I have just returned from this country, which I love, and which is now the scene of a brutal and all-encompassing persecution that affects everyone, whether Christians, Sunnis, Alawites or Shi‘ites. Yet, paradoxically, I can testify that I witnessed impressive gestures of humanity. Humanity capable of hope even in conditions of extreme fear and anguish, humanity that knows no religious barriers: fear of being blown up while traveling by car through traffic jams, fear of seeing children buried under the rubble of their school. The barbarity of the crimes by ISIS spread through the media generates general panic. Especially at dusk the threat becomes palpable because Isis jihadists are often found only a few dozen kilometres from villages and government-controlled areas.
ISIS: young, bearded, longhaired men
ISIS arouses the same dismay in Mohammed, who lives in the village of Harween, and Samer, from Damascus: they fear that its members will burst into their neighbourhoods, come into their homes, kill or converted them by force, abduct and rape their daughters. Everyone keeps their suitcases ready. Stories are told of people ready to blow themselves up with gas cylinders for cooking, rather than fall into the hands of ISIS.
Ibrahim lives in a village near Nabek, where he fled after escaping from Raqqa. He abandoned everything, after unsuccessfully trying to negotiate the release of the son of a Christian neighbour, who had been kidnapped. But there is no negotiating with ISIS: its leaders are foreigners and have no connection with the territory, they do not speak the same language.
ISIS is not only made up of jihadists who proclaim fundamentalist Islam. In the centre of Qaryatayn there are several local young people who belong to it: their long beards without moustaches and hair down to their shoulders distinguish them from those who are part of other groups, such as Jabhat-al-Nousra. Youssef left school at age 10, and since then he has scraped by with small jobs that allowed him to buy cigarettes and to get petrol for his motorbike, which was stolen from who knows where. Having become a member of ISIS, he now earns “real” money that has gained him the respect of his fellow travellers.
According to his mother, prior to this Youssef had never attended mosque or been part of any suspicious group. I met his mother in what remains of their home, a few square metres on the outskirts of the city. She burst into tears when she started talking about her son: “There would be work here in the village,” she said through tears, “but young people today don't want to graze their flocks any more. We own more than thirty sheep.”
The hope raised following the “Arab Spring” was fraught with illusions. According to the director of a school in Tartous, part of the population was convinced that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia would happen here too. Driven by this ideal, people from Sunni villages and neighbourhoods took to the streets to protest. But leaders blinded by their own personal purposes guided the people towards catastrophe. “Today,” says the school director, “Syria is led by emirs and clan leaders who have the money to recruit fighters for war.”
A girl from Homs who was paralysed from the waist down after a bomb exploded in front of her school described the situation this way: “Now everybody here hates each other and kills each other.” And this widespread hatred is felt concretely: Christians find themselves caught between Sunnis and Alawites. It is not easy to take an impartial attitude towards a conflict when you are a victim of it and you are forced to take refuge in another village or country.
It is the poorest who remain in conflict areas, because they don't even have the money for a bus ticket to Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and other destinations conquered by the rebels. The bravest also remain, and refuse to leave. Like Father Franz, who gave his life to stay in the old city of Homs with the civilian population barricaded in house for months.
In Damascus I met Father Amer, who carries out his vocation surrounded by boys and girls between ages 24 and 30, Christians and Muslims, some of whom returned from abroad to help with tangible solidarity projects. One of these is the gym that recently opened in the heart of the capital, where young women in particular have the opportunity to practice different sports. There is also the choir that Aisha, for example, attends every week and which constitutes the only moment of distraction from the falling bombs, especially at night, on the outskirts of Damascus, towards Joba.
In Qaryatayn I also re-visited Father Jacques, a native of Aleppo. My heart and mind retained the memory of his great commitment to keeping the monastery of Mar Elian and the surrounding area alive. With a sweeping gesture of the hand, he had proudly pointed out the fruit trees he had planted in the desert to give food and work to those who lived near the monastery. For long months he hosted more than 100 Christian and Muslim families inside and outside the walls of the convent. He had not, however, hidden his concern about the advance of ISIS. He replied to my worries saying, “It is important to continue to invest, especially at this time. The projects of the monastery are an important signal of hope and peace for the whole city. It encourages people to continue to live their daily lives.”
A few days after our meeting I learned of his abduction at the hands of ISIS.