What is Syria? Truth is, I do not know what to answer! I saw people bursting into tears, others crying, some holding back their tears, others staring into my eyes and saying: "I love you very much" when I had just met them. We talk about war, economic sanctions, disappearing Christians, but in the street we see Syrians celebrating life, dancing and singing despite the war, the coronavirus and the sanctions.
I met a people who want to live and not survive, I heard a people often disillusioned and ready to leave their country for good.
Syria is not what the media said about it; Syria is not what I say about it, only the Syrians could tell you what it is, but in the meantime, let me share with you what I have learned.
For 18 days, accompanied by Benjamin Blanchard, general director of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, Waël Kassouha, head of mission in Syria and Jean-Rémi Méneau, deputy head of mission in Syria, I visited Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, I visited the main working sites of the association and many archaeological sites classified as world heritage by UNESCO, I met Syrians to better understand the economic situation and the crisis that the country is going through because of economic sanctions and discover the deep attachment of many of them to France.
Through this travel diary, I propose you to follow some of these visits and to discover with me this country that everybody talks about but that nobody really knows.
LAST DAY : Syria is worth coming to, living in and dying for.
It is 6 pm. The sun is setting over Syria. A mechanic is rolling a wheel on the still-warm asphalt of his shop front. Children, perched at the back of a small car, are anxiously looking at the windscreen of our car, hiding from time to time behind a water can three times their size. Some men are chatting, leaning against a tree whose saving shade brings comfort in this stifling heat.
Others, with their hands in the grease, shirts of all colours on their shoulders, rags in the back pocket of their trousers, cigarettes in their mouths, are repairing their motorbikes, parked on pools of used oil whose smell suggests that an oil deposit is nearby. A child who can't be more than three years old rides one of the motorbikes mimicking acceleration with his right hand.
Others pile onto a tractor returning from the fields. Will they have enough oil left to keep their crops going tomorrow?
Children with sun-tanned skin drench themselves with the last drops from their water bottles. Another serves tea to his brother sitting cross-legged. Others head down, sticks in hand, to look after the goats and cows that graze in the fields of golden, sun-dried grass.
One could believe he is in a Provençal village. If you listen carefully and imagine fields of lavender, you can almost hear the cicadas singing.
I think of Marcel Pagnol and the "Gloire de mon père". It is a simple life devoid of superficiality. The demons of individualism have not yet struck.
"The problem in Europe is the race to individualism," I still hear Reem, our Syrian guide, tell me. In the pursuit of absolute individuality, we have lost the sense of sharing and community. In our quest to do more and better, we have forgotten the simple pleasures of life.
Eating a lightly sweetened tomato after a 24-hour fast is an immense gustatory pleasure. Finally, managing to make ourselves understood by Ramez, our driver and friend, by miming a conversation warms the heart. Playing with a baby dog that will soon be chasing pigs in the countryside of Ain Halakim is heartwarming.
One can rejoice in everything and especially in nothing. This is surely one of the most beautiful lessons that the Syrians give us. War does not take everything. Weapons take away loved ones, jihadists destroy dreams and hopes, but nothing can kill a united community that does not give up and carries itself upwards.
I would be lying if I told you that I immediately fell in love with Syria. I quickly found it too noisy with its incessant beeping of cars that pollute the planet so much or its constant noise that never stops, even at night. And then, one day, on 14 June, without warning, the charm worked.
When I realised that I would soon be leaving it, without knowing if I would ever see it again, and when I felt tears welling up in my eyes in the car that was taking me back to Damascus, I realised at that moment that... I really loved Syria! It was not the monuments that made me love it; it was the Syrians. I spent three weeks listening to them, trying to understand what was going on in those narrow streets covered with a thin layer of dust or in those long, endless, traffic-jammed avenues.
I laughed with them, tangled with them, shook their hands, listened to their suffering and shared their pain. I thought that three weeks would be long, too long. I always imagined a country at war where I would be constantly afraid in the street.
But these three weeks were very short and if I had known... I would not have done anything differently because time needs time, and it is the only one that can bring an answer that we were not even looking for. It makes you grow and changes your life.
Syria is full of surprises, and I have not discovered a third of them. It deserves that we come there, that we live there and that we die there. So inshallah, I will come back and see its mountains, its Damascene houses, its children awkwardly driving a tractor, its sons and daughters who courageously stayed despite the war, despite the sanctions and who still say today: "Syria is my life."
Syria will never die. I am proud and deeply honoured to have met all of you.
DAY 7 : In the den of a former terrorist hospital...
Thursday morning finds us in good shape. "It's not so hot today," I catch myself thinking.
"It's just that it's 9 o'clock... still early!" It's true that with the sun rises very early here in Syria, I always have the feeling that it's much later than the time on the clock. In the car, Jean Rémi, deputy head of mission in Syria, asks me, "And the belt... is it an option?" I had completely forgotten about it... In two days, I had lost the habit of fastening my seatbelt... fast! However, for safety reasons, the association is hunting down "divergents". We laugh about it, I put on my belt, but soon the car stops. We pick up Sister Hyacinthe and Sister Nathalie from the Congregation of the Daughters of the Rosary and we head for the Rosary School. As usual, French is mixed with English and Arabic in a joyful maelstrom of rough consonants and singing vowels. Between two honks of the horn, Jean Rémi explains our morning journey.
"The Rosary School is located in the governorate of Aleppo, only 5 kilometres from Idlib, the front line. Built in 2010, it could only open its doors for one year because the war broke out, and it was immediately closed. Armed terrorist groups quickly seized it and turned it into a hospital. It was not until 2019 that the Syrian Arab Army took over the position."
The school is badly damaged. "Look to the right," Waël, head of the mission in Syria calls out to me. He grabs my camera and starts recording.
In the distance, between unfinished buildings with rusty cables sticking out, scattered olive trees beaten by the wind and fields yellowed by the sun stands an imposing complex of several buildings. I can't see much more from my seat in the back of the van, but I'm starting to wonder.
"What will we find there? Abandoned drugs, books, AK-47?" In the early days of the liberation, it was very common to come across such souvenirs buried in the ruins of these devastated neighbourhoods. But now? Two years later?
A padlocked metal gate blocks the entrance. On the left wall, an inscription painted in blue: "There is no God but Allah" (the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith) and underneath, the flag of the Islamic State organisation. The tone is set.
The terrorists had obviously made the place their own. The van moves off slowly forward. The courtyard is cleared of rubble, now piled up around the edges. Gigantic sharpened stones are piled up like a rickety pyramid, at the feet of sometimes ghostly buildings whose outer walls are absent.
When I get out of the car, my brain switches to off mode; to work effectively, I can't ask myself questions about what happened here, nor can I have any feelings.
I know I won't have much time to really sit and think about the video and photo shots I want to take. I have to move fast, interviewing the Mother Superior, Jean Rémi and Benjamin Blanchard while alternating between the camera and the mobile phone. So, I jump in without waiting and run around while the Sister starts her presentation about the place.
The alleys are not so crowded anymore, and we proceed easily. I discover each crevice of this imposing complex through the eye of my camera: the long, empty corridors where the sound of my footsteps and the cracking of the glass under my sneakers resound, the staircases exploded into a thousand pieces covered with gravel and bits of glass that make the soles slip. "I can't go down with you! I don't have the proper shoes", Mother Haya tells me when I suggest "visiting the basement".
Visit... a big word, but the atmosphere of the place is so special that it reminds me of the Urbex videos in Iraq by Grand JD, the space base by Cyril MP4 and the one-shot in Chernobyl by Mamytwink. If Syria wasn’t such a difficult country to get entry visas, Youtubers would surely flock there to make urbex videos in these apocalyptic settings.
