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War is hell for animals too: In Jordan, these bears have found a sanctuary

Animals rescued from Aleppo, Mosul and Gaza begin life afresh north of Amman

In the first days in his new home, Loz, who was rescued from Aleppo, Syria, ran and hid when he heard trucks or helicopters (MEE/Marta Vidal)

JERASH, Jordan - When he was eight years old, Loz was evacuated from Aleppo. It was July 2017, seven months after Syria’s second-largest city finally fell to the forces of Bashar al-Assad's government.

While he soon found a new home on a hill cloaked with olive trees in the north of Jordan, Loz could not forget Syria. 

In those first days in Jordan, he would run and hide every time he heard trucks or helicopters, still scarred by the explosions and gunfire that riddled the city of his birth.

Today, Loz is still wary, but he is less afraid. That he was even able to get out of Aleppo alive was down to a non-profit organisation called Four Paws International.

Loz is an Asian black bear, and his new neighbours at the al-Ma'wa wildlife sanctuary in the Jerash governorate include a number of other animals rescued from Magic World Zoo, on the outskirts of Aleppo.

Loz was rescued with 12 other animals from a zoo outside Aleppo (MEE/Marta Vidal)

Four Paws rescues animals from situations of abuse from around the world - often in war zones - some from zoos, as well as exotic pets treated badly by private owners. It has offices in 15 countries, and seven sanctuaries for rescued wild animals.

"The sanctuary was opened to provide a solution for animals from war zones," says Mustafa Khraisat, manager of al-Ma'wa, "but also for animals confiscated from smugglers."

Home for lions, tigers and bears

Raghad Zeitoun is a resident veterinarian at the Jordanian sanctuary, where she cares for its population of 18 lions, four bears and two tigers. She says the animals have had to recover from the mental trauma caused by the wars they have lived through.

The vet says that at the time Loz the bear and 12 other animals were rescued from the Magic World Zoo, the area it was in was controlled by rebels.  

The owner told Four Paws there were around 300 animals at the zoo before the war broke out, but most of them had died in bombings and crossfire, or from starvation. Four Paws rescued the surviving animals.

"When they first came they were in a very bad condition, full of wounds and very skinny. The bears were half the size," Zeitoun says. "They looked terrified, but they are doing better now."

Al-Ma'wa's caretakers and volunteers are dedicated to the well-being of the animals (MEE/Marta Vidal)

At over 110 hectares, al-Ma'wa is the biggest sanctuary for large animals in the Middle East, providing them with species appropriate enclosures. 

It was founded in 2015, through a partnership between the Princess Alia Foundation and Four Paws International to shelter animals that can neither be returned to their country of origin nor released into the wild.  

Jordan's strategic position between Africa and the Gulf makes it a crossroads for illegal wildlife trafficking. In rich Gulf countries, there is a high demand for exotic animals, which are often smuggled via Jordan, despite the kingdom enacting legislation and signing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Caretaker Saif Rwashdeh recently accompanied two lions to a lion sanctuary in South Africa. ''It was hard to let them go but they will have a better life there with other lions'' (MEE/Marta Vidal)

The centre opened to the public in October last year. Tours are limited to one a day, with a maximum capacity of 20 visitors so as not to alarm animals that have already experienced the very worst mankind has to offer. 

"Our goal is to raise awareness about animal protection and welfare, and to provide education and training on nature preservation," explains Khraisat. The centre is expecting to open eco-lodges and a vegetarian restaurant in the spring. 

Al-Ma'wa was not without its opponents when it opened. Initially, residents in nearby villages feared that animals, including lions and tigers, would escape.

"Now that they [the villagers] know they are safe, we are receiving a lot of support. A lot of people want to volunteer with us," says Khraisat.

Sometimes villagers bring their own animals to be seen by the sanctuary's vets.

The big cats evacuated from Gaza

For some of the animals, their arrival at al-Ma'wa was the first time they had stepped onto soil: Sultan and Sabreen, two lions rescued from a Gaza zoo in 2014, had never left their concrete cage before arriving in Jordan.

It was the summer of 2014 when the two were rescued, as the besieged Palestinian enclave was heavily bombed by Israel. Thousands of people died and the al-Bisan zoo in Gaza was severely damaged. 

Al-Ma’wa is over 110 hectares and is the largest sanctuary of its kind in the Middle East (MEE/Marta Vidal)

According to Four Paws, more than 80 animals died, and the 30 surviving animals were left without any food or water. The lions were under severe stress and their enclosures were damaged, so Four Paws intervened and transferred the animals to the New Hope centre in Jordan and then on to al-Ma'wa. The mummified corpses of dozens of animals littered the zoo. 

"They touched trees for the first time when they arrived here," says Khraisat. "Most of the animals were born in captivity and wouldn't be able to survive on their own."

Should animals have such a priority?

