointed by presidential decree will leave soon for Kunduz to conduct a province-wide probe into how the insurgents were able to overrun the city on Sept. 28 and hold it for three days before government troops launched a counter offensive, Ghani’s office said.

Part of the team’s mandate would include looking into the Oct. 3 airstrike on a trauma center run by the international charity Doctors Without Borders. The team would be led by the former head of the national intelligence agency, Amrullah Saleh, and would report to the president.

The “fact-finding team” will deliver a “comprehensive report so that we know what happened in Kunduz, what kind of reforms should be brought and what are the lessons learned for the future,” the president was quoted as saying.

Ten days after government troops entered Kunduz, they are still fighting to clear out pockets of Taliban insurgents, officials and residents said. Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said three areas of the city had been retaken overnight, though a gas station in Seh Darak was hit by a rocket and destroyed. Hussaini said he did not know which side was responsible.

Kunduz resident Abdullah said that people were still leaving the city for safety. He said he had seen grocers emptying their shops of food to take home, fearing scarcities. He would only give his first name because of security concerns.

The World Food Program said it was feeding thousands of people who had left Kunduz and were now living in camps in other cities in the north, and that “additional wheat is being milled in anticipation of increased needs in the coming days.”

Food and water were still not getting through in adequate quantities, and the city remained without electricity, residents said. “The whole city is empty of people,” Abdullah said. “Residents are still not feeling safe.”

Representatives of Doctors Without Borders met with Ghani and his national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar on Friday, his office said in a statement. Ghani told them he had ordered Afghan security forces to ensure the protection of humanitarian organizations. The statement quoted him as saying investigations were needed “so that we know what happened in the incident, how information was collected, and how the incident happened based on that information.”

Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent probe of the incident by the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission — which is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia. It was created after the Gulf War in 1991, and has never deployed a fact-finding mission.

Doctors Without Borders — a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones — is awaiting responses to letters sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, asking to mobilize the 15-member commission.

For the IHFFC to be mobilized, a single country would have to call for the fact-finding mission, and the U.S. and Afghanistan — which are not signatories — must also give their consent. The airstrike was requested by Afghan ground forces, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, but mistakenly hit the hospital.

The bombing continued for about an hour and destroyed the hospital’s main building. President Barack Obama apologized and the U.S. military is investigating. The hospital has been abandoned. Doctors Without Borders said that 12 staff members and 10 patients, all of them Afghans, were killed. Many more are still missing, though all foreign staff have been accounted for.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it would offer “condolence payments” to civilians injured in the airstrike and the families of those killed as well as provide funds for repairing the hospital. The compensation will be handled through the already existing Commanders’ Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan, and if necessary additional authority will be sought from Congress, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement issued Saturday.

“The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic icncident atht eh Doctors Without Borders hospital,” Cook said.

October 13, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents’ perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Amnesty said its findings were based on visits to 14 towns and villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa this summer, areas that are under Kurdish control. It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

The rights group said at least two villages were entirely demolished. In at least eight other villages, the residents were forced to leave, sometimes threatened with being shot or targeted in U.S. airstrikes. It said the victims were mainly Arab, but also included Turkmens and other Kurds.

Amnesty quoted Kurdish fighters as saying the displacement was carried out for security purposes. A Kurdish official in northern Syria told The Associated Press that forces may have committed minor violations against people suspected of ties to the IS group, but that such actions were not based on ethnicity. The official was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in the north since the start of the civil war in 2011. Kurdish fighters have been among the most successful ground forces battling the IS group. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, they defeated the IS group in the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this year and have since expanded their territory along the border with Turkey.

But Amnesty adviser Lama Fakih said the Kurds’ treatment of civilians amounted to collective punishment. “In its fight against IS, the (Kurdish administration) appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle.”

The London-based group called on Kurdish officials to end such abuses, compensate the families for their losses and hold those responsible accountable.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

October 10, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The leader of a Tunisian human rights group that was among the winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize said the honor has meaning not just for his country but for all those mired in war.