But my brain is really off. I don't think about the horrors that could have happened here, nor about the fate of those who had to leave everything behind; I remain pragmatic and focused.
I can't see my colleagues. I know they are a few metres ahead, but I can't hear them. I feel very small and alone in this sort of giant hangar where the doors have been removed. Given the size of the corridors, I imagine a giant Fast and Furious race, the sound of the engines whirring and the wheels squealing while drifting.
I don't want to stay here forever, but I do want to discover more. "Come and see here," Jean Rémi calls out to me from the end of the corridor. "Here were the toilets. They stole everything... everything! It was probably sold in Turkey." There is nothing left but new piles of stones, some plastic pipes, but the toilets are gone. Everything that can make money has been looted. By whom?
I'm not sure... terrorist groups maybe, or by others, just after the liberation. In any case, this school, which had just opened, lost everything in a few years.
Without much regret, I go back up to interview the Sister. "We had to leave the school in a hurry when the war started. In Aleppo, with the help of Monsignor Audio, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, we rented a centre to continue teaching the children. We stayed there for five years. It wasn't easy! The bombs were flying over our heads. Today, we teach 375 children, but we no longer have a place to accommodate them."
Behind the camera, I smile to put her at ease, but inside, what she says in her frail voice begins to crack my shell.
"The renovation of the school is urgent! The Ministry of Education has given us two years to rehabilitate the complex. If we don't, we will lose our teaching licence." Thus, by September 2022, the work at the Rosary School must be completed. "Parents and students are asking insistently to return to their school ... to their main school! I would be so grateful if you could help us! Nobody helps us. You see the way we live. It is very difficult. We can't even afford our basic needs! Food! That's why if the French donors can help us, we will be very grateful. We can't give them anything in return; just pray for them."
The interview ends. The saddened voice of the Sister still stays on my mind, when I hear a more masculine voice calling me from the roof of the building.
Benjamin and Waël beckon me to join them. Sister hands me a sweet; I grab it, shove it in my mouth and clumsily climb the stairs while trying to film without moving too much. Rubble is piled up on the stairs, making them slippery and unstable; medical equipment from the UK scatters around the rusty bars and hospital bracelets.
The roof offers a bird's eye view of the school and its surroundings. As far as the eye can see, burnt-out fields and houses are strewn like a broken rosary. The sight is desolate.
It's hard to imagine the laughter of children filling the place. I hear nothing but the cracking of glass and stones under my sneakers. Even the conversations of my colleagues seem muffled. I find it hard to see and think about anything other than the verses of the Quran etched on the walls, the rocks that frequently block the passage, the now-empty rooms that have been home to terrorists, the cracking of the hall in the wind, the bullet holes on the walls. I naturally think of Chernobyl and the void created by the nuclear disaster.
The silence is deafening here, so to soften it, I make more noise while walking and join the others at the car; looking back one last time, I see at a rose, blooming amidst the rubble.
DAY 6: Thistles, pennants, beehives and sting of hope for a casual day in the mountains.
The alarm clock is ringing! Finally... I've been half-awake since 5 am. Without making too much noise, I've tried to keep myself busy to pass the time by looking at the association's social media, trying to force sleep to come by fixing the iron bars of the bunk bed above me or even putting back my earplug that had fallen out during the night. But nothing works, and I get annoyed. On the other hand, I've never had trouble getting up in the morning, so knowing that it's 8.30 am and that today we're going to spend the day in the countryside makes me happy.
Then the same morning routine begins! No breakfast... no need after the hearty dinner of last night... but a strong coffee prepared by Ramez, driver and friend of the association, who once again slept in the living room. Everyone has his own preferences! On the balcony, it is always very mild in the morning, and to rest there peacefully, for a few moments, especially when a light breeze blows the place, allows the prolonging of the stillness of the night. Then everything speeds up; I unplug the cables from the battery chargers, gather and select my equipment according to what I know about the environment we are going to. Telephoto lens? Stabilizer? Go Pro? What is absolutely necessary for the day? Only the Joby tripod does not give rise to any debate. Overloading yourself for nothing is particularly counterproductive as the bag quickly becomes very heavy, and the shoulder pain that spills over into the back becomes disabling. Those who have hiked in the high mountains will understand this feeling perfectly!
No hike planned today but a visit to the olive fields in the mountains of Ain Halakim and a very sweet surprise... To understand why we are going to the Syrian countryside today, we have to go back to September 2020.
A series of violent fires had ravaged the farmland of eleven villages in western Syria. On that day, the aridity, which allowed apples, vines and olives to grow, caused the loss of crops. Civilians, soldiers and firefighters fought valiantly against the fire for almost thirty hours before being brought under control. But for hundreds of hectares, it was already too late. There was nothing left. The farmers were ruined.
Already battered by economic sanctions, farmers now had nothing but ash to survive on. In a few months, before Christmas, SOS Chrétiens d'Orient had taken the urgent decision to replant 25,000 olive trees to allow the farmers to project themselves towards the future and encourage them to stay in Ain Halakim. And now, what is the situation? This is the question we want to answer as we walk through these arid, sun-scorched lands. But, like all morning car journeys, the atmosphere is calm. I am glued to my computer screen, writing while the others listen to music, rest or exchange with the missions via Telegram.
We are first received by Read Souliebe, mayor of Hazzour, a Syrian agricultural village strongly impacted by the fires of autumn 2020, as it is a village that has experienced a real haemorrhage of its lifeblood, the young people, who are leaving the mountainous region for the city or abroad in search of gainful employment. At their wits' end, they do not want to fight for Hazzour and prefer to desert rather than try to try to build a life in a vacuum. A very bitter observation shared by Father Jean but not by Ragheb Koussa, mayor of the neighbouring village of Ain Halakim, where the young people show resilience and adaptability. Even on their knees, they are still standing! Olive trees burning? Okay! Let's go into beekeeping! Because yes... As we will discover a little later in the afternoon, Ain Halakim iswell known (or was before the war) for its tasty and unctuous honey.
But not everything depends on the will of the youngest, and the sanctions (always the same) plunge the rural workers into a tragic uncertainty. Heavily dependent on motorized vehicles, with fuel prices soaring at the pump when it is not totally unobtainable or rationed, they simply cannot work anymore or only very rarely. The decline in purchasing power due to inflation and the fall in the value of the Syrian pound affects not only the daily lives of households but also their spiralling morale.
Despite the rather depressing topic, the atmosphere in the mayor's office is relaxed. Waël and Benjamin joke with Father Jean next to an old-fashioned TV stand. The farmers chat while sipping hot tea around a wood-burning boiler. The electricity has gone off... It is dark in the room and the natural light coming in from the windows is not enough to illuminate the whole place. As usual, I listen for snatches of conversation, but the size of the place makes the sound of conversations resonate, and I only hear a linguistic hubbub... and a few notes of music coming from outside. A scout troop? Father John catches my change in posture as I hear the first notes of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. "Yes! They're rehearsing for later!" But what's happening later? Is someone important coming to the village? Are they putting on a show?
Knowing that my questions will not be answered, I concentrate on the people present to occupy my mind. But the observation is short-lived after this new tasting break; we go down to the Saint-Elie catechism centre under construction. From a distance, as the slope is steep, I hear the drums and trumpets of the scouting band again and begin to see the multicoloured flags fluttering in the wind as their bearers march past in close ranks. "Oh yes, they are rehearsing something indeed! But what?" I have heard and seen these bands many times! In Bethlehem already ... in 2010 when I stayed there for three months and on the social media since then. Unlike our European Scout troops, who like to roll around in the mud for long weeks in summer and tame nature to train, the Easter forces troops are more focused on "soft" musical and educational activities. Thus, each troop has its own band, and the camps are more like "cheap" Olympics where the interest is not to go into survival mode but to have fun in optimal conditions of comfort.
