Earthquake havoc compounds misfortune of Syrians left destitute by war

An Emirati search and rescue team searches through rubble in northwest Syria. (AFP)
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Updated 16 February 2023
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Earthquake havoc compounds misfortune of Syrians left destitute by war

  • Among the people most affected are 3 million internally displaced persons in the region bordering Turkiye
  • Political complications over sending aid to the northwest have adversely affected the humanitarian response

QAMISHLI, SYRIA: More than a week after twin earthquakes devastated parts of southeastern Turkiye and northwestern Syria, the death toll continues to rise by the hour. As of Tuesday, the total reported dead in the two countries stood at over 41,000, with tens of thousands more people injured.

Although the number of confirmed fatalities is lower in Syria — about 5,814 compared with 35,418 in Turkiye — more than a decade of civil war has left the country wholly unprepared to cope with a disaster of this magnitude.

An already dire situation in the northwest of the country, where a hodgepodge of rival regimes, opposition groups and terrorist factions have long battled for control, has escalated into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.

The Washington-based Middle East Institute estimates that up to 60 percent of the region’s infrastructure had already been damaged or destroyed prior to the February 6 earthquake, with medical facilities in particular devastated.

“Before the earthquake, most people were suffering from the humanitarian situation as a result of the destruction of most of the buildings and infrastructure due to the bombing of the Assad regime and its ally Russia, especially in the medical sector, and the lack of logistics and medicine,” Bashar Al-Fares, a journalist in northwestern Syria, told Arab News.

“Today, after the earthquakes that hit the northwestern regions of Syria, the situation has escalated. As a result of the destruction that occurred in the region, which was a shelter for refugees and forcibly displaced families from various Syrian governorates, thousands of people lost their lives in the earthquakes and many more were injured.




Saudi Arabia sent search and rescue teams to Syria and Turkiye. (SPA)

“This was compounded by the severe shortage of medical staff, medicines, and rescue equipment.”

Having been driven from their homes elsewhere in the country to escape bombardment, conscription, fighting and persecution, about 3 million people in the region of Syria bordering Turkiye are categorized as internally displaced.

Freezing winter temperatures, including heavy snowfall prior to the earthquakes, combined with an unprecedented cholera outbreak and the ongoing conflict in the country have left Syrians facing a litany of overlapping misfortunes with little outside assistance.

The cholera outbreak, which began in August, has so far affected more than 77,000 people across the country, almost 38,000 of them in Idlib and Aleppo governorates — the regions hardest hit by the earthquakes.

Adding to people’s misery, Syria’s currency collapsed late last year. The black-market exchange rate against the US dollar had already risen from 500 Syrian pounds in 2018 to 3,300 in 2021. By the end of last year, it had soared to more than 6,600.

The value of the pound has continued to plummet since the earthquakes, with the exchange rate reaching more than 7,400 pounds this week, further reducing the average family’s purchasing power.

Although the annual death toll in the country last year was the lowest since the start of the conflict more than a decade ago, the fighting continued between various factions in the regions destined to be devastated by the earthquakes.

As recently as Feb. 3, regime forces bombarded the outskirts of Al-Bara in rural Idlib with heavy artillery. Just two days before the earthquakes, clashes between Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a network of hardline Islamist groups, and regime forces in Latakia left dozens dead.

Afrin, one of the areas hit hardest by the disaster, has been in a state of chaos since Turkish forces and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army invaded the region in 2018, capturing it from the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Up until then, Afrin had been considered a relatively peaceful region throughout most of the conflict, and so hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from other regions had settled there.

The violent upheaval in 2018 displaced the predominantly Kurdish population, with 300,000 fleeing to other parts of Syria and abroad, according to a 2018 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

With their homes now destroyed by the earthquakes, the remaining Kurdish population might be forced to follow those who left and risk the perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.

INNUMBERS

• 9m+ people affected by earthquakes in Hama, Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo and Tartus.

• 5,814 confirmed fatalities in Syria as of Tuesday.

• 90% of Syrians living below the poverty line.

According to the International Organization for Migration, almost 250 migrants were killed while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe last year. From 2021 to 2022, the number of Syrians attempting the risky sea crossing from Africa to Europe increased six-fold, according to EU border agency Frontex.

For those with no choice but to remain in Syria, the effects of the earthquakes and their aftermath simply add to their misery.

“The situation in Syria is terrible in every way,” Sardar Mullah Darwish, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and analyst, told Arab News. “These earthquakes are just the latest disaster of many. Many civilians will die and no one can help them.

