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As Iraqi and Syrian migrants leave Belarus, some are afraid to go home

Exhausted after several failed attempts to enter Poland amid freezing temperatures, Saeed Jundi and his family of Iraqi Yazidis had just made it back to the Belarusian capital when he said security forces showed up at their rented apartment.

When he confirmed the family was from Iraq, he said they were taken to the airport and deported.

Jundi, his wife and their three children landed in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Nov. 28, two days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had told migrants at the border with Poland that they would not be forced to leave.

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The family was among hundreds of migrants from Iraq and elsewhere flown out of Belarus in recent weeks after failed attempts to enter the European Union – where they were seeking a better future.

Some of them say they had no choice, while others saw little alternative given how hard it was to cross into Poland and because of their treatment at the hands of border guards.

Since last month, Iraq's government has chartered evacuation flights for over 3,100 Iraqis in Belarus.

Hemn Amin, a 29-year-old Iraqi Kurd from the town Khurmal, was among them.

He said Belarusian border guards beat him and that he was pushed back and forth between the Belarusian and Polish border several times. He was then taken to a warehouse in Grodno region where hundreds of other migrants had gathered.

Amin and about 40 other Iraqis booked a plane ticket in order to be allowed to leave.

They boarded buses hoping to get off in Minsk, but were taken straight to the airport, he said.

“We waited in the airport for about five days, in an overcrowded hall guarded by the police,” Amin said.

The Belarusian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Fouad Hamad, Belarus' honorary consul in Iraqi Kurdistan from where many migrants started their journey, said beatings at the border were “a possibility”, but not in cities.

He said migrants in cities would be detained and deported when their visas expired “according to the law” and that he received regular calls from Iraqis asking him to help relatives detained in Minsk for having overstayed their tourist visas.

Safeen Dizayee, head of the Kurdistan regional government's foreign relations in Erbil, told Reuters that none of those aboard the flights chartered by the government had said they were being deported against their will.

“If they overstayed their visas, naturally each country has their rules and regulations,” Dizayee said. “Whatever measures Belarus takes, it is their jurisdiction.”

He said authorities in Belarus and Poland should investigate allegations of abuse of migrants along the border.

Syrians stuck

Officials and migrants say hundreds of migrants remain stuck in Belarus, having spent thousands of dollars on a journey they had hoped would end in the EU. Among them are Syrians, some of whom do not want to return to their homeland.

“We are being contacted and receive reports about different cases, including of Syrians, some of whom would like to return and some still hope to be able to cross to Poland and some wishing to reunite with their families in the EU,” UNHCR Senior Communications Officer, Natalia Prokopchuk, told Reuters.

On Wednesday, private Syrian airline Cham Wings chartered the first evacuation flight for Syrians wishing to return to Damascus, with about 97 passengers on board.

Speaking over the telephone from a small hostel in Minsk, a Syrian man from Halab who asked to not be named said he and 12 other Syrians travelling with him were barely leaving their rooms anymore, fearing deportation.

He said his tourist visa expired nearly two months ago and he had nowhere to go. He has been banned from re-entering Lebanon, where he lived for the last six years, and fears he will be punished if he flies back to Damascus because he has not carried out his military service.

Dozens of Syrian respondents told an online poll set up by migrants that they did not want to go back to Syria from Belarus for fear of retribution from the authorities.

The Syrian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A 27-year-old Syrian who flew from Damascus to Minsk on a tourist visa said he managed to delay serving in the military by continuing his studies. He has now completed his masters degree and fears he will be enrolled by force should he land in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Syrian from Halab said his only option may be to return to the forests between Belarus and Poland to try and cross again.

Read more:

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Iraqi flight returning migrants takes off from Belarus capital Minsk

EU accuses Belarus of ‘trafficking’ migrants toward border

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Beirut blast judge postpones interrogations over dispute

The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion said Monday he has postponed questioning of officials over a dispute with the country’s top prosecutor.

Judge Tarek Bitar resumed his probe last month after a 13-month hiatus amid vehement political and legal pushback, which now threatens to derail the investigation once again.

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Reopening the case, he had charged several senior former and incumbent officials, including Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat.

Oueidat retaliated by charging the judge with “usurping power” and insubordination, and slapped Bitar with a travel ban.

Bitar told reporters on Monday he has postponed all interrogations planned for February due to the “lack of cooperation” from the prosecutor’s office, without setting new dates.

“There are charges accusing me of usurping power that must be resolved,” he said from his office in the Lebanese capital.

If these charges “are proven, then I must be held to account, and if the contrary happens, then I must continue the investigation,” Bitar argued.

One of history’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, the blast on August 4, 2020 destroyed much of Beirut port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.

Authorities said the mega-explosion was caused by a fire in a portside warehouse where a vast stockpile of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years.

The arm-wrestling between Bitar and Oueidat is the latest in Lebanon’s mounting woes, facing dire economic and political crises.

Observers fear the spat over the blast probe could lead to the outright collapse of the judicial system — one of the country’s last fully functioning state institutions.

Read more: Bitar needs to hold nerve and hold Hezbollah to account

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Ancient Gaziantep Castle damaged in devastating Turkey earthquake

The deadly earthquake that struck Turkey early Monday destroyed part of the ancient Gaziantep Castle, with pictures online showing a large section of the building sliding off a cliff.
Before and after pictures showed the extensive damage with debris blocking a nearby road.
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Part of the thousands-year-old Gaziantep Castle, a historic and touristic site, was destroyed after a 7.8-magnitude struck southern Turkey also affecting northern Syria.

The Ancient Gaziantep Castle before it was destroyed by the earthquake. (Twitter)

The Ancient Gaziantep Castle before it was destroyed by the earthquake. (Twitter)

The strong earthquake left thousands of people dead and injured as the death toll is expected to rise as rescue efforts to continue.
The earthquake was also felt in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, sending residents panicking.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier said 2,818 buildings were destroyed after the first tremor, describing it as the country’s “largest disaster” since 1939, when a major quake struck the eastern province of Erzincan.
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Ethiopia holds referendum on creation of a 12th regional state in the south

Ethiopians were voting on Monday in a referendum on the creation of a 12th regional state in the south of the country, the third such ballot in under four years.

More than three million people are registered to vote in areas that currently fall in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), according to election board figures cited by state media.

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Results are due on February 15.
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, two new regional states have already been carved out: Sidama in 2019 and South West in 2021.

Both separated from the SNNPR, a mosaic of minority ethnic groups and scene of tension and violence in recent years.

Africa’s second most populous country has faced several chal-lenges to its unity and stability, including the two-year war in Tigray that ended with a peace deal in November and an ongoing insurgency in the largest region of Oromia.

The current constitution adopted in 1995, four years after the fall of the military-Marxist Derg regime, had initially divided Ethiopia into nine regional states, cut out along ethno-linguistic lines and enjoying considerable power in a federal system.

This “ethnic federalism” was supposed to offer a degree of autonomy to the 80 or so ethnic communities that make up Ethiopia, but has been accused by critics of exacerbating inter-communal tensions.

Read more: Cautious optimism as Ethiopia sets out on long road to peace after two years of war

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