Far be it from me to criticize. I rather like the result and am always delighted to hear the scout bands of Bethlehem and Jerusalem during the impressive Christmas and Easter parades to welcome the birth of Christ or the Holy Fire. I am therefore not disoriented, and I greatly appreciate the spectacle of the brass instruments glittering under the sun and the drum rolls giving rhythm to the melodies. Very concentrated, the young scouts walk on time, puffing out their chests proudly.
Daydreaming in the background, I've been left behind by the bulk of the troops who have disappeared inside a large building still under construction. I discreetly greeted the scout leaders in front of the door and began to climb the steps, which were slightly slippery due to the presence of small gravel. On the first floor, the darkness of the rooms and the stairwell contrasts sharply with the dazzling light outside. The time it takes for the retina to adapt and launch into a photographic and videographic mapping of the place.
On the floor, piles of sand duel with bits of broken breezeblock. In an adjacent room, tarpaulins roughly cover the gloomy-looking chandeliers, a bit like those in the cartoon "Anastasia" on that terrible December night when Rasputin cursed the Romanov family. If these empty spaces don't give me the creeps, they don't reassure me either! With some furniture, some paint and decorations, it will be perfect... Right now, it feels a bit empty...
Once again, the delegation has gone ahead, and I find myself wandering around these vast rooms on the lookout for the slightest flashy knick-knack. But apart from a garden hose and some squares of tiles, I can't find anything striking. From the balcony, I glance down at the Scout troop still training, only to be interrupted by Benjamin's voice calling me up the stairs.
On the roof, I discover a splendid view of the surrounding mountains, their fields, its dense groves and conifers. All that's missing is the song of the cicadas to make you think you're in Provence. Before getting back in the car, I promise myself to go and film the brass band that I don't hear playing anymore... yet... the sound goes up! So, I should hear it more... And yet no! No more noise... Everyone has evaporated in a Men In Black remake?
Actually no! They are waiting lined up, in tight rows, the percussions and brass instruments preceding the pennants of all colours, boldly carried high. Around their necks, they all wear a scarf, most of them white and blue or red and dark blue. I hadn't really paid much attention to this element of uniform until I felt someone come up behind me and place one of those red and blue scarves around my head, with a bronze hand replicating the Scout salute as a ring. Stunned, I don't immediately understand what this person wants from me. Imagine the scene. I'm crouching on the floor, my eye fixed on my camera screen, zooming in on each instrument to get a macro view when someone I don't know literally breaks into my personal space to put I don't know what around my neck! What to do?
1. Continue filming... after all, it must not be a terrorist!
2. Turn around, grab his hand and twist it?
3. Stop filming and look around to understand?
I opt for solution number 1 and pretend nothing has happened. Even now, I don't know who gave me the scout scarf that hangs in my room in France.
It all happened very quickly, but nothing disturbed the brass band, which was playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy with gusto... Oh yes, right! They were rehearsing for us, in fact... They were waiting for... us! They bent over backwards... for us! Even if I have to stay focused to film the scene well, I am disconcerted. They welcome the foreigner with pomp and warmth. But they don't know us! I can't understand what could justify this welcome ceremony. From afar, I observe Benjamin Waël and Firas, all smiling. Children, caps screwed on their heads, green and blue scarves around their necks, appear on the balcony of the centre, where I was a few minutes ago.
Father Jean gives the signal for the end of the concert. The whistles blow, the band and the flag move to the front of the centre, the children, run up and take their places in the front row. No one moves, no one speaks. 2 seconds that freeze in about ten minutes for me, who is facing them, again crouching for the photo. Some cross their arms, others do the scout salute. "They're not looking at me at all"; "They're not smiling much over there!"; "Where are Benjamin and Waël"; "Oh dear... they've got a scarf around their necks too"; "Don't cut their feet off!"; "What if I took portraits instead?" When you see a photographer taking a picture, you can be sure that they spend a lot of time talking to each other. At least at that moment, I did. "A last general shout of thanks to the donors of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, and then, when the whistle blows, we disperse!
We get back in the car, heading for the olive fields or what's left of them. And there, finally, I feel in my element: the mountains, the nature, the high and barren grass, the wild plants. For a moment, I forget that I am in Syria and feel like I am in Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, at my aunt and uncle's house. I hike with them on high mountain trails, joke with my cousins, seasoned adventurers, while sharing almonds and walnuts with them beside a stream.
Nature is not hostile when you look at it with adventurous eyes. "Ouch mash!" I said nothing... Thistles! "Ah, but it's still pretty... Ouch... Nettles... No, but ouch!"
I left the path to cut across the field. Of course...I am not welcomed by a red carpet of English-style grass. Instead, I find the same type of rocky terrain as in Bethlehem, at the Emmanuel sisters' monastery. A land of vines like in the family estate in Meursault. To grow fruit and vegetables there, you have to hang on! Next to the few olive trees planted in December by Syrian and French volunteers from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, I see rows of beehives, on which a stone has been placed, emerging above the tall grass yellowed by the sun. Not being particularly frightened by the idea of being close to thousands of bees, I get as close as possible to see some of them. They are there, buzzing frantically. They are jostling each other at the entrance of a hive. The harvest seems to have been good!
In the distance, below, Waël and Benjamin continue to inspect the olive tree plantations. They are still only young thumbs that do not reach beyond the ankle, but these shrubs will allow hundreds of families to earn a living in twenty years. The road is long, but the promise is beautiful, and it is this promise that keeps hope alive among the farmers. Time will work for the Syrians. In the meantime, they are working for it. Everything in these anarchically arranged stretches of grass, where wheat ears pact with carrot flowers, screams the beauty of creation.
Lost in the contemplation of these landscapes, I forget the time. I have no problem sitting in the tall grass for the rest of the day, but the others don't seem to agree with me, as the sound of engines is heard behind me. We have an appointment with a village beekeeper who welcomes us with pomp and circumstance. We greet his wife and two boys on the porch of the house before settling comfortably on the terrace for an unusual tasting of the honey harvested that morning. Unfortunately, I don't have time to sit down when the boys suggest I meet the family's little puppy, who is confined to the roof because it is too young to roam freely around the house without getting into mischief. I'm not particularly fond of pets, but I understand that they care, so I climb the stairs two at a time behind them.
They hadn't lied to me... the puppy is rambunctious and jumps around but looks pretty cuddly and not wild. Thanks to their uncle, who went up with us, we can exchange a few words, understand each other better and share a quality moment. It's not much, but it's enough to make this day even better than it already was.
I don't know it yet, but my colleagues are tasting the local specialty. Everyone has been offered a plate of honey, straight from the farm's hives. As I taste the precious sweet sesame, Waël and Benjamin disappear into a neighbouring room to put on their beekeeping clothes. Everything here is buzzing like in a beehive. No sooner have we finished doing something than another one starts! The honey is delicious, but I can't finish it. As usual, the quantities offered were very generous.
After the surprise of seeing Michelin men, all dressed in white, appear on the terrace, I grab my telephoto lens and my camera and head for the beehive field. Waël and Benjamin are off on a queen hunt and I don't want to miss the opportunity to laugh a little. Their outfit alone, half cosmonaut outfit, half anti-covid protection suit, is already an opportunity to hurt your abs a little. It must be pretty hot in there, as evidenced by their decision to wait until the last moment to put on the helmet! Not having any protective gear, I position myself behind the cars at a distance. "They only attack if they smell fear", warns me one of the beekeepers. Luckily ... I don't feel an ounce of fear knowing that there are thousands of bees around. The snakes, on the other hand, are a different story!