It’s also a ray of good news for a North African nation that has suffered two major terror attacks this year. Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he saw a message in giving the prize to the Tunisian coalition that laid the groundwork for the only democracy springing from the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

“It’s a message for neighboring countries where the civil is now permanent, in Libya for example where arms are used for years, and that doesn’t resolve problems,” he said. For many Tunisians, including Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the employers’ association UTICA, which was also honored, it’s also a message of confidence for the future of a country that is still troubled by poverty and violence.

Since two terror attacks this year that killed scores of tourists — one at the Bardo museum and another at a beach resort in Sousse — foreign tourism has plummeted and with it, hope for economic growth. Growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while unemployment is over 15 percent and inflation has been running around 6 percent.

“It says that Tunisia is a country where life is good. People can come and invest safely in Tunisia,” Bouchamaoui said. Hopes were high even among Tunisians not directly affected by the prize, in a country that had become increasingly despairing after this year’s deadly attacks.

“More than support and aid from abroad, this is an honor for Tunisians and should move them to give more in the service of the country to deal with the difficult situation it’s enduring,” said 25-year-old Monem Arfaoui.

October 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — France has signed deals worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) with Saudi Arabia, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday, underscoring the shared foreign policy stances that have helped deepen the two countries’ military and economic ties.

Valls, who announced the deals on his official Twitter account, is in Saudi Arabia with a large delegation of French business representatives and top officials, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the deal includes the start of negotiations to provide Saudi Arabia with its own communication and observation satellites — something the kingdom has been coveting as it expands its regional military reach and fights a war against Shiite rebels in Yemen.

The two sides also signed deals in Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Saudi public investment in French private funds with a focus on renewable energy and signed a letter of intent for cooperation in that sector. They also signed a cooperation agreement to establish a naval research center and to increase joint military training exercises.

The two countries agreed to hold another joint session in Paris next March. The visit to Saudi Arabia is part of a regional tour that included stops in Jordan and Egypt, where a $1.1 billion deal for two French Mistral amphibious assault ships was signed.

The French delegation, which arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in the capital, Riyadh.

A French official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says a military helicopter deal is also expected to be signed in Riyadh. In June, Saudi Arabia signed agreements worth billions of dollars to buy 23 helicopters for the Interior Ministry, 50 Airbus jets and two possible nuclear reactors from France.

The alliance between France and Saudi Arabia has grown stronger in recent years as ties between Washington and Riyadh cooled under President Barack Obama, particularly following his administration’s strong backing of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Though France was a part of the nuclear negotiations, its position has more strongly reflected Saudi concerns that the deal could bolster Iran’s influence in the region if economic sanctions are not lifted gradually. Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposite sides in the civil war in Syria.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference Tuesday with his French counterpart “there is no future” for President Bashar Assad in Syria, who is backed by Iran and Russia. Valls, meanwhile, also met Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding Company — which owns or manages several iconic landmarks in France, including The Four Seasons Hotel George V and the Le Royal Monceau Hotel.

The French delegation additionally took part in a business forum. According to Saudi media, France is the third largest investor in Saudi Arabia and has more than 80 companies operating in the kingdom, employing around 11,000 Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil and to create more jobs in the private sector for its growing young population. A slump in oil prices has gutted the kingdom’s most important source of revenue, forcing it to run a budget deficit and draw from its large foreign currency reserves.

John Sfakianakis, the Middle East director for British fund manager Ashmore Group, participated in the Saudi-French business forum and said it was more than just “empty words.” “It’s actually based on contracts that will materialize,” he said. “The Saudi-French business ties are very deep and old, and quite extensive and cover many sectors ranking from defense, security, health care, retail, food sector. It’s very important for Saudi’s diversification efforts.”

The visit to Saudi Arabia comes after Paris expanded its airstrikes against the Islamic State group by targeting IS militants in Syria last month for the first time. France had previously targeted IS militants in Iraq, where the group also holds territory. France and Saudi Arabia are both part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS.

The strong alliance between France and Saudi Arabia was highlighted in May when French President Francois Hollande met with the heads of state of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh for a meeting in his honor. And in November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh. The Lebanese military is widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by Iran.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

October 24, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Police in Kosovo say one officer and two protesters were injured in clashes in the capital early Saturday, a day after the opposition disrupted parliament with tear gas to protest against agreements with Serbia and Montenegro.

