Christians forced to flee Syria's latest front-line fight

Maaloula has been a safe haven for Syrian Christians for two thousand years. Photo: PA

Its churches are empty, its monasteries deserted, many pitted and holed by the battles raging around them. Today, thousands of Christians should have filled its streets for the festival of the Holy Cross. But the streets of Maaloula are filled instead with soldiers and tanks, spent bullet casings and the noise of Syria's latest frontline fight.

Maaloula is a special place. It has been a safe haven for Christians for two thousand years. Until now. It was a place of refuge so secure in its rugged mountain isolation that the language of Jesus, Aramaic, is still spoken here. But not today.

Its Christian community of two thousand has fled. In the tight alleyways and streets that wind up the Maaloula's mountainside their language has been replaced by the Arabic of two bitter enemies, rebels from three Islamist groups and the soldiers of President Bashar al-Assad. Seventy thousand tourists a year used to come here from all over the Middle East, Europe and America to marvel at the Christianity carved into its rock. The 'Welcome to Maaloula' sign as I drove in seemed almost laughable.

I hardly had time to notice the white statue of Christ the Redeemer on the hillside before we were fired on, bullets aimed at our van, blowing our tyre and holing the chassis. We screeched to a halt and scrambled clear. We were caught in the middle of a town the Syrian army had declared liberated the day before. It was not. For the next four hours, I witnessed a fierce battle as the army tried to dislodge the snipers of, among other groups, the Nusra Front, the fighters allied to al-Qaeda. Their occupation of Maaloula had begun with a suicide bombing by a Jordanian that killed eight soldiers, and now saw dozens of well-trained gunmen pinning down an army of hundreds of troops and tanks.

A pro-Assad tank drives through the streets of Maaloula on September 11. Credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout

The statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ were shrouded in smoke and dust, as every few minutes a tank shell crashed into the mountainside. Christ's message of forgiveness had been forgotten here, the Bible's teaching that the peacemakers are blessed seemed a faint echo from another world. Syria's soldiers were angry and frustrated. Many didn't want us to show their faces or film their failure to recapture one of the jewels of Syria's multi-faith mosaic. Others kissed crucifixes they wore and cursed the Nusra Islamists who, as more than one assured me "were helped and trained by Britain and America". The rebels claim they took Maaloula to punish the Christians there for supporting the Assad government, a support that is real but tepid. For most Christians in Syria the fear of what Islamists might do if they win this war outweighs any dislike they have for President Assad's system.

Yesterday, in a Damascus church heavy with gold and grief, they mourned the Christians killed in the battle. The framed photographs of the dead sat next to the holy icons of the Greek Orthodox faith, some men in the pews bandaged from injuries they'd received. "We blame Obama", one woman in black yelled at me, "he should have the Nobel peace prize taken away from him- he is helping the rebels who killed our Christian brothers".

Most of the 3,300 residents in Maaloula have fled to safer parts of the country.

The battle for Maaloula seems a long way from the diplomatic debate abroad about Syria's chemical weapons. And so it seems across the country.

In a land weary of war, one woman personified it. Her head seemed to move heavily, her eyes slowly, as she looked up to the skies after four months in captivity. She told me she was thirty seven years old but she looked a decade older. She rolled up her sleeve to reveal the bruises and piercings of what she said was constant torture by her captors; rebels who accused her of being a spy. She'd been kidnapped inside a rebel held area; her religion, Alawite like President Assad, raising the suspicions of Islamists and their allies who've been attacked by Assad's army there for nearly two years. So they beat her, electrocuted her, she said, women as well as men joining in the torture, week after week.

There has been intense fighting between Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels. Credit: ITV News

Her lips were chapped, her teeth almost orange with neglect, her breasts, her whole body seemed deformed by her ordeal. She tried to stand up but could hardly walk. It was as if she'd had a stroke. She escaped her torturers only because she was swapped for the wife of a rebel leader, in a prisoner exchange. This then, is the nitty gritty of a dirty war without any end in sight. As I spoke to her, the battle raged all around us; the sniper fire across a sandbagged frontline; the thud of artillery shells landing amid the densely packed buildings; the occasional shouts of "Allahu Akbar", 'God is great', from across the rebel lines. Only one small glimmer of hope emerged from her ordeal. The Syrian army commander who brokered the swap, said he'd had many conversations on the phone with the rebel leader and had established a degree of trust. "I can talk to him", he said, "he seems like a good man. I won't trust him with everything but this is a start".