Between olive hedges, about twenty boxes, which are basking in the sun, await our extreme adventurers. To put the bees' vigilance to sleep, the beekeeper lightly smokes the first box. One after the other, we take the frames whose cells ooze sweet drops between the frantic legs of the beekeepers. Waël and Benjamin bend down to look for the queen, but for the moment, it's a waste of time. So, we change frames... then boxes. Patiently, we repeat the same gestures until we finally find her among a horde of protectors. We give a little smoke to calm everyone down, we proudly put the frame down, we put the swarm back in the hive, and we turn back as quickly as we came. The aim is to avoid disturbing the bees as much as possible! Everything went fast, no losses were reported...
The discovery day of the village is about to end! After having run up and down, all that's left is to have a bite to eat in the shelter of a natural canopy, to the gentle sound of a stream running through the trees.
DAY 5 : Two churches in martyred villages
The next morning, we meet in Hamah, former stronghold of the Muslim brothers and scene of the bloody war of the 80s. A great number of inhabitants of the city had died then.
It takes us 1 hour from Homs to reach it. The checkpoints follow one another. The same process is repeated: we close our cell phones, hide the camera, stop our discussions. The soldier walks towards the car, our driver hands him an official Syrian document guaranteeing us passage without too many questions.
Security is the most sensitive subject in Syria. You have to be careful with everything and not make any mistakes, because everything is known.
Measures justified by a feeling of insecurity linked to the war. Being on the phone at a checkpoint can be interpreted by soldiers as activating a bomb or triggering an attack. Taking pictures of an official building or a checkpoint can mean that you are scouting the location for a future terrorist action.
Knowing this, it quickly becomes extremely difficult to take pictures and film in peace. "Anne-Laure! Checkpoint!"; "Anne-Laure, police building"; "Anne-Laure! camera... !"; "Anne-Laure, not now!" I'm going completely psycho with this measure and don't dare to take any more pictures!
Add to that the fact that to take pictures in the street, an authorization is necessary, and you have a cocktail of rules that work against you as a communicator. So, often, I have to learn patience and hold back from taking pictures that I know are very beautiful, seeing the frame of the lens around the scene that I see surreptitiously while driving by. A bit like August Rush who sees the sounds of the street come to life in a colored wave, I easily imagine the photo rendering of a scene from everyday life.
But it is already too late, we are far away.
After a few formal exchanges with Bishop Baalbaki, we meet Father Dimitri, Greek Orthodox priest of Squelbieh, on the construction site of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Squelbieh, under construction since the 80s. Due to lack of financial means, the Church had to give up the completion of the building for almost 30 years. The war did not spare it, as a rocket, launched by armed terrorist groups, crashed into one of the domes. The damage caused endangered the integrity of the building, and rehabilitation work was carried out immediately. On the front line against the jihadists, the people of Squelbieh sacrificed many of their children, husbands and fathers so that Christianity would not die in Syria.
The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Squelbieh, with its empty walls and no altar, proved to be exemplary: an incentive to stay, to continue the struggle for the survival of the city. Once the terrorist threat was over, the inhabitants and parishioners immediately began to work on their church to finish it.
We pass the building with its red brick roofs topped by three crosses and its immaculate walls.
I run in front of everybody, change my lens and choose the wide angle. I want to have the necessary distance not to cut the limbs of those who accompany me.
But we suddenly branch off and enter a small house where the air conditioning is on full blast. I understand at once! We are going to drink our 3rd cup of coffee of the day while it is not yet midday. For someone who hasn't had a cup of coffee in over 2 years, the nervous shock is significant. Since my arrival, I have the impression of being a constantly overheated electric battery. But this time, we will have a cup of tea and a bottle of water to refresh us. An essential beverage considering the outside temperature and the dry air.
Jokes are flying on my right between the Father and Waël, head of mission in Syria. Obviously, I have not understood anything yet, but I am beginning to get the idea that I will have to listen more carefully to try to catch snatches of conversations, maybe one day insh'allah. Already, these few days have allowed me to realize that I had not totally forgotten my Arabic classes! I recognize words and try to reconstruct sentences with the little information I have and always read the letters on the names of the shops or the signs. I take every break in communication with great pleasure, if having to listen to every conversation to make sure I don't miss anything is a break. Let's just say that right now I'm sitting down and don't have to run around or anticipate other people's movements.
But the respite is often short-lived and we quickly head for the church a few steps away. The building is imposing like a marble fortress that nothing can shake. The sounds of jigsaws reach us.
At the entrance, workers share a cup of tea while others are busy painting the interior walls with a long broom that does not break by the operation of the Holy Spirit. But the highlight of the visit is the newly installed wooden iconostasis in front of the choir. For the first time, the members of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient can admire it, proudly overhanging some steps symbolizing the separation between earth and heaven.
A splendid work of lace adorns the panel. Logos of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient have been inlaid in the wood as a sign of recognition. The wood shavings, gathered around the edge, give off a sweet, resinous smell, typical of traditional sawmills. I place my hand on the iconostasis to get a better sensory grasp of the fine stitching work that was necessary to produce such a result. I am subjugated by the swallow placed on a laurel or olive branch. What do I know? I want to cross the iconostasis to see the other side of the decor but I hold back knowing that this side is normally reserved for men.
I turn around to look at the vast space where hymns will soon resound to celebrate the birth of Christ or His glorious Resurrection. But for now, brushes dripping with paint lie on half-opened pots. A worker in jeans speckled with white spots and a plaid shirt quenches his thirst, careful not to touch the spout with his lips, another carries a plank of wood to the back of the church. The sounds of sanding have stopped. Discussions are going well and words are echoing against the columns protected by plastic sheeting.
Then, in no time at all, the church empties and I find myself alone with Firas, an engineer from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient in Homs, and the engineer Afief Katren. After having walked the length and breadth of the cathedral, and while I listen attentively to the engineers speak to me in Arabic about the project, Waël, Benjamin and Anne-Lise begin to climb the main dome to have a panoramic view of the surroundings.
I lose track of time. It is so hot that I am never hungry. My biological clock is completely out of order and I never know what time it is. I take a last look around the church to make sure I haven't forgotten anything and find my colleagues sitting quietly in the cool. It is almost 1pm. The day is far from being over because we are expected about twenty kilometers away, in Mhardeh.
We take the almost straight road between the two cities. A real No Man's Land which gives you goose bumps. We feel like in a basin, at the mercy of missiles and bombs. Around us, the remains of houses half destroyed or simply not finished and left to the abandonment. I feel like I'm on a life-size military training ground. And for good reason, until August 2019, this plain as well as the two villages surrounding it was under heavy fire from terrorists positioned a few kilometers away. These two villages we no longer present! Mhardeh and Squelbieh, symbols of the Christian resistance in Syria! Who has not heard of these heroes who fought against the jihadists at the risk of their lives. Christians and soldiers... an incomprehensible mix for many Westerners and yet a mix that saved the lives of thousands of civilians at the cost of 160 martyrs.
Guided by Mr. Simon, a Syrian entrepreneur turned soldier, Mhardeh's national defense held firm under the bombs and rockets launched by random terrorists on the city.
With my head full of images of Mhardeh's 2019 victory celebration, I see the four gigantic chimneys of the city's power plant pointing out in the distance. A few years ago, I saw a picture of them on my computer screen. A bomb had just hit it. A black cloud flew up into the sky, plunging part of the city into darkness. Today, the clouds are well dispersed and discreetly dot the blue ocean that dominates us.
The van stops in front of a charming promontory, sheltered from the sun by a small wooden house. The place is simple and welcoming, already refreshing... A man with greying hair, dressed in military clothes, sunglasses fixed on the face smiles from afar. No suspense. It is Mr. Simon, the hero of Mhardeh.