Police said 10 protesters were arrested as a few hundred opposition supporters threw petrol bombs and other objects outside the parliament building in Pristina. Local media said two protesters received treatment after being exposed to tear gas used by police.

The opposition Self-Determination Party condemned the police action. “It is very important that these criminals understand soonest that there is no (police) violence to stop the civic revolt,” it said in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers disrupted Friday’s session of parliament, opening tear gas canisters and hurling plastic water bottles at the speaker and Cabinet ministers. After failing twice to hold the parliament session, lawmakers of the two governing political parties moved to a different space in the building to meet — without their opponents.

Police said none of the lawmakers was injured or arrested. This was the third session in which the opposition smuggled in tear gas despite tight police checks of everyone entering the building, including diplomats.

“Tear gas and violence have no place in Assembly chamber; such actions jeopardize Kosovo’s future,” U.S. Ambassador Greg Delawie wrote on his Twitter feed. The opposition had demanded cancellation of Friday’s session unless the government renounced deals with Serbia to give more powers to Serb-dominated areas in Kosovo, and with Montenegro on border demarcation.

The government accuses the opposition of trying to come into power in an undemocratic way and insists it is set in applying the deals and continuing talks with Serbia. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a move not recognized by Serbia.

October 13, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Fifteen policemen and one civilian were injured during a violent protest by the opposition Self-Determination Party (Vetevendosje!) after an opposition lawmaker was taken in for questioning, Kosovo police said Tuesday.

Police spokesman Baki Kelani says opposition leader Albin Kurti was taken to a police station Monday evening to be questioned on the use of tear gas to disrupt the parliament session last week. The opposition had been protesting against the government’s recent EU-sponsored deal with Serbia giving the Kosovo’s Serb-majority areas greater powers.

Video images of the session showed Kurti opening the first canister of tear gas. “A small group” of protesters gathered in front of the police station where Kurti was being interviewed, hurling stones, other hard objects and putting two cars of the prosecutor’s office on fire, Kelani said, adding that half a dozen cars were also damaged.

“They did not respect police calls to disperse and police were obliged to intervene,” Kelani said by telephone, adding that Kurti was questioned based on a prosecutor’s warrant. Kurti’s Vetevendosje! said police did not explain why Kurti was being questioned, adding that hundreds of citizens and supporters faced with “exaggerated violence from police” using tear gas and also iron and plastic batons injuring many of them.

Kurti, a member of parliament, was released after midnight while nine protesters have been arrested, Kelani said Tuesday. The party called for more anti-government protests. “Pristina, Kosovo … will topple down this government of mafia and collaborationists too,” said a statement from the Vetevendosje! party.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Serbia has refused to recognize it.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

October 22, 2015

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — By any measure, Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman has been a success among the tens of thousands of Syrians who have streamed into Europe. He received asylum in Germany. He’s taking lessons in the language, is getting help from the state in finding a job and was able to bring wife and kids to join him.

But the 33-year-old surgeon is haunted by doubt over whether he made the right decision for his family in immigrating to such a different world. He’s also burdened by memories of his country’s civil war and the way in which his two young sons were branded by its horrors before they fled his home city of Aleppo in northern Syria more than a year ago.

“Everything around me, I feel, is temporary. Until now, I find it really hard to write my home address as anywhere other than Aleppo,” he said on a rainy afternoon in September in Saarlouis. In 2012, Osman was the senior doctor at a front-line hospital in a rebel-held district of Aleppo under siege by Syrian government forces. Round the clock, casualties flowed into the Dar al-Shifaa hospital, civilians and rebels, wounded or dying in the intense urban warfare and heavy bombardment by Syrian forces.

Looking constantly exhausted, Osman hardly ever took off his often blood-stained, green surgery scrubs as he and the overwhelmed staff tried to deal with the wounded. “I have to make a choice between a child with a 10 percent chance of survival and one with a 25 percent chance,” he told the AP at the time. When a wounded rebel died, often his comrades would burst into rage at the staff, convinced more could have been done.