“It’s very difficult to help them. Everyone should have come together and put their conflicts aside but, unfortunately, this hasn’t happened.”

Darwish said more than a decade of civil war essentially has divided Syria into three different countries: The areas controlled by the regime, the opposition and the AANES.

The destruction caused by the earthquakes encompasses areas within and beyond regime control, including Jinderis in Afrin, which is controlled by the opposition, and Aleppo and coastal cities controlled by Damascus.

“Now a major issue is that because Syria is divided politically, the regime only wants to bring aid for itself and the opposition only wants to bring aid for itself,” said Darwish.




“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned,” said Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, emergency relief coordinator. (Supplied)

Political agendas surrounding the provision of aid to the Syrian people have further complicated the humanitarian response in an already vulnerable area.

The Bab Al-Hawa border crossing near Idlib on the border between Syria and Turkiye is the only approved crossing for the delivery of UN aid via Turkiye direct to people in Syria. The crossing was closed for three days as a result of damage it sustained during the earthquakes.

As a result, it was not until Thursday, Feb. 9, that six trucks from the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, carrying shelter and non-food items, arrived in northwestern Syria.

On Monday, a week after the earthquakes struck, Syrian President Bashar Assad told the UN he would reopen two other crossing points, Bab Al-Salam and Al-Raee, for an initial period of three months to allow timely delivery of aid to the affected areas.

Largely isolated from the wider country, northwestern Syria was forced to fend almost entirely for itself in the days immediately following the disaster.

“All cities in Idlib governorate and the northern countryside of Aleppo have Civil Defense centers (the staff of which are better known internationally as the White Helmets) and they are always prepared for anything to happen,” said Darwish.

“However, the lack of heavy rescue equipment for all rescue teams was one of the biggest problems because what happened in northwestern Syria was a catastrophe that no country could handle.




The civil war, cholera outbreak and collapsing economy have forced thousands of Syrian refugees into neighboring Turkiye. (AFP)

“Until now, the Civil Defense and rescue teams are still continuing their work in searching for the victims and pulling them out from under the rubble.”

The broader aid response has been chaotic. Although the Assad government pledged to provide aid for all areas affected by the earthquake, including those it does not control, Al-Fares said that, to his knowledge, no regime-supplied deliveries had arrived in Idlib so far.

Hundreds of trucks carrying food, fuel, water and other essential supplies from the AANES were stuck in Manbij for several days. For political reasons, neither the opposition nor the regime was giving permission for the trucks to enter the city’s earthquake-stricken areas.

Asked whether the devastation could result in many more Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, or beyond, Al-Fares said: “There are no clear and safe crossings for them if they intend to migrate to other, more stable countries.”

In other words, there is simply nowhere left for Syrians left destitute by one crisis after another to go.


Two Hezbollah members killed in Israeli strike on Syria

Updated 51 min 27 sec ago
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Two Hezbollah members killed in Israeli strike on Syria

DAMASCUS: An Israeli strike on a truck in Syria near the Lebanese border killed two Hezbollah members at dawn on Sunday, a war monitor said.
“Israel struck a civilian truck with a missile near the Syrian-Lebanese border,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a report.
The strike led to “the death of at least two Hezbollah members,” said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria.
Hezbollah later announced in separate statements that two of its fighters were “martyred on the road to Jerusalem,” the phrase it uses to refer to members killed by Israeli fire.
A source close to Hezbollah confirmed that both were killed this morning in Syria.
Syrian state media did not report the strike.

Syrian armed forces shot down seven drones aimed at military positions and villages in the countryside of Hama and Idlib, Syrian state media said on Sunday, citing the defense ministry.
The ministry said the drones had been launched by “terrorists,” state media reported.
Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011 following an uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad, Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes in Syria, primarily against pro-Iran forces, among them Hezbollah and the Syrian army.
The strikes have multiplied amidst the ongoing war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
An Israeli strike on a Damascus residential neighborhood on Wednesday killed three Iran-backed fighters, a Syrian and two foreigners, according to the Observatory.
On February 10, the Observatory reported an Israeli strike on a building west of Damascus that killed three people from pro-Iran militias.
Since the start of the war in Gaza on October 7, Hezbollah has announced the death of 16 members killed by Israeli strikes in Syria.
The Israeli military announced on February 3 that it had “attacked, from the ground and air, more than 50 such targets of Hezbollah spread throughout Syria.”
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to expand its presence in Syria.

 


Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life

Updated 25 February 2024
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Lebanese doctor saves Japanese boy’s life

  • The boy was quadriplegic, or paralyzed below the neck, when he visited the Okayama University Hospital

DUBAI: Lebanese doctor Abd El Kader Al-Askar, a consultant in orthopedic and spine surgery, successfully treated a 15-year-old Japanese boy who suffered from a rare condition known as basilar invagination.