A great friend of the association since 2016, he knows Benjamin and Anne-Lise very well and welcomes them warmly with a lot of hugs. From the outside, they look like old friends who haven't seen each other in ages and have tons to talk about. And as old acquaintances would do, we get out of the sun, sit on the wooden benches covered with cushions and engage in long discussions while sharing a steaming cup of coffee or a cool glass of water.
As I am not familiar with the place, which I am seeing for the first time, I immediately observe the surroundings. A battery of green missiles is pointed at the power station. A little further on, on the right, a small motorcycle is parked on a rock overhanging a gentle slope plunging towards a thin stream, bordered by the only green shrubs of the region. It is not yet 45° but already the majority of the Syrian green spaces are burnt by the sun. Behind a tractor, in the shade of a tree, rests a dog that looks like a husky. At the entrance of the shed, a soldier, his hand resting on the butt of his gun, keeps watch. Mentally, I pity him! He must be so hot under the hot sun!
Far away, I see a small stone house topped by a cross. A church here? In the middle of nowhere? Because, of course, we are near the dam of Mhardeh but a few kilometers from the nearest houses. But yes, it is indeed the church of the 40 martyrs that Mr. Simon had built in two months. The interior is pure and sober. A stone iconostasis surmounted by a cross separates the choir from the profane part. Icons of the Virgin Mary, the Lord, the 40 martyrs and Saint John the Baptist adorn the sides. Here there are no crosses but a building built in the shape of an L which will certainly not prevent the faithful from praying, especially on the day of its consecration by Monsignor Nicolas Baalbaki, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Hama.
We conclude our short visit by lighting, one after the other, a candle that we place, sometimes as best we can, on a white wax carpet in a small stone recess dug for this purpose.
Our passage here ends but we continue towards Mhardeh where a sumptuous meal offered by Mr. Simon and Reem, his wife, awaits us. A pleasant break in this Syrian family closely linked to the association.
DAY 4: The apocalypse now has a face for me.
Let's go back to Homs for a few moments on Friday 4 June. We have an appointment with Bishop Georges Abo Zakhem, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Homs, to visit the construction site of the Al Mishrifeh cultural centre.
For almost an hour we follow his car out of Homs towards the village known for its important production of Arak. We are expected! Many inhabitants have come and a photographer is shooting our every move.
The visit starts in the church of Saint George. Its white walls stand out from the splendour of some oriental churches. Everything here is uncluttered, as if newly built.
Immediately I stand in front of the crowd to film and take pictures. It's time to act, I can't think anymore about what to do and how to do it.
The volunteers, who have come with us, light a candle at the invitation of Monsignor Zakhem and begin the prayer of the Our Father. Waël catches a little boy who tries to place his lit candle on the pile of sand framed by the icons of Christ and Saint John the Baptist.
The atmosphere is special, recollected. There are no ceremonies. All remain standing, a gesture that is particular to the East, unlike in the West, where people frequently kneel to pray and meditate.
We stand in front of the iconostasis, the element that separates the nave from the sanctuary and strictly limits access to men only. We take a photo and leave, a small group following us.
There is no hurry, but there is no dawdling. In the East, we take our time. I remember a testimony written by a former volunteer in Syria, Aliette, who said that: "Westerners have a watch, Syrians have time".
Yes, it's true! We are focused on the time, on the appointments, without being rude. The Syrians live to the rhythm of the sun, of the cafés and of the sometimes thunderous exchanges that you would almost think they spend their lives shouting at each other.
On the church steps, the thermometer explodes. I am breathless and yet I have to start running again to get ahead of the group. A plastic Christmas tree leads the way to a rose garden devoid of flowers. A very sad sight, which can be explained by the fact that the work was put on hold for a year because of the coronavirus.
The construction project of the Al Mishrifeh community centre dates back to 2019. Intended to convince Christians to stay in the area, it consisted of a two-storey building with rooms, classrooms and meeting rooms to accommodate the activities of disabled people and scout troops. From the very beginning of the project, Louis-Alban, Marie and Clémentine, volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient at the time, had put their hands to work by participating in the waterproofing of the roof, pouring the cement on a large portion of the building.
As a result of health hazards, the work was stopped. A year later, we find a building standing proudly next to St George's church, but bare and untidy.
Two-coloured tyres and plastic chairs compete for space with huddled tarpaulins and piles of stones and dust. And yet the sight is heart-warming because the main work is finished! Let's see the glass half full rather than half empty! All that's left to do now is to finish the job: paint the walls, lay the parquet, windows and wooden doors. A final meticulous stage costing €25,000, largely financed by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (+) and his wife Anne-Aymone. Once the work is completed, the volunteers on mission will come to help the inhabitants of the village by giving French lessons.
This is a welcome and much needed help. I become aware of this in the basement of the church as we are invited to refresh ourselves by sharing a bowl of fruit. It's 11.45am, the sun is at its zenith, these fresh fruits will do us a world of good. I settle down thinking I can rest a bit, but immediately I am challenged by my neighbour on the right, a local. In very good English, she asks: "In Al Mishrifeh, we take care of disabled people by offering them various manual activities. Due to the lack of financial means because of the sanctions, we had to stop them. Can you do anything to help us?"
I hear and listen to her request but don't know what to say in a second. I don't want to step on the toes of my colleagues and take on a new project. I reassure her, explain the process of validating a project and point to the right person. Immediately the chairs move. "Oh yes, that's quick! Is the situation so desperate?" I ask myself inwardly. I've only been in Syria for a few days, I can't know everything! For many people it is ... the situation is and I have the proof here!
The apocalypse. We have just left Al Mishrifeh. It is hot, the sun is blinding. Homs appears in the distance, a part of the city I don't know yet: the one I was dreading.
By reflex, I take out my phone and start a video that I know I can use for a story. We have just entered the Al Khaldeh neighbourhood, one of the areas of Homs that has been at the heart of the fighting during the war.
At first, I don't really pay attention to these collapsed facades. I have already seen many of the photos and watched videos taken here. This is not something new for me.
And then we drive further among the ruins to a crossing controlled by soldiers. Portraits of the Syrian president hang over flags planted on anti-intrusion blocks. A soldier sits in a small guardhouse that provides a semblance of shade. I look at the horizon. A scene freezes in my retina.
To the left and right, an alley of shattered buildings, on the dirt road where piles of rubble, exploded rocks and bullet-pierced everyday objects are still being vomited, barefoot children run towards their mother walking towards the horizon, barred by destruction.
Not an extraordinary scene for someone used to scenes of violence and action films where everything has already been invented, from helicopter chases with shells thrown from a Humvee to Mac Gyver-style urban guerrilla warfare where a staple saves a whole city!
And yet, this vision of the sun setting on the destroyed Homs leaves me speechless and frozen. An idea comes to mind: "Go away! Go home! They are madmen! What are you doing here?"
In the car, discussions are going on well. The landscape passes by: Syrians sitting in front of their stalls watching the crazy cars driving against traffic, others shouting loudly and gesticulating to support each of their words, children running around. And yet nothing is working, I can't get this vision of horror out of my head.
I am stunned. My brain no longer tries to relativize and ridicule this landscape. Families have lived in these houses, in these rooms where children's laughter resounded, memories fill these rubble, gone in smoke in a snap of the fingers. A thud, a bang, cries, tears, deaths, all are erased.
A few hours have passed, our appointments follow each other but my brain constantly disconnects and returns to these ruins as if it wanted to make me understand something.
In the evening, sleep does not come. Everything jostles: the whys, the hows, the whats. I fall asleep preoccupied, only to wake up in the middle of the night with the same image in my head.
