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 6
31 August – 7 September 2016
Lattakia.. (A case-study for the West ?)
In Lattakia one enters a different world… a thriving coastal city, and heartland of the Alawite community. Lattakia has not been untouched by the war. There have been car bombs and attacks, and massacres in villages in the surrounding hills, most notably at Kessab in 2014. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands injured. Meeting with the Governor of Lattakia province, he told us of some of the challenges facing the district. Most notable is the fact that Lattakia province – a small coastal area – hosts 1 million internally displaced people who have fled rebel-controlled areas. Of these, only 4000 live in Community Centres set up by the government. All the rest are living in houses provided by the government. All services are provided by the government free of charge: electricity, schools and health care. The Centres that exist are simple but provide the best possible conditions.
The Governor told us that many people had come from other cities to Lattakia because it is a comparatively safe area. Doctors, teachers, engineers, craftspeople and local people share their homes, food, water, schools with the families of soldiers who have gone to fight. Health care is free for all. He also pointed out that there hasn’t been a single incident of violence against local people by the IDPs, whatever their background, and that they can move freely. He continued: “What is happening in Syria is not just terrorism attacking Syria, but it is terrorism that is attacking the whole world. Those countries who support the terrorists will suffer terrorism in their own countries. More dangerous than terrorism is the ideology that is affecting the next generation. Syria is committed to reconciliation. We recognise that we are all Syrians and we will always welcome those who have left even if they have been fighters against us. We are fighting terrorism on behalf of the whole world, and we shake hands with those countries who will help to end this terrorist war. I thank all people who stand with Syria and everyone who supports us with aid such as UN aid organisations to support the internally displaced, and the good people who come to see the reality for themselves.”
Internally Displace refugees and their stories:
In Lattakia we visited one of the Internally Displaced Centres, set up in the buildings of a sports complex. This had not been previously arranged. The residents were clearly surprised to see us and unprepared. Each family has a room. There are facilities for cooking as well as running water, showers and lavatories. The Government runs a kindergarten for the children with other small local NGOs, and the Patriarch of Antioch regularly brings milk. The people we met were from Idleb province and had been there since 1 January 2013. (These stories are very similar to the many stories that I have heard from IDPs in Lattakia, Homs, Damascus, and from refugees in Lebanon and Iraq).
The people in the pictures are those whose stories are shared below in their own words (PDF version of the report with the pictures available upon request):
“Back home we were besieged for 2 years by Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, FSA and Nur ud Din Zenki.” (We asked if they really meant that FSA ‘the moderates’ were also with the other groups, and they confirmed that was the case.) “The Jihadists stopped all food supplies and placed snipers in the mountains who shot us. We had to put the bodies of those who died in houses. We had no medical care for those who were wounded and we had to use clothes as bandages. In 2 months, 250 people were killed by snipers, mortars and tanks and at least 300-400 were injured – some with minor injuries and others with severe injuries. After the continuous siege we decided to escape from the village. As we ran, some went to the Turkish border, some to Idleb. 130 of those who fled to Idleb were captured and killed. Those who fled to Turkey had relatives who could helpf them. Then the Syrian government brought us here and provided this accommodation.” We asked about the fact that the media say that the majority of the IDPs flee the brutality of the Syrian government. The speaker laughed. “It is the terrorists who are brutal. Before the conflict we had safety. I don’t need the freedom the Jihadists are calling for as we already had freedom.” We asked what he wanted to say to the international community. He laughed again: “Leave us alone. We’ve had enough of your ‘freedom’! Let Syrians decide their own future”.
Then the women told us their experiences:
Fadila: “We were besieged by terrorist groups supported by Turkey, attacking us with all kinds of weapons. My husband was helping the Army to defend us and he was killed by a sniper. I have 7 children and I hope we will return soon. The town I came from has 2 parts. One part helped the terrorists, but the majority resisted”.
Fatima: “We were under siege by the terrorists, and on 24 December 2012 I fled with all the people of the village at night. Women were divided into 2 parts and we arrived safely. The rest were captured and killed, including my three children, aged 48,42 and 37. They all had children who are with their mothers under the protection of the government here”.
Aysha: “I lost my son aged 25 and my husband aged 52. When we escaped they were captured and killed by beheading. My husband was caught, beaten and shot with 50 bullets. My brother and my brother’s son were also killed in the same way”.
Return journey from Lattakia to Damascus.
The return journey to Damascus from Lattakia via Homs was poignant. A few days previously 4 car bombs had exploded almost simultaneously at checkpoints in Homs, Tartous, Hassakeh and near Damascus. It is particularly shocking when you see the long queues of cars at these checkpoints, filled within innocent men, women and children, and the many Syrian soldiers around them, who are the husbands, sons, uncles and fathers of Syria. In each of these car bombs, over 40 people had died and dozens were injured. One of them had exploded at the very checkpoint where just the day before, we had stopped and talked with the soldiers – soldiers who were probably blown to pieces the following day. On our return from Lattakia, we passed the spot where one of the car-bombs had exploded, and also skirted an area where battles were continuing to take place in the Damascus countryside. What is shocking is that as far as we are aware, none of these car-bombs, or those who died, were mentioned by the international media. After all, it does not suit the narrative of heroic ‘moderate’ rebels, fighting the ‘brutality’ of a man who happens to be supported by so many… does it?