Osman’s wife and two young sons were living in the hospital with him. His older boy, Omar, who was 4 at the time, would walk among the maimed or dying, passing the pools of blood on the floor and the occasional severed limb. He would play in the hospital hallways or make joke announcements on the hospital PA system.

Now looking back, Osman said he regrets bringing his family into the hospital. He’d wanted his wife and children near him, but he said he hadn’t realized until it was too late the trauma he had inflicted on his children. The boys now draw pictures of tanks, warplanes, wounded people and wrecked houses.

Omar still has nightmares. Osman recalled running errands in the streets of Aleppo with the boy, who, whenever a plane passed overhead, would ask his father if it was about to bomb them. Osman recalled another question Omar asked him once. “Papa, who created the world? The person who created it, can’t he see what’s happening to it?”

Dar al-Shifaa closed in November 2012 after a government airstrike hit a neighboring building, heavily damaging the hospital and killing four inside. Osman eventually worked at a clinic with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, trying to lay low as Islamic militants gained increasing power in the rebel-held districts of the city.

In August 2013, the militants arrested him, and he was questioned by an Egyptian militant who told him that MSF was headed by a “kafir,” an infidel. Later in detention, he heard the Egyptian talking to other militants, telling them they would eventually have to kill him — but not now, they had other priorities. So they let him go. He left MSF three months later.

Finally in early 2014, he fled with his family to Turkey. After months of looking for work, he decided to head for Europe. His wife had resisted the idea of coming to Germany. Still, she and their kids — Omar, now 7 years old, and Rushd, 5 — arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He shares her doubts about life in a different culture. “Many young Syrians abandon their identity soon after they arrive here,” he said, speaking as he was reunited with Mohammed al-Haj, a 26-year-old Syrian who had volunteered in the same Aleppo hospital. Al-Haj had just arrived after a 14-day journey from Turkey across Greece and the Balkans, sneaking across borders.

Now living in the state of Saarland, Osman has applied to two hospitals for jobs. He takes German lessons in the town of Saarlouis, not far from the town he lives in. With asylum, he gets a stipend of around 1,000 Euros ($1,100) a month.

“The situation in Germany is now good for Syrians,” he said. “But there are no guarantees it will continue to be the same. What if a terror attack happens and is blamed on Muslims? I must have a Plan B.”

Osman believes the danger of Islamic terror on German soil doesn’t necessarily stem from the possibility militants have slipped in with the refugees streaming into Europe. He said militant ideas are already here in Germany.

He recounted an incident in the nearby town of Merzig in July when a Syrian man harshly berated a 12-year-old Syrian boy for wearing shorts in the mosque, accusing him of disrespecting the place, leading to a fight with others trying to calm the man down.

Regardless of what may happen, Osman is filled with gratitude for Germany. “I have a debt to repay to Germany, the country that helped me when no one else did,” he said. The stipend, he said, he’ll pay back quickly through income tax once he starts working. “But I can never repay the moral debt I owe to Germany.”

October 16, 2015

HEIDENAU, Germany (AP) — For the Syrian refugee family, one reprieve from crushing boredom in the asylum center is short walks to a lake. But in a town teeming with neo-Nazis, the excursions can bring more distress than relief: A man recently stormed out of a coffee shop and screamed at two women of the Habashieh family to take off their hijabs “because we’re in Europe!” Another time, people inside a car yelled: “Auslaender raus!!” — Foreigners out!!

Fear and frustration, however, have been tempered by kindness. A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria’s civil war and are now living in a temporary facility in the eastern town of Heidenau after arriving in Germany last month, following a perilous journey from Damascus.

Julius Roennebeck helps the family — Khawla Kareem, 44; her 19-year-old daughter Reem; sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — with practical things such as getting warm blankets, juice and aspirin, and has bought them German-language books. More than anything, the family appreciates how Roennebeck, who plays French horn at Dresden’s famed Semper Opera house, has driven the family to outings in Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.

“Julius is just wonderful,” Reem says of the tall German musician. “He has been so kind to us.” For Roennebeck, the kindness doesn’t feel like a chore: “I just really like this family so much, they’re great people.”