Half asleep, I now imagine exchanges of fire, bullets fired in slow motion by AK-47s, smoke coming out of another gaping hole and even entrails spilled on the ground.
A scene worthy of a Michael Bay film. The newly risen sun brings respite to my questions. This image no longer haunts me, it regularly imposes itself on my mind but to remind me that even in the worst of times, some people did not leave, fought to survive and to help their neighbours when they themselves were already suffering greatly. These remains are not only about death but also about life. They are a memory of what was and what is and a light for what will be. The war uprooted Syrians, tore families apart and shattered harmony, but it did not bring the people down. It has given them courage, will and strength. "Nothing can bring us to our knees, not the coronavirus, not economic sanctions."
On our way back to the ruins for a "lightning tour", we get lost in the streets cluttered with rough and misshapen stones piled under the most dilapidated buildings. Our Hyundai doesn't look good here and I feel sorry for the tyres, which must be "dying".
"I hope we don't lose any tyres," says Waël as we drive along a track littered with sharp debris. The silence. After the bombs, it has taken over the place. You can only hear a few birds chirping happily.
But in this nightmarish haven, the stones cry out their history. Here and there, women dressed in black are cutting vegetables in front of a basin filled with water. A man with a grey beard, bent over, prays his rosary with his hands behind his back, while young children play on a pile of sharp scrap metal in front of him. We don't waste too much time and don't slow down much. It would be dangerous to linger here. I never get out of the car and when taking pictures I discreetly stick my head out so as not to attract attention. Even if I don't necessarily understand the reasons for such a precaution, I do it because I'm not from here and don't master the codes of the country.
DAY 3 - When war is better than economic sanctions...
Thursday June 3, we leave the bustle of Damascus, its main roads, its uninterrupted horns for the suffocating and narrow streets of Homs.
Greeted by a hedge of trees lying down because of the wind, we enter Homs, the high place of the revolution in 2011, through the main artery of the city.
Some things seem familiar, like the yellow cabs that follow each other in a disorderly ballet, others are less familiar. I feel more cramped in these labyrinthine streets. I know that somewhere around me entire neighborhoods have been ravaged by bombs and fighting, but where are they? For the moment, there is nothing on the horizon but high buildings painted with Syrian flags.
Flags! At the windows of houses, on the pediments of schools and public buildings, on the walls of shops and garages, they are everywhere! Syrians are proud of their country and their culture and show it clearly.
We go on visiting the clergymen. In the district of Al Hamidieh in Homs, we are received by Father Michael, the Syriac Catholic priest of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. This churchman is a symbol in Homs. When the city was taken by the jihadists, he preferred to stay with his faithful and brave the danger than to go into exile.
Respected by the forces of both camps, he brought his help to his suffering faithful. Over a cup of strong coffee and traditional cookies, the conversation begins. "We have been surviving for 10 years! Enough is enough! We need to live now." Economic sanctions! The subject of discord and heated exchanges.
Few bite their tongues when the subject comes up and all are very critical. "One war was not enough? Hadn't we suffered enough?"
Since the vote of Caesar's Law, Syrian civilians have suffered the full force of the economic sanctions carried out against them by the international community.
Supposed to punish the Syrian government, they are irreparably turning against the weakest who pay an unsuspected price. "During the war, we lived well! We could eat our fill. We could die under enemy fire, but not of hunger!" If the situation is still far from that of Venezuela or Germany after the war, it remains nevertheless worrying. The most pessimistic predicted a humanitarian crisis, a hunger crisis. "Today everything is too expensive! I haven't eaten meat for two years," confided an elderly woman from Aleppo. A short and incisive testimony that strongly echoes that of Father Michael.
"You know... a teacher who has worked for 40 years earns about 60,000 LS (20€) a month. If he dies, there will only be 20.000 LS (7€) for his wife. 1 kilo of meat costs 25.000LS (8,5€). A chicken costs 12.000 LS (4€). It used to be the food of the poor... now there is no more food of the poor! You want to buy 1kg of tomatoes, field peas for a meal, you already pay 10.000 LS (3,5€) and you don't even eat enough. Imagine what this represents in comparison with your salary! And we don't even talk about medicines... They have to arbitrate between food, medicine and clothing. A pair of shoes costs 30.000LS (10€). For a surgical operation, you can spend up to 3.000.000 LS (1000€)... It is catastrophic."
Is the hunger crisis happening? Maybe, but if it is, Syrians are not showing it. In Damascus as in Homs, the streets are full and Syrians are celebrating.
Is it a facade? "We are celebrating because we are suffering,"Diala, project manager and volunteer for SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, told me. What a strange but justifiable concept! Overwhelmed, they prefer to be positive.
The jihadists did not get their skin, what can the sanctions do?
If I didn't know that sanctions were hitting Syria, nothing outwardly could make me believe that the situation is desperate, except perhaps the lines of cars in front of the gas stations. 25L every two weeks. The Syrians are rationed and receive by telephone notification a summons to collect their precious liquid. What an irony when the Middle East is renowned for its almost inexhaustible reserves of oil!
"The car is a luxury! I pay 50.000 LS (16,5€) for 25 liters." Like a twist of fate, Father's phone vibrates. I stop the interview. He looks at the notification and smiles, "It's the summons to go and get some fuel!" And we are only talking about current consumption.
If cars have the slightest mechanical problem, there is no guarantee that they will be fixed again. The cost of repairs, often expensive, discourages giving them a second life and owners are left to ride a bicycle to get around or to fiddle with a blade of grass to get the engine going again. "My car is a wreck but I can't fix it anymore. It costs too much. So I tinker with it to keep it running," explains Firas, an engineer from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient in Homs, as we celebrate Benjamin's birthday. He smiles from the corner of his lips as if to put the situation into perspective, but I don't dare answer. I don't have these problems in France, I can't understand them. For me everything is very simple!
My moto breaks down, I take it to the repairer and I get it back the next day as if nothing had happened. I don't have that feeling of having to fix it with nothing and bits of scrap metal lying around to hope to get it started. I don't have that obligation to be reasonable in my travels so as not to consume in one day the diesel of the week. And if one day this would happen to me, I know how I would react: very badly! Because motorcycling is a passion and when I ride I feel free and I forget all my worries.
Syrians also have passions, hobbies, things they like to do above all else and yet they can no longer do them; not because of financial mismanagement but because foreigners have decided for them that they live too well...
So not knowing what to say, I smile and look down to find an answer on the living room table! I am often disconcerted by the answers I receive from Syrians. Everything seems hopeless and there is no reason to believe that the situation will improve. "We can't fight these restrictions. We have no control over anything. That's what makes life hell." Who would ever believe that war is better than economic sanctions? And yet I have the proof every day.
There is no aspect of life that is not impacted by the sanctions! "My house is completely destroyed! There is nothing left. I can't repair it! It takes millions and I don't have millions (of Syrian pounds)," says Father Michael. While the need to rebuild is great, Syrians are forced to dream it. Another cross to add to an already long list that spans ten years.
As far as gas and electricity are concerned, the situation is similar and the word "rationing" is in everyone's mouth. "They fill your gas bottle every 70 days. That's very little," says Father Michael. "I can't run the fridge and the washing machine if the electricity is off. The generator is not powerful enough. The power cuts are frequent even if they don't last as long as during the war," said an inhabitant of Aleppo who lives alone in a top-floor apartment in the district of Midan.
The fridge... "What about the food when there is no electricity?" I wonder! "The cold chain, all that, all that?" And even worse if the fridge breaks down.... "It costs between 100.000 LS (33€) and 200.000 LS (66€). We can't repair it", Father Michael answers me.
