On Sunday thousands of Christians should have filled its streets for the festival of the Holy Cross. But instead the streets of Maaloula are filled with soldiers and tanks, spent bullet casings and the noise of Syria’slatest front-line fight.
Maaloula is a special place. It has been a safe haven for Christians for 2,000 years – until now. It was a place of refuge so secure in its rugged mountain isolation that a dialect of the language of Christ, Aramaic, is still spoken here. But not today.
Its Christian community of 2,000 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 In the tight alleyways and streets that wind up the Maaloula’s mountainside their language has been replaced by the Arabic of two bitter enemies: rebels from three Islamist groups and the soldiers of President Bashar al-Assad.
Some 70,000 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. But the “Welcome to Maaloula” sign as I drove in seemed almost laughable.
There was hardly 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 from rebel control the day before. But it was not, and for the next four hours, I witnessed a fierce battle as the army tried to dislodge the snipers of, among other groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, 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.
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 to 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 Assad’s system.
On Saturday, 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”.
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 37 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 had been kidnapped inside a rebel held area; her religion, Alawite like Assad, raising the suspicions of Islamists and their allies who have 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.
Her lips were chapped, her teeth almost orange with neglect, her whole body seemed deformed by her ordeal. She tried to stand up but could hardly walk. It was as if she had 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 she spoke, 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.