The boy was quadriplegic, or paralyzed below the neck, when he visited the Okayama University Hospital.

Doctors concluded that he had dislocated the second cervical vertebra, known as C2, which plays an important role in rotating the head. The C2 was displaced toward the opening of the spinal cord and the bottom area of the brain in a condition known as basilar invagination.

Basilar invagination can be present at birth or develop as a result of injury. If not treated, it can lead to death or serious complications, such as hydrocephalus.

In collaboration with the integrated medical team, Al-Askar performed an emergency surgery that lasted over four hours and involved an innovative technique that repositioned the bottom of the skull and the spinal cord.

The boy fully recovered and regained the use of all four of his limbs following the surgery.

Al-Askar is currently in Japan for a medical mission in advanced spine surgery and the treatment of back pain.


Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Updated 25 February 2024
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Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

  • Israeli delegation that went to Paris for talks on hostage deal returned on Saturday night
  • Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal

JERUSALEM: -Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.
An Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”

After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.

An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.


Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

Updated 25 February 2024
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Israel discusses next steps in truce talks as Gaza desperation deepens

  • Several Israeli media outlets said Israel tacitly approved a deal and that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar for further discussions
  • Hamas says it has not yet been involved in the latest proposal developed by the US, Egypt and Qatar

JERUSALEM: Israel’s war cabinet has discussed the next steps for negotiations toward a hostage deal and ceasefire in its war with Hamas, as concern deepens over the increasingly desperate situation faced by civilians in the devastated Gaza Strip.

Mediators made progress on an agreement for a weekslong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and the release of dozens of hostages held in Gaza as well as Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, Israeli media reported Sunday.

Several Israeli media outlets, citing unnamed officials, said it tacitly approved the deal and that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar for further discussions.
Hamas says it has not yet been involved in the latest proposal developed by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, but the reported outline largely matches its earlier demands for the first phase of a truce. 

Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation that had traveled to Paris for fresh talks on a hostage deal returned to brief the country’s war cabinet on Saturday night, according to an official and local media reports.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a televised interview shortly before the meeting that the “delegation has returned from Paris — there is probably room to move toward an agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the meeting would discuss the “next steps in the negotiations.”
Local media later reported that the meeting had concluded with the cabinet agreeing to send a delegation to Qatar in the coming days to continue the talks.
As with a previous week-long truce in November that saw more than 100 hostages freed, Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been spearheading efforts to secure a deal.
Domestic pressure on the government to bring the captives home has also steadily mounted, with thousands gathering in Tel Aviv Saturday night at what has come to be known as “Hostages Square” to demand swifter action.
“We keep telling you: bring them back to us! And no matter how,” said Avivit Yablonka, 45, whose sister Hanan was kidnapped on October 7.
Anti-government protesters were also out in Tel Aviv, blocking streets and calling for Netanyahu’s government to step down as authorities deployed water cannon and mounted officers in a bid to disperse them.
“They are not choosing the right path for us. Whether it’s (the) economy, whether it’s peace with our neighbors,” 54-year-old software company CEO Moti Kushner said of the government, adding “it looks like they never want to end the war.”
After more than four months of shortages inside the besieged Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme said this week its teams had reported “unprecedented levels of desperation,” while the United Nations warned that 2.2 million people were on the brink of famine.
In northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, bedraggled children held out plastic containers and battered cooking pots for what little food was available.
Supplies are running out, with aid agencies unable to get into the area because of the bombing, while the trucks that do try to get through face frenzied looting.
“We the grown-ups can still make it, but these children who are four and five years old, what did they do wrong to sleep hungry and wake up hungry?” one man said angrily.
Residents have resorted to eating scavenged scraps of rotten corn, animal fodder unfit for human consumption and even leaves.
The health ministry said on Saturday that a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition” in Gaza City.
Save the Children said the risk of famine would continue to “increase as long as the government of Israel continues to impede the entry of aid into Gaza.”
Israel has defended its track record on allowing aid into Gaza, saying that 13,000 trucks carrying relief supplies had entered the territory since the start of the war.
The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to a Saturday tally from Gaza’s health ministry.
The ministry said early Sunday that another 98 people had been killed overnight, with the Hamas media office reporting strikes along the length of the territory, from Beit Lahia in the north to Rafah in the south.
An AFP reporter said there had been a number of air strikes on Saturday evening in Rafah, a city along the territory’s southern border with Egypt where hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled to escape fighting elsewhere.
The presence of so many civilians packed into the area has sparked concerns over Israeli plans for troops to finally push into the city, the last major urban center they have yet to enter.
Despite the concerns, including from key ally the United States, Netanyahu signalled Saturday night that the expected push had not been abandoned, adding that “at the beginning of the week, I will convene the cabinet to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of the civilian population from there.”
“Only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages, the elimination of Hamas and the achievement of all the war’s goals,” he added.
Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
It also says Israel will continue with the establishment of a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan has been rejected by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and drawn criticism from Washington.


Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

Updated 25 February 2024
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Economy another victim of war in impoverished Sudan

  • With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds

PORT SUDAN, Sudan: Before the Sudanese army and paramilitary fighters turned their guns on each other last year, Ahmed used to sell one of Sudan’s main exports: gum arabic, a vital ingredient for global industry.
Now he’s out of business, and his story encapsulates the broader economic collapse of Sudan during 10 months of war.
Since combat between two rival generals began on April 15, Ahmed has been at the fighters’ mercy.
“When the war began, I had a stock of gum arabic in a warehouse south of Khartoum that was intended for export,” Ahmed told AFP, asking to use only his first name for fear of retaliation.
“To get it out I had to pay huge sums to the Rapid Support Forces,” the paramilitaries commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who are at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan.
“I had to pay multiple times in areas under their control, before my cargo got to areas controlled by the government,” Ahmed said.
But the government — loyal to the army — “then demanded I pay taxes” on the product, an emulsifying agent used in everything from soft drinks to chewing gum.
When the trucks finally made it to Port Sudan for export on the Red Sea, “authorities again asked for new taxes, and I had to pay storage fees six times more than before the war,” Ahmed said.
His gum arabic — like many other Sudanese products — never made it onto a ship. According to Sudan’s port authorities, international trade fell 23 percent last year.
The finance ministry, which didn’t set a national budget for 2023 or 2024 and has foregone quarterly reports, recently raised the exchange rate for imports and exports from 650 Sudanese pounds to 950.
But that is still far below the currency’s real value.
With most banks out of service, the only exchange rate that matters to ordinary Sudanese is on the black market, where the dollar currently goes for around 1,200 Sudanese pounds.
“It’s a sign of the destruction of the Sudanese economy,” former Sudanese Chamber of Commerce head Al-Sadiq Jalal told AFP.
To make matters worse, a communications blackout since early February has hampered online transactions — which Sudanese relied on to survive.
The war has led industries to cease production. Others were destroyed. Businesses and food stocks have been looted.
The World Bank in September said “widespread destruction of Sudan’s economic foundations has set the country’s development back by several decades.”
The International Monetary Fund has predicted that even after the fighting ends, “years of reconstruction” await the northeast African country.
Sudan suffered under a crippled economy for decades and was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the war.
Under the Islamist-backed regime of strongman Omar Al-Bashir, international sanctions throttled development, corruption was rampant, and South Sudan split in 2011 with most of the country’s oil production.
Bashir’s ouster by the military in 2019 following mass protests led to a fragile transition to civilian rule accompanied by signs of economic renewal and international acceptance.
A 2021 coup by Burhan and Dagalo, before they turned on each other, began a new economic collapse when the World Bank and the United States suspended vital international aid.
More than six million of Sudan’s 48 million people have been internally displaced by the war, and more than half the population needs humanitarian aid to survive, according to the United Nations.
Thousands of people have been killed, including between 10,000 and 15,000 in a single city in the western Darfur region, according to UN experts.
Now the indirect death toll is also rising.
Aid agencies have long warned of impending famine, and the UN’s World Food Programme is “already receiving reports of people dying of starvation,” the agency’s Sudan director Eddie Rowe said in early February.
The Sudanese state “is completely absent from the scene” in all sectors, economist Haitham Fathy told AFP.
Chief among those is agriculture, which could have helped stave off hunger.
Before the war, agriculture generated 35-40 percent of Sudan’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank, and employed 70-80 percent of the workforce in rural areas, the International Fund for Agricultural Development said.
But the war has left more than 60 percent of the nation’s agricultural land out of commission, according to Sudanese research organization Fikra for Studies and Development.
In the wheat-growing state of Al-Jazira, where RSF fighters took over swathes of farmland south of Khartoum, farmers have been unable to tend their crops. They saw their livelihoods wither away.
From the wheat fields to Ahmed’s gum arabic warehouse, the story is the same.
His savings spent, his stock gone and his future bleak, Ahmed — like much of Sudan’s business class — has closed up shop.