So what to do now? The answer is scathing, sometimes unexpected and always the cause of a prolonged silence. "Leave Syria" 90% of the time; "Stay, fight and find solutions" in 10% of the cases!
I don't understand everything that is going on here and my brain tries by all means to germinate a viable solution but without success and the more I question myself, the less I grasp what surrounds me. So the days go by and I take my time to think, trying to understand those who want to leave and tell me: "in 20 years, Syria will be a new Palestine. There will be hardly any Christians left. In any case, I won't be there anymore."
"Don't judge them," I repeat to myself. "What would you do in their place?
As the discussions and meetings progress, I better understand the underlying issues and the positions of each person. I also identify more easily typical caricatured profiles of Syrians that I classify in two categories.
Who are those who want to leave? Young people with diplomas and especially those who are specialized in sectors that are losing ground or have been totally eradicated in Syria. The fathers and mothers of families worried about the future of their young children.
Who wants to stay? The Syrians who have a job that makes them happy and that they have chosen to do... not out of spite but out of desire. Those who still believe that Syria can rise again and who, no matter what the price, will sacrifice everything to be actors of the Syrian revival. And finally, those who have the fighting spirit, an innate ability to question everything in order to transcend and adapt despite 10 years of suffering.
So what do we say to those who want to leave? "Get a day job until things settle down." "Sacrifice a few more years." In our position as outsiders for whom everything is fine, giving such life lessons would surely and rightly come across as arrogance and indifference. So it is better to refrain from thinking that we have the right word and let the religious representatives guide their community. For they have not lost hope, far from it, and some, like Monsignor Jeanbart, have launched a campaign of resistance to encourage the inhabitants of Aleppo to stay in the country!
"Some of them have this dream to leave, they see the West as an Eldorado but they don't know what it really is. Everything is not rosy! They have to work hard and toil. They don't really know what to expect.
I am confident that young people are looking less and less to leave Syria and I believe that, unless Europe wants to erase the country, to strangle us, if the sanctions are canceled, the situation will improve very quickly. Syrians see everything that is being done to help them, to rebuild. I think that this momentum is communicative and contagious, like the pandemic! Little by little, things will get better.
Not everyone wants to leave... the proof! Those who left Syria because of the compulsory military service, are trying to earn money to pay the fine in order to return to the country. Hundreds of young married people have settled in Aleppo. We have housing projects for them, to give them reasons to believe in the future and to be calm. We have helped 300 newborns in the last 4-5 years.
I will do everything I can to encourage them to stay. This is not just talk, I am convinced! Our country is rich and beautiful. It is a good place to live. The people are friendly. So why go far?"
The next day, we have an appointment in Maaloula, a small mountainous Christian village where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic. Ramez, the driver of the mission, is one of those Syrians who speak it frequently, especially with his wife on the phone when he does not want to be understood. For a non-Arabic speaker, we can't hear the slightest difference between the national language and this dialect. However, a French-speaker as well as a Persian does not understand it... practical!
The war. For 5 years I have been hearing about it almost every week, very little on the mainstream media because I have not watched them for a long time. I know only too well their way of treating the information and thus prefer to obtain it directly from the ground.
I've seen thousands of photos and videos of razed neighborhoods, of shaky buildings pierced by shells on all sides.
As a youngster, I was fascinated by video games! Thus I had seen a lot of destruction and fighting scenes as I was playing the war! And yet nothing prepared me for reality.
The first time I was confronted with the horrors of war in Syria was while driving along the Harasta district of Damascus. We are on the road to Maaloula, a Christian village 40 km north of Damascus. While discussions are well advanced, my eyes are drawn to a bulldozer on the right.
I think of my nephew, aged one and a half. He's not very tall but he really likes his little orange trucks that he often confuses with emergency vehicles.
"Wait but what is it actually doing?" My field of vision widens as I become aware of the reason of the presence of these construction machines. Buildings pierced with gaping holes, collapsed floors, exposed rusted cables, bullet holes in the walls, a stairwell shaped like a tower of pisa, the only apparent remnant of a building.
"... But where are we?"
At first, naive, I just tell myself that they are destroying a somewhat dilapidated neighborhood. And then I quickly remember that I'm in Syria... that entire neighborhoods have been the scene of violent clashes between armed jihadist groups and the Syrian Arab Army. I make the connection and I understand.
These neighborhoods were held by the jihadists. I am on the old front line.
My head turns instantly into a freaking hell but something absurd is popping into my mind. "Legos, they look like legos." I feel like those inanimate little guys that children like to play with. There, I see piled up or rather unstacked blocks, vehicles that are busy making people forget that here civilians have been shot, others have lived in fear of not seeing the day rise the next day. This was not a game, nor a TV series, it was reality.
In this kind of situation, the brain often tries to soften reality, to make it less painful, to put it into perspective.
I prefer to forget about the tragedies that took place here. Unconsciously, I prefer to take refuge in the understandable and forget the terrible.
55 minutes later, we cross the gates of Maaloula, an emblematic village of Eastern Christianity, camped at the foot of two imposing cliffs. Fallen into the hands of the jihadists for 8 months in 2013, it has seen its population flee (sometimes through the sewers) and exile en masse, its convents, churches and houses being looted and desecrated.
If few losses are to be deplored, it should be noted that 3 Maaloulites are beheaded after refusing to deny their faith. They are buried in this haven of peace where the Angelus sung in Aramaic resounds against the slopes of the Catholic and Orthodox mountains when the bell rings at noon.
A main axis crosses it from one side to the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which runs alongside the former Safir Hotel, a stronghold of the jihadists during the occupation.
Dating from the time of Emperor Constantine, the monastery was built in honor of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, two Roman officers of Syrian origin executed by Galerius in 297 for refusing to sacrifice to idols. Today it is the property of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church and administered by Father Toufik, a priest of the Basilian Salvatorian order.
History will remember that in 2013, Al Nosra jihadists broke the altar of the church, one, if not the, oldest Christian altar in the world. Completely looted of its 26 centuries-old icons, the monastery now houses only copies of its ancient jewels as well as a magnificent wooden icon of St. Michael donated by a Russian Orthodox Episcopate in 2019 and another depicting the Last Supper offered by an Italian church.
Since its liberation, the church has been refurbished and the traces of degradation and desecration are no longer visible on its newly renovated walls, but we do not forget that there was a time when the jihadists tried to eradicate all human or material traces of the Christian presence.
But for now, we have an appointment with Father Elias Shayeb in charge of the Greek Orthodox community. As for the monastery, the church of Saint Elias was looted and burned by the terrorists. Today the interior is shining. Its stone walls and its immaculate white ceiling give an impression of immensity. One could believe oneself in the Riad Palace of Marrakech.
At the back separating the nave from the sanctuary where the Eucharist is celebrated, a majestic iconostasis decorated with icons of the Virgin Mary and Christ, as is customary in Byzantine churches, and icons of saints such as Saint John the Baptist and the Evangelists. At the top, there is Christ on the cross and two icons of the Virgin Mary and St. John, depicting the scene of the Crucifixion. The veil of the central door is lowered, hiding the holy of holies. All around the walls and columns are proudly hung marble-framed icons of St. Elijah, St. Andrew, St. Mary Magdalene, St. George, etc. The silence of the place soothes and leads to contemplation.
An atmosphere quite different from the one that awaits us in the field of Georges, a farmer from Maaloula for whom SOS Chrétiens d'Orient has financed the planting of vines, because experienced oenologists and enthusiasts of the Middle East know that in Syria, since the highest antiquity, vines have been cultivated, and their wine is mentioned several times by Pliny the Elder in his writings. He tells us that the juice of the vine is lulled by floral, soft and sweet aromas. It is what we would call today an aperitif wine, close to a port or a walnut wine.
