A wonderful series of memories appeared today from one of my many visits to Syria five years ago. At the time, the Old City was being relentlessly targeted with shells by the western-backed ‘rebel’ groups in the suburbs (a picture of a burnt out vehicle in an alley, and the last picture of a parked car, shows what randomly falling shells can do – imagine what they did to the men, women and children nearby).
Between 2012 and 2017, 11,000 civilians were killed in attacks from East Ghouta and Jobar on Central Damascus, including 1,500 children. 30,000 were injured or maimed, but western media rarely ever mentioned that fact. I wrote: “For any cynics out there, I should make clear that I am travelling independently. I have nobody with me and am free to go where I wish and meet who I please. Neither do I have any security… Whatever I do is at my own risk. I decided this morning to walk early through the Christian quarter of the Old City…It’s the weekend and it’s quiet so not a lot is open, but there were plenty of warm greetings and welcomes from those who were around.
In Damascus, life goes on but it is increasingly difficult. Sanctions are causing shortages of supplies. Costs have sky-rocketed… Damascus itself – a beautiful city – is looking tired and unkempt. Whilst some of the suburbs that were occupied by ‘rebels’ have been severely pummelled with bombardment (it is possible to see some of the devastation from the road into the city), the city centre has received five years of random mortar attacks, leaving it scarred, and vulnerable.”It was also a Sunday.
“Deciding to head to the Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarchate for their service, I arrived early and chanced upon a wonderful cameo – the then-Patriarch Gregorios III Laham alone with two priests doing Mattins. He was clearly training them in the chanting, with a beautiful mix of firm direction, genuine devotion, humility, mild humorous rebuke when they got it wrong, and constant explanation. He even stopped to welcome me warmly and explain what was going on.
Later, the Church filled for the Mass in which I was allowed to partake…”That evening, I spent a wonderful time with friends in a bustling Damascene cafe in the Old City, where Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christian, Alawite, from all parts of the country mingle quite happily.
“Talking to people it is evident that no-one has escaped the horrors of war – whether it be close friends/loved ones killed and/or kidnapped; and/or homes and livelihoods destroyed. And yet, whilst realistic about the multiple complexities of the realities, all determined to keep living, and most wanting to preserve the integrity of Syria, and reject the sectarian agendas that outside forces are creating.”
The most poignant quote of the day came from a dear Syrian Christian friend when I asked her to comment about westerners saying they support the militant groups who they say are fighting for ‘freedom’. She said: ‘”Freedom?” I hate the word “Freedom”. “Freedom” to them means guns and bullets, suicide bombings and killings.” I have deleted the word from my vocabulary. Don’t talk to me about freedom. We had peace before they brought us “freedom”.’
It is both tragic and truly shocking that many individuals, charitable organisations who should know better and claim to care about Syria, supposedly’ reliable’ media networks and NGOs in the west, refuse to listen to, or even engage with, Syrian voices inside Syria (where most of the population live), except those aligned with terrorist groups in militant-occupied areas of the country.