Ruth Sherlock

When Westerners think of Beirut, they might rely on dated notions of the city: a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990; a war with Israel and sporadic airstrikes; bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy; an attack 15 years ago on the prime minister's convoy.

Updated at 4:51 a.m. ET Thursday

Beirut is reeling and Lebanon is in grief after a powerful explosion tore through the capital's port area on Tuesday. The enormous blast, which officials said was driven by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, killed at least 137 people and injured thousands more. Emergency crews are still working to find all the victims.

The coronavirus is spreading through government-held areas of Syria at an alarming rate and the authoritarian regime uses a campaign of intimidation to suppress information about the outbreak, a medical worker inside the country says.

With hospitals overwhelmed, staff are treating patients in dirty rooms, without enough medication and with little equipment to protect themselves, one medical worker in the country told NPR.

But talking about it can be dangerous.

In the Yemeni city of Aden, doctors and nurses of Al-Wali Hospital and their families have become patients. With the 75 beds in this private hospital now full, members of the public are being turned away.

"Right now, we can't accept anyone else," said Amr Al-Turkey, a critical care physician in the hospital who is recovering from COVID-19.

Lebanon is reinstating a national stay-at-home order for four days following a spike in the number of reported cases of the coronavirus.

Beginning Wednesday at 7 p.m., residents will be asked to avoid outings except for emergencies.

Speaking to reporters after the Cabinet decision Tuesday afternoon, Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad said the government would use the four-day shutdown to conduct more tests for the disease and try to trace recent transmissions.

Factories in Syria are producing a drug aggressively promoted by President Trump as a possible "game-changer" in the fight against COVID-19, despite a lack of evidence that it can cure the disease.

Three Syrian pharmaceutical companies are producing hydroxychloroquine, as well as the antibiotic azithromycin — and other drugs that are still being tested — to combat the illness, according to the World Health Organization representative in Syria.

The Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia are struggling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak among migrant worker populations on whose labor the countries rely.

Even amid stringent lockdowns, the disease has continued to spread through migrant communities, with many workers living in cramped labor camps, where they share bunk beds in tightly packed rooms.

In Saudi Arabia, non-Saudi residents comprised 76% of the more than 3,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases this week, according to the country's Health Ministry.

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In the northeastern Lebanese city of Arsal, near the Syrian border, young boys stand in the blistering June heat, swinging sledgehammers to knock down simple structures made of concrete breeze blocks. Some of the children are as young as 8 years old. They're helping the adults reduce the walls to rubble.

The structures they're demolishing are their own homes, in a camp that shelters 23 Syrian families.

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In an orchard in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Axel Hirschfeld, an activist with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, carefully untangles the delicate wings of a young blue-gray bird from a poacher's net.

Behind him, two Lebanese police officers rip down swaths of illegal mesh, hung between pomegranate and apple trees by the orchard's owner to ensnare thousands of these birds.

Felicia Perkins-Ferreira cried while recounting how her two young sons were taken by their father from home in Trinidad to live under the Islamic State in the Middle East.

She had a blanket stitched out of their school uniforms and other clothes for comfort. She became plagued by panic attacks and exhaustion. "Every time I fell asleep, I'd dream that my children were there beside me," she said. But they were gone. It was too much to bear. "So I just preferred not to sleep."

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have been forced from their tents in Lebanon, following days of bitter rain, snow and freezing temperatures. The winter storm, dubbed Norma by Lebanese meteorologists, has left refugees in dire need of emergency assistance, aid workers say.

The al-Hol refugee camp, in northeastern Syria near the border with Iraq, is overwhelmed with new arrivals. For years, the camp, run by Kurdish authorities with help from the United Nations and other international organizations, has housed thousands of Iraqi refugees. More recently, though, the camp has become home to large numbers of Syrians, fleeing towns where the U.S.-led coalition is fighting the last remnants of ISIS. Hundreds of thousands have become internally displaced, with many families forced to move multiple times.

