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 5
31 August – 7 September 2016
Arriving in Aleppo from the Castello Rd is a bewildering experience. After passing through miles of destroyed suburbs, (formerly occupied by ‘rebels’, but now secured by the Syrian army) the road into town very suddenly becomes like any other city. Within the space of a hundred metres, empty ruins become tree-lined, car-filled boulevards, cafes, shops, Churches and mosques. The media give the impression that the whole city of Aleppo is destroyed. This is far from the truth. Large areas are, but two thirds of the city still stands, and in this city, constantly shelled by rebel-held areas, where death and destruction is a threat from all sides, a veneer of ordinary life goes on. Arriving at sunset, less than five hundred metres from an area that looks like a scene from Armageddon, people were out in the streets and the cafes were full. This is government-controlled Aleppo, where 1.5 million people live. These people are not being bombed by Assad. Rather the Syrian Army is protecting them, no matter to which sectarian or faith community they belong. These people are very grateful that the long siege of the city imposed by the rebels, which received barely any attention in the international media is now over.
The scenes of devastation that we see on our TV screens are real, but they are only a part of the story. The narratives we hear about on our media are exclusively reported from the rebel side, where an estimated 200,000 people struggle to survive. Of those, 50,000 are fighters, many of them foreign and most belonging to extremist factions, and the remainder are mainly families of those fighters. Most of the resident population of those areas have long since fled, either to the safety of the government-held areas, or have fled the country.
We were the first British group to visit Aleppo since the start of the conflict. As we entered the city, we passed the City’s University, where earlier in the day, four shells from the rebel-controlled areas had landed, miraculously without loss of life on this occasion. Our reception was deeply moving. As we arrived at the Armenian Club in the City, about four hundred people on 2 floors who had come to have dinner with us, rose to their feet and applauded. We were welcomed with a wonderful Armenian feast, and with warm hospitality. The meal was serenaded with two accompaniments: a string quintet that played for us; and the constant sound of bombing and shells (going both ways) just a few kms away. At one point, close gunfire interrupted the music, and we were told that one of the front-lines was less than a kilometre away.
The people of Aleppo suffer from regular power and water cuts, often cut off by rebel groups. The Syrians we met asked if the world knew what was going on in Aleppo. I could only respond that as far as people knew, the whole city was destroyed, and that the government are bombing, shelling and gassing their own people. They were both amused and exasperated. They said that the rebels had used gas, not the government. It is also an extremely common view in Syria (and often repeated by those in Aleppo themselves) that the people whom the government are bombing in the city, are not civilians, but are almost exclusively terrorists and their families. The 1.5 million civilians living in the comparative ‘safety’ of the government-held areas of the city are exhausted by the constant shelling and ‘hell-fire canon’ attacks of the rebels, and are keen for the government to win the war.
We stayed at a remarkable 5* hotel in the city. Throughout the night, we could hear the sound of bombs, shelling and gunfire in the near distance.
In the morning, we were on the way to visit some of the Churches destroyed in the war, when our vehicle was stopped and turned back – the immediate vicinity of the Churches was being shelled by the rebels. And so we went as invited to the Bethel Armenian Evangelical Church, where we were met by over 500 local Christians, and by some of the city’s leading Muslim figures. The warmth of our reception was humbling. Everyone was deeply grateful for us for having made the effort to visit.
The people we met included Sunni and Shia leaders; Chaldaean Catholic Bishop Audo; President of the Armenian Evangelical Church, Harout Selimien and other local Armenian and other Christians; Yazidi refugees; Doctors Council of the City. The majority of the city is not under government control and is not being bombed by the President. Here, different communities coexist and are getting on with life despite the constant random shelling and killing by the rebels. (Throughout our visit we could hear the shelling and gunfire of both sides).
A service was held, attended by members of other Christian and other faith communities, during which I had the profound honour of preaching, using as my text, the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and receiving a warm response from one of the senior Muslim Sheikhs. The Sheikhs present affirmed their respect for the Christian communities; their abhorrence of extremist Wahhabi ideology, and their support for the Government. We also met some Yazidi refugees with horrific stories of their experiences at the hands of ISIS, and pleading with the international community to prevent Turkey from allowing the influx of arms and fighters…. Everyone we spoke to there (Christian and Muslim alike) pleaded for us to share the realities in the city; counter the lies that litter the media; and to call upon our Government to cease supporting the Islamist extremists who are destroying the country; and to work with the Syrian government to promote reform and sustain a pluralistic, secular society.