"People sometimes ask why we rescue animals instead of people," says Khraisat, "but who is going to fight for their rights? Someone has to speak for the animals. When you have them in captivity you have to take care of them as if they were your children because they're your responsibility."

Balou the bear was rescued from a Jordanian zoo (MEE/Marta Vidal)

Amir Khalil, the Egyptian-born director of emergency response for Four Paws, has worked with the organisation for 24 years, risking his life to save animals from disaster areas and war zones.

Last year found him in Mosul in March and Aleppo in the summer, rescuing animals left to die in abandoned zoos.

When Four Paws' emergency response team hear about animals trapped in disaster areas or war zones they do their best to save them. In Syria's case, the decision to go there was made after the organisation received messages from Syrians who told them about the animals' situation in Magic Zoo and asked them to intervene.

They worked in close cooperation with security experts and had the backing of Turkish authorities. The missions are carried out after negotiating with different parties on the ground.

The lioness Halab was rescued from Magic World Zoo on the outskirts of Aleppo in 2017 (MEE/Marta Vidal)

For the Syria mission, Khalil contacted the zoo owner and told him that if he didn't donate the animals to Four Paws they would die, so the owner agreed.

In Aleppo, Khalil had to cross through territory held by al-Qaeda-linked rebels, stop at a dozen checkpoints and negotiate with different parties fighting.

Loz's neighbour, Lula, came from Mosul in northern Iraq. 

The zoo in a war zone

Mosul's zoo was abandoned during the battle for the city, in which Iraqi government forces and allied Kurdish militias fought to liberate it from the Islamic State group (IS).

The battle began in October 2016. For several months, the zoo was a staging ground for IS fighters. Most of the animals died in the crossfire or from starvation.

When the eastern half of Mosul was liberated in January 2017, there were only two surviving animals: a bear and a lion. Residents in Mosul sent messages to Four Paws asking for help to rescue them.

In February, Khalil went to Mosul to check the animals' condition and to leave medication and food. He started planning the rescue mission, returning in March to try and get the animals out. Khalil was stopped at an Iraqi army checkpoint where he was asked for more documents and ordered to return the animals to the zoo.

Animals like Sukkar were confined to cages, malnourished and traumatised when they were in Aleppo, Syria (MEE/Marta Vidal)

After negotiating with the Iraqi army, Four Paws came back in April with additional documents and finally managed to fly the animals to Amman.

"Each mission is difficult," Khalil says, "but Mosul was one of the biggest challenges we had to face. It was very complicated dealing with the army, and IS was very close by." 

The zoo was in an area that had already been liberated by March, but it was close to the dividing line between the liberated east and the other half of the city which was still under IS control at that time.
'They changed their attitude and realised the animals were not part of that war. It's not only human suffering, animals too'
 
- Amir Khalil, Four Paws

In Iraq, he recalls, the Iraqi soldiers first made fun of the animal rescue mission, but then came to him with food and asked if they could feed the animals.

A soldier brought two chickens that he had confiscated at a checkpoint to feed the lions, Khalil tells MEE.

"They changed their attitude and realised the animals were not part of that war. It's not only human suffering, animals too. Everyone suffers when there is war."

On the way out of Mosul, Khalil was detained for several days until he finally got clearance to leave the area with the animals.  

Among the refugees passing him by were children who had lost their homes.

"They were carrying a lot of bad memories, but when they came to our truck and saw a lion and a bear they started smiling and were very happy," he says. "For me this was very important, to see that animals can bring happiness to people."

Sukkar was rescued from a war-torn Aleppo, Syria, and is a much happier bear today (MEE/Marta Vidal)

It's a common theme he notes – that warring parties put aside differences when the transportation of animals is involved.

In Iraq, he says, the war stopped for a few days as the army and government focused on what to do with the animals.

Laying down arms for animals

The high-risk missions can take months of planning and diplomacy, but soldiers from warring sides have dropped their weapons to help rescue animals. 

For Aleppo's rescue mission, other non-governmental organisations like Cee4life advised the Four Paws' team. Locals on the ground also helped negotiate safe passage and support from different factions in Syria.

Negotiations often involved many different people and organisations. In Syria, for instance, a Turkish animal rights activist helped the Four Paws' team get the support of Turkish authorities, who agreed to open the border for the animals.

Khalil recalls how he was once stuck at a hotel in Gaza in 2015, when Four Paws was asked to rescue two lion cubs from a refugee camp.

The border was closed because it was Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Eventually, an agreement between Hamas and Israel allowed the animals to be safely transferred to Jordan.

"They never agree on anything, but when I came to take the animals they put their guns down because the animals are not with Hamas and not with Israel," said Khalil.

"They have no passports. They haven't done anything and were never part of any war. The only species that creates war is humans, not animals."

Khalil explains that animal suffering should never be met with indifference: animals trapped in cages are too often dependent on humans for their freedom. Kindness, he says, makes us better humans.

"We share the planet, and we have to learn to live together. It's only humans who are unable to live together."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.