An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.
He has written a fascinating account of the visit.
REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 4
31 August – 7 September 2016
Journey from Damascus to Homs
It was with trepidation that we began the journey to Aleppo. What was before the war a five hour journey on a direct highway is now an 8 hour journey on a route that is regularly attacked by ISIS on one side and Jabhat Al Nusra on the other. Because of the make-up of the group, and the danger, particularly closer to Aleppo we were provided with an armed escort in convoy, though our own vehicle was a ‘low key’ very cramped minibus. The first part of the journey to Homs is largely safe having been secured by the Syrian Army.
I have travelled this segment several times since April 2014 when it was still at risk of sniper and shell attack. Most of the villages en route had been destroyed in intense battles, but it was encouraging to see rebuilding taking place, and even more surprising to find the occasional ‘motorway restaurant ‘ newly restored and serving the people who travel this route. Homs was a divided city. The part of the city that was occupied by ‘rebels’, which included the Old City and the Christian quarter was largely destroyed, but the rest of the city remains vibrant, though rarely safe and has suffered numerous car-bomb attacks by the rebels which have killed hundreds of people and injured thousands.
Today, there is a feeling of hope. The amnesty and reconciliation process agreed by the Government and arranged with the help of local faith leaders, means that most fighters have now left or laid down their arms. Some have even joined the Syrian army. (This process, which has led to dozens of ceasefires around the country and the rehabilitation of many fighters has been largely dismissed by most of the international community despite its success.) Quite a few of those who fled rebel- controlled areas of the city are now returning and starting to rebuild a life among the ruins. But the peace is fragile.
In Homs we stopped at a checkpoint for some rest and refreshment. We talked with the soldiers before continuing the more dangerous part of the journey. The next day, that very checkpoint was one of four in the country blown up by co-ordinated car- bomb attacks by the ‘moderate’ rebels. Over 40 people were killed and dozens injured in that particular blast, including amongst them probably the soldiers with whom we had talked and who had wished us well the day before. None of these attacks were reported in the western media.
Journey from Homs to Aleppo. The Castello Rd.
One of the main reasons for travelling to Syria was as a Pastoral one to honour an invitation by Christians in Aleppo to visit and to see for ourselves the realities there. The journey to Aleppo is currently one of the most dangerous in the world, with the only access to the government-controlled part of the city (where most of the population live) being via a circuitous route close to ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra lines, who regularly attack the road. If it wasn’t for a 20km track into the city opened up by the Syrian Army, 1.5million people would be under rebel-siege, as they were for nearly three years. Their story though is rarely told by media networks who are embedded with terrorist groups on the other side. For us, not going to Aleppo was not an option, despite the danger, and we are grateful to the Syrian government both for the permission to do so, and for the security the Army provided for the journey.
The journey from Homs however is a profound experience, for it involves hours of travelling across expansive plains, through miles of destroyed and deserted villages and towns that had been occupied, terrorised and destroyed by Islamist fighters, and the battles that ensued. Most of the millions of internally displaced who fled to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas, and refugees who have fled the country fled early in the fighting, both because of the brutality of the rebel groups, and because of the government bombing of the enemy. But none of us realised the extent of destruction which had been done at the hands of the fighters, who would destroy the homes and factories of anyone who opposed them.
As we passed through the deserted destroyed streets of one large town, we saw graffiti insulting a local Saudi Sheikh who had preached the Wahhabi ideology, and who had encouraged the town to rise up against the secular government. Throughout our visit, people in different places told us that one of the factors leading to the uprising had been the influence of Wahhabi doctrine on the thousands of Syrians who had gone to Saudi Arabia to work and study prior to the conflict. This was an insight of a which I had not been previously aware.
Continuing the journey, we pass many burnt out vehicles, the occasional tank, and Syrian army and Russian positions. And the tension rises as we approach Aleppo, the most dangerous part of the journey.
One of the most poignant sights of the journey, is the obliterated industrial city on the outskirts of Aleppo. Prior to the conflict there were four industrial cities, comprising thousands of factories producing all kinds of products. Of the four only one remains. The largest was outside Aleppo- a city comprising 5000 factories which produced numerous products for export. When the western- backed rebels overran the area, they stripped the factories of all the machinery and took it to Turkey; and then destroyed the buildings. Today it is a deserted city of ruins – a symbol of the deliberate attempt to destroy the economic heart of Syria.
The last part of the journey is a difficult 20km pot-holed track through demolished suburbs, with sandbanks to protect from sniper fire. It is regularly attacked. Yet this is the only lifeline and access to the city for the 1.5 million people who live in the government-controlled parts of the city.
And then – suddenly and without warning – the bombed out streets become normal, and you enter the government-controlled city, where the majority are getting on with their lives, under the constant threat of the rockets and ‘hell-fire canon’ – the gas canister missiles that shower down upon the city bringing death and destruction, not from the government, but from the ‘moderate’ rebels. And one discovers that the whole city is not destroyed, but that most of it, and the majority of its population, are still standing and getting on with their lives.