Doctor’s Council of Aleppo…
In the afternoon, we met with the Governor of Aleppo who told us of the efforts being made to receive what civilians are left in rebel-controlled areas. He mentioned the many stories of people who are wanting to leave those areas, being prevented from doing so, and some being killed for wanting to do so. He despaired of the international media’s misrepresentation of the realities on the ground.
Afterwards we were incredibly lucky to visit the Senior Doctor’s Council of Aleppo. This was a last minute arrangement, and by chance we interrupted a meeting of the Senior Executive of Aleppo Doctors. The doctors were glad to interrupt their meeting and welcomed us warmly, saying they were delighted we had come to see the situation. The group that were present included representatives of different medical specialities. The first thing we asked was about the regular media reports that there are only a few doctors left in Aleppo and that the last paediatrician was killed in a government airstrike. They laughed.
“Firstly you must understand that there is a media war against Syria, so you won’t hear about what’s happening in Government-controlled areas. Actually, there are 250 paediatricians currently active in Aleppo. The one that was killed is not on any register as a doctor of this city. Nor is the ‘Al Quds’ hospital that was supposedly destroyed known in Aleppo it all. It was probably a temporary field clinic set up by the terrorists. When they say that a ‘hospital’ has been targeted by the government, they are usually temporary field-clinics; they are not registered clinics or hospitals. Today, there are 4,260 doctors in Aleppo of which 3,150 are active. Of these, about 1,500 are specialists. Since the start of the conflict, 20 registered hospitals have been destroyed by the terrorists (these are not mentioned in the western media). But there are still 6 active public hospitals and about 40 small private hospitals in the city. At the moment we have a huge shortage of medicines and equipment in both public and private hospitals, including MRI machines. Our priorities are spare parts for equipment. Most of the aid given by the WHO and by other agencies, and all the resources given by Saudi Arabia and Turkey goes to the terrorists, not to the citizens of the city.” One of those present shared his experience of an attack on the only Mental Health hospital in the north of the country: “I was working in the Hospital in the Government-controlled area until 2012 with all my staff. We were giving all services to the patients. Then Daesh attacked. They bombed the hospital and took hostages as patients. They looted and sold most of the equipment and destroyed the rest. One of the patients was bipolar and doing well but she was raped; then she had a baby by the man who raped her. She is Christian but was forced to become Muslim. She was then divorced and returned to the hospital with serious PTSD. The Syrian Army retook the hospital and the gave us 1 million dollars to rebuild it. We now have 100 patients. Even in war areas under terrorist control we provide some medicines and treatment.”
One of the key accusations against the Syrian government is of chemical attacks. There have been several chemical attacks by ‘rebels’ on government-controlled areas but these have of course gone largely unreported. Meanwhile, Syria’s main chemical factory is under ‘rebel’ control. Add to that the dubious origins of the accusations; the growing evidence and proof of staged attacks and atrocities to implicate Syrian and Russian forces; and the consistent bias of many news networks, and it becomes clear that we should be very careful about taking reports at face value. This was emphasised to us when we visited the Doctors Council in Aleppo this week. And it was also admitted by two senior British journalists whom we met in Damascus that blame could not definitively be apportioned.
Journey out of Aleppo
Departing Aleppo was another hair-raising journey. The morning of our departure, the terrorist groups declared that the ‘Castello Rd’ – the only way in and out of the city – would once again be targeted, in response to the Syrian Army recapture of a crucial Aleppo airbase. We were travelling to Lattakia, but the only route available is south-east into the desert, close to Daesh lines and where vehicles are pretty much ‘sitting ducks’; south-west to Hama; and then a circuitous route across the mountains passing within 5kms of Jabhat al Nusra lines in Idleb district.(All in all a journey that took 7 hours) The journey was made a little more worrying by the fact that our diligence in keeping our presence as quiet as possible had been ‘blown’ by the BBC when they reported our meeting with the President. We were grateful therefore for the armed escort for the journey. There was one worrying moment, when an unidentified helicopter sped straight towards us at high speed and low altitude from about a km distance – fortunately it was friendly and was obviously ‘checking us out’, but it highlighted for us the sheer vulnerability of our position.