Aware of the strong viticultural potential of the region, by planting 57,000 vines in three years on 5,000m² of land, SOS Chrétiens d'Orient wanted to bring back to life a jewel of Syrian culture. Still in progress, the project is nevertheless subject to climatic (wind, rain, drought...) and environmental (soil and ecosystem quality, parasites, etc.) hazards. Let's hope that soon we will be able to taste wine "made in Maaloula"!
On the way back to Damascus, I go from discovery to discovery. The highway code! A very abstract concept here where the road is literally shared by all vehicles and bipeds. Sidewalks are rare and their presence does not guarantee their use.
Often very thin, obstructed by manhole covers or holes, they often put a strain on the ankles and make you prefer very quickly the tarred or paved roads. From then on, it's a matter of luck who will be the first to go, the fastest and most of all alive.
The concept of bicycle lanes, courtesy behind the wheel and respect for traffic laws is far from being a reality.
On the highway, there are no lane markers, an official speed limit and an unofficial one that allows you to divide your travel time by two! On these main roads, speed lovers are served. When will we see a new Fast & Furious movie filmed in Syria?
The left lane, the lane of death where horns sound frantically to ask to clear the way while the car is still far away.
We pass civilians or soldiers perched on small 125cm3 motorcycles without any protective equipment: neither helmet, nor glove, nor jacket (in case of accident, it's a guaranteed pizza effect), merchandise trucks and other more local curiosities: horses at the back of a pick-up, buses emitting a black polluting smoke and from which cables and engines emerge, crowded buses where sanitary distance doesn't seem to be a big concern, vehicles driving on the wrong side of the street. ..
As a biker, I hope to be able to ride one day on these long roads that only a few scattered checkpoints, come to obstruct. And then I remember the traffic mess in the city center and my dream immediately flies away.
Besides, the motorcycle culture is not really developed here. The only huge motorcycles are those of the police who regulate the traffic on the main roads. Small motorcycles abound like scooters in Paris with a fundamental difference. Here, there is no formal limitation of the number of passengers. Thus, we frequently come across motorcycles carrying three people, including children and babies. Choices that I find difficult to understand when you know how dangerous a two-wheeler is.
Let's try to get out of a traffic jam in the capital!
The light has just turned red, but that doesn't stop the last stragglers from crossing the imaginary light line. Behind them, the cars honk their horns... "But why? It's red though!" In front of us it's the rush! Everybody wants to pass and everybody pretends not to see the others to force the passage. A motorcycle drive the wrong way, no one moves aside and yet it passes! "But what?"
A little higher up, between two pavement dividers, pedestrians sneak across where cars are speeding.
A woman steps forward. "She's got a lot of courage," I say to myself. Once again, I unconsciously clutch my knees, completely stunned
"But she's actually sick! No but... oh boy!" Mentally, it is waterloo... Cars swerve but don't stop, neither does she... A scooter avoids her at the last minute, she brushes against a bus full of people from which bursts of voices come from, a rolling crate honks. It lasted only 7 seconds, she did not run, seeming indifferent to everything, here she is on the other side "safe and sound".
I relax my arm, realizing only then that I am actually really stressed. "But they are crazy!" A daily experience in the life of a Syrian, an unreal adventure for me.
Tuesday June 1st. 1:40PM. In a thundering roar, the Middle East Airlines plane takes off. Charles de Gaulles airport fades away and then disappears. I don't see much because unlike usual I am not sitting near a window. I am alone at the back of the plane. I haven't heard from Benjamin for a few minutes and so I don't know if he made it back in time. I still haven't seen him. Questions are running through my head. I have a hard time staying calm and relaxing. I am very apprehensive about the trip, I already imagine myself being kidnapped by Daesh and I think about my family, my nephew that I am leaving behind.
And yet I am also eager to discover this country that I have been hearing about for 5 years. I discovered it from my workstation in Paris, through tens of thousands of photos and videos.
I have already heard of Georges, Ramez, Monseigneur Jeanbart, Monseigneur Baalbaki, Monsieur Simon and his son Fahed, Father Toufik... For them I am a complete stranger, for me they are living stones of Syria.
And yet, I will have to act as if I were seeing them for the first time, without really knowing them. I am assigned to Syria to ensure the digital communication of the association and to train the future communication officer of the mission. I feel that the pace will be fast but my predictions are far from the truth!
The sun is setting over Beirut when we take our PCR test at the airport. It must be my fifteenth, I'm used to it now. So it's only a formality.
The tension rises a notch at the police station. "What should I say or not say?" Half hidden behind a guardhouse, a policeman invites us to come forward. Always the same usual questions: "Where are you from? What are you doing in Lebanon? Where are you staying?" No trick... I listen to Benjamin answer to say the same thing! Then the same routine: fingerprinting and face photo.
I pass without a hitch. So much unnecessary stress. We get a one-day visa because we are only crossing Lebanon in the width, towards the Syrian border.
The fresh air of the airport gives way to a stifling heat as soon as we pass the sliding doors. For 18 days, it will be my daily life and my landmark, night and day.
Feeling cold all the time, I always look forward to the arrival of summer. I know it, I looked at the Syrian temperatures, it will be hot, very hot! I was waiting for this since last summer...
The noise of the engine, in low gear, and the smell of the oil which invades the cabin make me come back to reality. The mountainous road puts the engine to the test. The climbs follow one another, small motorcycles overtake us without warning. I laugh inside. Not much has changed in the Middle East.
But it has! A socio-economic and political crisis is ravaging Lebanon. Exhausted and penniless, the Lebanese are losing hope.
And on the side of its Syrian neighbor, if the weapons have been silenced, the economic sanctions are bleeding the families who, in many cases, can no longer provide for their basic needs.
Two realities that did not exist a few years ago.
In 30 minutes, we have just crossed the Bekaa and started the ascent of Mount Lebanon, which serves as a natural border with Syria. It is terribly dark! The public lights are not working since the crisis.
Guided by Abou Hazem, director of the cab company that has been shuttling between Syria and Lebanon for SOS Chrétiens d'Orient since 2014, we cross the border smoothly, without too much waiting.
That's it! I am in Syria... Great but... I still don't see anything except cars stopped on the side of the road, dozens of Syrian flags indicating the location of checkpoints and soon, in the distance, the lights of Damascus.
After changing cars, "we enter the main avenue of Damascus", Benjamin tells me "Welcome to Syria Anne-Laure", he continues. "It's beautiful and very green. They've really started to renovate everywhere," he exclaims, scanning every corner of the city from the window. Exhausted, I can't see anything but the night. I answer distractedly so as not to let him talk to himself but I can only think of one thing: going to bed. Anyway, I can't see anything at all... "There is the Damascus Opera House and in front of it the police building... We arrive at Bab Touma ! Be careful not to take pictures of the policemen" he says to me while I have already taken out my camera to take a night shot. A last checkpoint and we take the street of Bab Touma towards the hotel. There we meet Waël, head of the association in Syria.
At this point, I am totally immersed. We enter a typical Damascene house with a central open-air courtyard that leads to comfortable, air-conditioned rooms.
A fountain is in the center and the sound of the water echoing on the marble walls camouflages the discussions of the few guests.
I had forgotten the pomp and majesty of these houses with black and white stones and marbled ground. I saw a tale of a thousand and one nights. As I walked up the steps to my room, I thought of turbaned sultans, dervishes turner, belly dancers, and all the magical traditions of the Middle-East. I would throw myself on the bed to sleep but it's only 9pm and we are expected for dinner. The beginning of a fast pace stay begins!
To be continued: Maaloula, an emblematic village of Eastern Christianity camped at the foot of two imposing cliffs...