Syria's army is grouping at the outskirts of Manbij, a hotly contested town near the Turkish border, in a move that is apparently coordinated with the pending withdrawal of Kurdish militants who have long held the city.

The news comes after initial media reports suggested that for the first time in six years, Syrian troops had taken control of the northern city. Manbij is occupied by both the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG and American troops.

In a classroom that's so cold you can see your own breath, five teenage girls, their hair covered by brightly patterned scarves, and two boys read English phrases from textbooks. Repeating after their teacher, they say, "It has plants from all over the world."

The lesson, about an indoor rainforest in the United Kingdom, is a world away from the devastation surrounding them. They are students in Raqqa, Syria, a city that ISIS once claimed as its capital.

The green landscape of rural northeastern Syria is home to wild ducks and donkeys, villagers tending cattle — and U.S. military bases housing 2,200 troops. American soldiers patrol the countryside in armored vehicles and hover overhead in Black Hawk helicopters. In the Kurdish-majority area known as Rojava, towns are bursting with Christmas decorations. Holiday lights adorn almost every main street in the city of Qamishli, whose diverse population includes many Christians, and shops are selling tinsel and plastic trees.

Um Mohammed says she was in search of a happier life when she decided to bring her family from the Netherlands to live under ISIS.

"I thought the ISIS 'caliphate' would be perfect, like a utopia," says Um Mohammed, who describes having felt discriminated against as a Muslim in the Netherlands and says the militant group's online propaganda drew her in. "I don't think [life in the caliphate] was what most people expected. I regret going and having, you know, to go through this."

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of dead bodies.

On a busy street corner in Raqqa, Syria, a digger pushes through the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike. Onlookers shield their mouths and noses from the dust and stench of corpses of those who perished beneath.

Just streets away, three recovery workers pull out the delicate skeletons of two children from under the debris of a partially collapsed home. And across the city, in what was once Raqqa's public park, men unearth more bodies from a mass grave.

The Syrian city of Raqqa is blanketed in despair. Residents survive in a wasteland of war-warped buildings and shattered concrete. They sleep exposed to the elements in homes with blown-out walls.

In the desert scrubland of Morocco's Tangier region, a donkey laden with water bottles trots down a pebble lane chased by two small children. A farmer herds his cows in the near distance. Crickets leap in the dry grass.

It's within these gently undulating hills, just inland from the coast, that China plans to build an entire city that will stand in monument to its expansion into a North African nation on Europe's doorstep.

The leaders of Russia and Turkey announced a plan Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib province, in an effort to avert a looming military offensive that aid groups say would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

In long talks in the Russian city of Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to create a buffer area between Syria's rebels and pro-government militias by Oct. 15.

In her simple home in a settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, next to tents sheltering other refugees from the war in Syria, Raja talks about the time when two young German men arrived at her door several months ago. They told her they were researchers for a charity.

"They seemed fine," Raja says. "They just wanted to come in and film the house. We said, 'We have nothing to hide.' They filmed everything, even the kitchen."

Raja, who is afraid to give her full name, says she wouldn't have let the men in if she'd known how the footage would be used.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hala hugged her 10-month-old baby close as she sat in the front seat of the pickup truck piled with the family's few possessions — thin mattresses, blankets, a small suitcase — as she waited to cross into Syria.

She had dressed neatly for the journey, in a carefully pinned maroon headscarf and black abaya gown. She tried to think of the positives: Her family would no longer be strangers in a foreign land; her children would set foot in their home country for the first time.

But as her convoy began to move toward the Syrian border, her nerve wavered.

Seema heard the children on the upper floors of the house scream "chlorine, chlorine!" Amina says she felt gas hit her lungs. Abu Faisal found himself caught in a yellow-tinged cloud.

These are just some of the testimonies collected by NPR from now former residents of Douma, a town outside the Syrian capital Damascus, who say that on the night of April 7, they endured the terrifying experience of a chemical weapons attack.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So that's a brief timeline of how we got to this moment. Let's turn now to where we may go next. I'm joined here in the studio by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

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