War horses: Syria’s Arabian beauties plod way to recovery

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Syrian equestrians ride their horses at a track in the town of Dimas, west of the capital Damascus on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
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Syrian mare Karen (L), which hails from the Hadbaa Enzahe strain of Arabian purebreds, stands at a stable in the town of Dimas, west of the capital Damascus on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
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Syrian mare Karen (C), which hails from the Hadbaa Enzahe strain of Arabian purebreds, stands at a stable in the town of Dimas, west of the capital Damascus on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
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A man checks Syrian mare Karen, which hails from the Hadbaa Enzahe strain of Arabian purebreds, at a stable in the town of Dimas, west of the capital Damascus on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
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Syrian mare Karen (R), which hails from the Hadbaa Enzahe strain of Arabian purebreds, stands at a stable in the town of Dimas, west of the capital Damascus on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2019

War horses: Syria’s Arabian beauties plod way to recovery

  • After almost eight years of war, Karen is one of dozens of Arabian horses from all over Syria recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of the fighting

DAMASCUS: A shadow of her former self after years of war, 11-year-old Arabian mare Karen stands quietly as a Syrian vet gently pushes a syringe into her pale grey neck.
“Karen used to be the beauty queen of all horses,” says the vet, Ahmad Sharida.
But inside her stable near Damascus today, her hips jut out viciously from her overgrown speckled coat.
Weak and withdrawn, Karen is unable to even whinny.
After almost eight years of war, she is one of dozens of Arabian horses from all over Syria recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of the fighting.
Prized for their beauty, endurance and speed, Arabian purebreds are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world.
In Syria, Bedouins have bred them in the north of the country for centuries, seeking to maintain the purity of the local bloodlines.
Before the conflict, Sharida had proudly watched Karen grow from a long-legged foal into a graceful equine beauty.
“I know her very well. I was the one who brought her out of her mother’s belly,” says the vet, a stethoscope hanging around his neck.
But he lost sight of Karen after she was stolen from her stable in Eastern Ghouta in 2012, the same year rebels overran the region northeast of Damascus.
The area suffered five years of regime bombardment, as well as food and medicine shortages under a crippling siege, before Russia-backed government forces took it back last year.
Sharida had long fled his home region but returned to search for missing Arabian horses and immediately recognized Karen when he found her in October.
“I was so shocked,” says the 51-year-old vet.
“She was all skin and bones, and could barely stand up.”
Like all other horses he found, she was frail and sick after years of being surrounded by fighting, not enough food, and no medical attention.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
And it has taken a toll on the country’s equine population too.
“Horses have greatly suffered, just like us all,” says Mohammed Ghaith Al-Shaib, head of the state’s Arabian Horse Office.
“They’ve also been displaced, kidnapped and killed.”
Of the 8,500 horses that Syria registered with the World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO) in 2011, it has lost 3,000 in the war, he says.
But the conflict in Syria has turned around in recent years, and after a series of victories against rebels and jihadists, President Bashar Assad’s regime is now in control of almost two-thirds of the country.
Having returned to one region after another, the Damascus authorities are now trying to protect the country’s Arabian purebreds.
Since 2014, WAHO has recognized 2,400 new Syrian foals as Arabian, after samples from their manes were sent off for DNA testing in Germany, Shaib says.
Horses rescued from retaken areas are being looked after at a state-run stables west of the capital, Damascus.
At the stables in Dimas, staff are paying special attention to Karen’s recovery.
She hails from the Hadbaa strain of Arabian purebreds, so called after their long eyelashes and mane.
But after years of war, she is the only known female survivor of a rare Syrian branch of that family.
“The Hadbaa Enzahi Fawaeira were already at risk of dying out before the war,” says Shaib.
But “today, it’s only Karen.”
Arabian mares are often seen as more precious than their male counterparts, as they carry the bloodline from one generation to the next.
Once Karen has regained her health, her carers hope to artificially inseminate her so that she can give birth to a daughter.
To maintain her bloodline, a Syrian purebred should father that female foal — but he does not need to come from the same strain.
Karen is just one of many Arabian horses all over Syria recovering from conflict.
In the adjacent hippodrome, trainer Jihad Ghazal watches a student trot around the red-earth arena on a horse with a shiny brown coat.
Nejm — “star” in Arabic — spent the war in Damascus, a city which has remained relatively sheltered from the conflict.
But the mare was one of the luckier ones, says Ghazal, who is full of anecdotes about the suffering of her kind.
“Horses are very sensitive, and the sounds they hear greatly affect them,” says the 40 year-old, wearing jeans and trainers.
During the war, an alleged Israeli strike hit Dimas, traumatising pregnant mares, for example.
“For a year afterwards, foals were born paralyzed or dead because their mother had been so terrified,” he says.
In 2016, a horse was so shocked by a blast that, within hours, he had killed himself.
“He banged his head against metal until he died.”


Human Rights Watch denounces Iran’s ‘abusive charges against rights defenders’

Updated 24 October 2020

Human Rights Watch denounces Iran’s ‘abusive charges against rights defenders’

  • Two women already serving long jail terms face additional charges after revealing abuses in jail
  • A student activist who was given a virginity test by her interrogator faces further charges for speaking up

LONDON: Human Rights Watch (HRW) have condemned Tehran’s decision to level additional charges against two detained human rights defenders who alleged mistreatment while in detention.  

Earlier this month, Iran’s judicial authorities charged Niloufar Bayani, an environmental conservationist lawyer already serving a 10-year sentence, with an additional crime of “publishing false information.”

In a separate case, imprisoned student activist Parisa Rafiee was charged with “propaganda against the state” after releasing a letter about her detention conditions.

“Punishing people reporting mistreatment in Iranian detention facilities shows a warped sense of justice,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary’s recent rhetoric on ‘transparency’ rings especially hollow if prosecutors silence alleged torture victims rather than impartially investigating their claims.” 

Bayani, a former UN employee, made headlines in February after she released a letter detailing her mistreatment at the hands of prison authorities. She spoke of “1,200 hours of interrogations,” “long hours of interrogation while standing,” being threatened “with a hallucinogenic injection” and “sexual insults” at the hands of the state.

She and several of her colleagues from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an environmental conservation group, were charged with “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.”

Seven of them were sentenced to jail time of between six and ten years each for “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” One member of the group has since died in custody. 

HRW said that over the past two years, several senior Iranian government officials have indicated that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. 

Similarly, Parisa Rafiee, a student activist at the University of Tehran, was already serving a sentence of seven years behind bars on charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing public order” — charges that her lawyer claims she faced for activities such as participating in peaceful protests on campus.

In a letter published in May 2019, Rafiee wrote that she had been kept in solitary confinement for 21 days, had been given a virginity test by her interrogator, and said she had not been allowed to file a complaint about her degrading treatment.

In response to the letter, the judiciary opened a new case against the student, charging her with propaganda against the state.

Despite their track record as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, Iran’s judiciary recently published documents that emphasize human rights issues such as the prohibition of torture and arbitrary arrests and the right to access a lawyer. 

Sepehri Far said: “If the judiciary actually wants to curb ongoing abuse, it can start by quashing abusive charges against human rights defenders who are already unfairly behind bars, investigate their torture allegations, and hold those responsible to account.”