On the trail of the refugee crisis

In August/September 2015 I covered the migrant crisis for France 24, travelling from Thessaloniki in Greece to Calais in France. It was a remarkable time; refugees were stuck at Keleti station in Budapest, then decided to walk to Austria and were welcomed by clapping volunteers. I witnessed it all. You can check out some of my reporting from that trip here:


A great loss: Jesuit priest killed in Homs

Father Frans van der Lugt, a Jesuit priest who had spent the last 40 years in Syria, was killed on Monday morning. He was dragged from his monastery, beaten and shot through the head. It is a great loss.

I had the privilege of speaking to father Frans at length in February and was impressed by his humbleness and courage. He truly believed there was a peaceful way out for  the besieged old city of Homs, and Syria. He refused to abandon his monastery and its treasures and relics, but most of all the people living beside him. He regularly visited the activists who put me in touch with him, and kept in good spirits. He had no fear of hunger or the hardships of the future; he had faith in the compassion of humanity.

That faith has been betrayed, it is unclear by whom. Although the regime has been quick to blame Jahbat al Nusra, he told me that he enjoyed cordial relations with the group, who lived just around the corner. Yet the besieged area was changing as hunger took its toll, and following the evacuation more extremist elements remained.  Activists were equally fast in pointing a finger at regime agents. Father Frans released a heart wrenching appeal on YouTube in January to break the siege.

“We we love life, we want to live!” he said then. Yet it was not hunger, but violence that killed him.

Although Father Frans is gone, he was buried in Syria, there are still 1,000 people left in the besieged area of Homs. The last time Father Frans’ family spoke to him, three weeks ago, he sounded weaker. “The hunger was taking its toll on him” his brother Godfried told me.

The same hunger is still taking its toll on those remaining. Many of them are fighters, others are civilians who were unwilling to leave, among them 24 Christians. Their most vocal, and internationally appealing, advocate has been killed. Let us hope they will not consequently be forgotten.

Find the piece I co-authored for the Economist here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/04/syrias-war

The interview I did in February ran as part of a piece in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/inside-the-siege-of-homs-in-syria-there-is-hardly-anything-left-there-is-only-ruin-9129586.html

Jackie Chamoun controversy

It’s funny how some stories capture the imagination. Jackie Chamoun, the Olympic skier who posed for a racy calendar three years ago, seems to be one of them. I spent some time hanging out with the activists who started the #stripforjackie campaign, which caused my timeline to clog up with half naked, mostly hairy Lebanese men.

Here are a few pieces I did on the affair.

A piece for the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/stripforjackie-campaign-sees-dozens-take-their-top-off-for-olympic-skier-jackie-chamoun-9124295.html

A blog piece for the Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/02/lebanese-society





Lebanon simmers by Syria’s side

This article was published by the Independent on Sunday on 2 February, 2014

The arched façade of the shopping centre is still blackened with soot and piles of debris, and building material marks the spot where a suicide bomber detonated his belt, and his car, two weeks ago.

The explosion killed five people; among the 40 more wounded was Ali Shaheen, a pharmacist, who was making coffee at the time of the blast. “Everything collapsed around us,” he recalls. The attack has made residents of Hermel, a “100 per cent Shia” town where Hezbollah reigns supreme, resigned and fearful of a new threat that seems impossible to stop. “When it comes to suicide bombers, neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese army can prevent such an act,” said Shaheen, a father of three.

Although this is its first suicide bombing, it is not the first time the town has felt the consequences of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war. Over 150 rockets have rained down on Hermal and its surroundings over the past two years. Last night, a second suicide bombing hit the town, killing three.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, formally announced that the group was fighting alongside the Syrian army last May, when his forces played a crucial role in expelling rebels from Qusayr, just across the Lebanese border. Since then, five suicide bombings have hit Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Read the full article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/lebanon-simmers-by-syrias-side-terror-attacks-drag-lebanese-communities-into-neighbours-civil-war-9101654.html