A pro-Assad soldier in Maaloula village on September 11. Credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout

The woman, who didn't want me to use her name because her brother is still missing, was lucky to escape. As the diplomats raised hopes of agreement on chemical weapons, the horrors of what conventional weapons and bitter enemies can do, were detailed in a report on two of the most horrific massacres perpetrated here. In May, pro-Assad forces entered the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas, anti-government enclaves within in a loyalist area, and killed at least two hundred and forty eight men, women & children, according to Human Rights Watch.

The sickening accounts, gleaned from witnesses, of men being separated from their families and executed together, of dead women clutching their dead children, and of corpses piled on streets and in back rooms or burned and mutilated, is familiar yet still utterly shocking. The explanation for their deaths is that loyalist fighters wanted to clear out Sunni Muslims from the area once and for all, making the land along the Mediterranean more secure than ever for the Government. It is not that far from Baniyas to Maaloula, but Syria's tradition of Christian refuge from Arab slaughter, of tolerance for all religions, is being eroded by the brutality and desperation of a civil war that will soon have claimed one hundred and ten thousand lives.

Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma on an Easter visit to Maaloula in 2008. Credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

In the capital Damascus, they are relieved to have escaped the immediate threat of more deaths from American missiles. "We're happy America won't attack us" a group of soldiers told me on a deserted street near their frontline, "but we're not fighting Americans, we're fighting terrorists". Their commander questioned whether it was a good idea for Syria to give up its chemical weapons under the threat of future strikes, "we might need them", he said, "because Israel has nuclear weapons. America too. Why isn't anyone putting pressure on them?"

Many here are revelling in the seeming triumph of President Putin's diplomacy. The longtime ally of President Assad has persuaded him to give up his chemical weapons and has flat footed President Obama, much to the delight of government loyalists here. Officials I've spoken to find it hard to keep the smiles off their faces.

The US and Russia have reached an agreement over Syria's chemical weapons. Credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Others are a little stunned by the speed of the week's developments. "Until now, we didn't know whether the government has been lying for forty years", said one businessman, "whether we really did have chemical weapons, or whether, like Saddam, it was a lie to make us look strong. Now we know".

Amid the sparring abroad, it's hard to believe Syria has suddenly admitted it has Sarin, mustard gas and other poisons. I drove past one of the sites outside Damascus where these poisons are said to have been developed, but no-one knows if they're still there. There are reports that the elite branch of Syria's army responsible for the weapons, Unit 450, has moved the stocks of gases to as many as fifty sites, perhaps to make it harder for the world to track, find and destroy.

Christ the Redeemer on the hillside in Maaloula. Credit: ITV News

For those who survived the chemical weapons attack three weeks ago, the diplomatic progress of the past week is cold comfort and a chilling betrayal. The residents of Zamalka feel forgotten by the world. First the Americans pulled back from a bombing they hoped would avenge the deaths of their loved ones. Now, everyone appears to be praising President Assad, the man they believe ordered the attack, for being a statesman and agreeing to hand over the weapons.

The poisoned air has cleared In Zamalka but not the memories. "This is the centre of it", says one man, standing in the ruins of a house with a hole in its roof. "The rocket crashed through here and everyone within fifty yards was killed". A little boy breaks off from playing football to describe how "the chemical bomb dropped just behind me. I lost my Dad and my grandparents."

UN weapons inspectors in Zamalka after the alleged chemical attack. Credit: Reuters

Another man says of the three thousand people who used to live in the area only about two hundred are left; twenty families. Their air was poisoned, now water is scarce in Zamalka. Every day the Syrian army keeps up its shelling of rebel held suburbs. One day, one area , the next, a different target. And the plumes of smoke rise, and far beyond the newly dead, buried in the rubble of the barrage, the traffic flows and the millions who haven't fled their homes go about their business, hoping the spirit of tolerance that Maaloula represents might one day triumph over the hatred, casual killing and mass slaughter of this long war.

First published by The Sunday Telegraph