On the march with Assad’s army in Yabroud, Syria
Robert Fisk reports from the town of Yabroud – reoccupied at the weekend by government forces – and witnesses the destruction and trauma caused by a brutal civil war
The battle for Yabroud is over, but its Greek Catholic church has been savagely vandalised by its former rebel occupants, its streets carpeted with cartridge cases, its houses smashed with shell holes.
Syria’s soldiers – along with a host of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon – watched General Badi Ali raise the government flag on Monday, too late to save the beautiful frescoes slashed into ribbons by the men of the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front in Syria’s oldest church.
The Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady is a place of shame, of burnt copies of the New Testament, paintings slashed with knives – many were lying in strips of gold and red fabric beside the altar’s broken cross – and mosaics chiselled from the walls. Sceptics may ask if the regime performed this act of sacrilege – for the benefit of cameras – but it must have taken weeks to have wrecked this place of worship with its ancient columns and to have gouged out the eyes of the mosaic saints.
The Islamists had attacked a mosaic of St George and the Dragon – and had even gouged out the dragon’s eyes as well as those of the unfortunate knight. You cannot call such sacrilege an infamy. But you have to ask how Syria can ever repair relations between its Muslims and Christians after such vandalism. Perhaps the answer is never, although in an act of immense courage, the Muslim civilians of this ancient town protected their Christian neighbours to the end.
As for Syria’s soldiers, they poured into the town in their thousands. There were no corpses left – though there were rotting animals aplenty – but the men I talked to yesterday were tough fighters, their faces burnt by the mountain air after 13 days of fighting. So were the Hezbollah members who stared with amazement at the English reporter, demanding that their photographs not be taken but cheerfully agreeing that they had come from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, on the other side of the mountain range above Yabroud.
Their equipment was new, including their sniper rifles and radios. No ragtag army this. The Syrian army and Hezbollah appeared to be operating semi-independently of each other and kept apart in the streets, though they shared their food and stood to watch two new Russian-made tanks drive into the main square.
How can you record the history of the past 13 days – or indeed the story of the little boy who had lived all of his 15 months under the rule of Islamists – when no one save those who live here and the rebel fighters among them were witnesses to the more than two years Yabroud has endured?
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The road into the town was torn up, its buildings, shops and stores ransacked, its people hiding in fear. I found one woman only in a street of Ottoman houses so old that their walls were made of clay and water. She still kept cows in her basement. Um Qusai – hers was the little boy – talked of how she and up to 70 other women staged a demonstration in the street against the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, some of whom did not even speak Arabic.
“They threatened us and surrounded us and told us we could not demonstrate. They said we were not to use the name of Bashar al-Assad but we said we wanted no foreigners in Syria. Then we had another demonstration and there were only 10 of us and they surrounded us with 200 of their fighters. Then the fighters staged their own demonstration. And they made a tape and played it on their radio, claiming the leader of our demonstration was a government agent. They put a gun to her head. But the tape was fake.”
There were other comments which were deeply disturbing. Um Qusai claimed that the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters – who like her were Sunni Muslims – forced the people in the town to pay high prices for the food they brought in. The Christians had to pay even higher prices as a tax because of their religion. And much of the food, she said, was UN humanitarian aid from across the border in Lebanon – presumably from the refugee camps in which supporters of the rebels have sought safety.
At the corner of one street, I came across the Syrian army field commander who had battered his way into Yabroud, Colonel Median Abbadeh. He described a two-stage battle – the shellfire was still banging away in the foothills above us as we spoke – which will inevitably now move on to the town of Rankous, where Jabhat al-Nusra is still holding out. But of one thing he was insistent: the Lebanese town of Arsal – from which the rebels had brought so much ammunition into Syria – was now cut off behind the Lebanese border. Another blow to Assad’s opponents.
Abbadeh’s soldiers had been fighting for two days without sleeping but they looked like men who believed they were winning – and that may indeed be the truth. Unless they lose Yabroud – as they did Maaloula last year after recapturing it for the government – the Syrian army looks set on staying here. Hence the flag-raising and all the references to “victory”, “courage” and “heroism”. General Ali’s speech went on and on – why do all generals make the same speeches? – but the old posters still remained on the walls.
One was entitled “The People’s Liberation Party of Yabroud”. It read: “If you are patient and you are devoted to God, the cunning of your enemies will not harm you.” But a lot of harm did come to the rebels in Yabroud. Unusually the Syrians took prisoners. Ominously, I saw none.
The Syrians officers said they had found Egyptian and Emirates passports in the town. They were real, they said, and were taken from the corpses of their dead owners – they could, alas, not produce them for me to see – although they had names.
Abdul-Rahman Mehrez was the commander of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. And there was a Tunisian called Mahmoud Osman al-Barsha. Mohamed al-Qudaini, leader of the Maghawiral-Qalamoun brigade. Omar Sulieman Khaznah, leader of the Fajr al-Islam brigade. The list went on and on.
Yabroud is – or was – a rich town. Its many families who left Syria include that of President Carlos Menem of Argentina, who revisited his home town on 23 November 1994. There’s even a monument to the event, covered in the green, white and black flag of the rebels. Perhaps those families will pay to rebuild this town. But who will pay to rebuild Syria?
Yabroud now looks like much of Syria. Trashed, gutted, fought over, rubbled. And it will, no doubt, be counted a famous victory.
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