The outings with Roennebeck are an oasis in a desert of misery that has left the family — except for little Raghad — depressed and listless. Most of the family gets up late in the morning, because they hardly sleep at night in the hall crammed with 700 other asylum seekers. Next to them is a new family with a little baby screaming for hours. Sometimes the young men get cabin fever so badly they start playing soccer inside the former home improvement center in the middle of the night. The officials turn off the light at 11 p.m., but the sounds of hundreds of people whispering in countless foreign languages echo through the building, creating a deafening buzz.

When it finally quiets down in the early morning hours, most of the family drifts into a deep slumber. But for Khawla Kareem, it’s time to get up. Facing Mecca, she kneels down for the dawn prayer, and spends her day agonizing about their situation. Sitting on her narrow cot in their little curtained-off space, she often regrets taking her children away from their familiar life in Damascus. Desperate to shield them from the war, Khawla Kareem handed the family savings to traffickers who took them across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, guided them on hidden trails across the Balkans, and eventually sped them in a minibus to Berlin.

Back home in Syria, Khawla Kareem, whose husband died three years ago, was the boss of the household. Now she feels powerless. “She had to make all the decisions herself, she worked as an elementary teacher, raised us kids, cleaned the house every day,” says Reem. It was a tough life, especially keeping the children safe from war — but here, Khawla Kareem’s inability to speak German makes her feel as if she’s lost control of her destiny.

She can’t send her kids to school, giving her a sense that they’re wasting their lives. It upsets her to watch Raghad spend her days running around with other refugee kids, while her boys play cards with Syrian men all night long. The bathrooms are so dirty, she doesn’t even want to use them.

It’s the limbo that’s the hardest on the mother. After two weeks in Berlin and a month in Heidenau, the Habashiehs still haven’t been able to file their asylum application. On Tuesday, Khawla Kareem checked the center’s blackboard for their names in vain. Again, the family had not been called up for any of the procedures, not even the initial health check. The examination, which includes an X-ray for tuberculosis and checks for itching and lice, is also a precondition to collecting weekly pocket money of about 30 euros per person.

The reason for the months-long delay in processing the asylum applications is the huge crush of people seeking refugee status. In September alone, some 164,000 people were pre-registered as asylum seekers; for all of 2015 the German government is expecting about a million newcomers. Despite the cold autumn weather, thousands are still trekking across the Balkans and entering Germany via the Austrian border.

German authorities are hiring additional staff to speed up the procedures. Still there’s a backlog. Some experts estimate it may take up to a year for Syrian refugees to receive asylum status. Syrians will most certainly be allowed to stay in Germany — in contrast to many applicants from countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albania, which the government considers safe. But there’s not much they can do while awaiting a decision. They’re not allowed to work for their first three months in Germany, and they are not allowed to leave the county they are placed in until they are granted asylum. Often schools are too far away for children to attend on a regular basis.

Reem has been shouldering much of the responsibility for the family since arriving in Germany. She keeps up a brave face, knocking on officials’ doors every other week to make sure the family’s papers didn’t get lost, and talking to medical staff if one of them falls ill.

The pretty young woman with big hazel eyes rarely allows herself a weak moment, but she, too, is sinking under the strain. “Since last week, I’m not my active self anymore,” she admits. “I even couldn’t make myself get out of bed in the morning.”

Only little Raghad stays in high spirits. She gives her mom hugs and kisses when she cries, and spends hours roller-blading in front of the shelter. She seems to be mastering German better than the rest of the family.

And she has made lots of new friends, especially among security staff. “There are Kevin and Frank, and there’s a female guard with blue eyes and another one who recently dyed her hair pink, but now it’s black again — they all are my friends,” she chatters away, waving to a grim-looking guard. He breaks into a smile.

“I’ve made two more friends, a Kurdish girl and another Syrian, and we ride bicycles or play hopscotch,” Raghad says, pulling a big gray hat with silver sparkles down her head, shivering on a gray October day. “But really, I miss studying and school more than anything.”

Suddenly, she runs over to her guard friends to show off the new German words she has learned: “Es ist sehr kalt in Deutschland!” It’s very cold in Germany.