As the Beirut bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick McDonnell has covered Syria since the beginning of the conflict. This year, his reporting from inside the country was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
This spring, McDonnell, on a Syrian government-sponsored visa, visited Damascus, Homs and the besieged Christian village of Maaloula. Here, he shares his insights on the state of Syria’s Christian community and the damage seen on the overland journey between the capital and other regime-held areas of the country.
I went in this spring, to Damascus and Homs, with a government-issued visa.
It was illuminating to hear what people in government-controlled areas have to say: their point of view on the conflict, how their lives have been affected. It’s generally a different perspective on the war than what comes out of opposition areas. And just to see the damage, which at times is indescribable. Central Damascus is bit of a bubble. People go about their lives with some normality.
We were there for Good Friday in the old city of Damascus, talking to people at a Christian church in the Bab Touma district. Christians there normally have an exuberant Good Friday celebration, but they’ve tapered it now: there are very high security concerns. A Christian school in Bab Touma had been hit by a mortar a few days before, and a boy had been killed.
I’ve been to this area a few times and talked to a lot of Christians. They are generally very worried about a possible Islamist takeover of the government. We went to [the historic Christian town of] Maaloula on this trip and it was heavily damaged. There was one church dating from the fourth century, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was heavily damaged.
Maaloula had been under rebel occupation for some months, and the military recaptured the town and took some journalists out there. We passed through areas of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border, recently retaken by the Syrian military. We went through Yabroud, which was badly damaged but not as devastated as the town of Qusayr, which pro-government forces took back a year ago. Yabroud was still a ghost town, but quite a few buildings seemed intact.
When we got to Maaloula, there was still fighting going on. We were near the ruined Safir Hotel, which used to be a rebel headquarters on a high point above the town, but we were able to stand there with army commanders and look on as they directed troops positioned about 100 meters below. So we heard the orders being given, and then we watched as government troops tried to flush out remnant opposition fighters. A day earlier three [Lebanese] journalists from al-Manar television had been killed, so the situation was a bit tense.
It was an unusual opportunity to observe the coordination among loyalist forces there. They’re diverse: there’s the army, and then there are various pro-government groups. The fighting was intense. It was heart-breaking to see the state of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was hit hard in months of fighting. This church has priceless icons that are now missing or destroyed. It had frescoes on its dome, and a shell came through and destroyed it.
On the road to Tartous, we managed to get into the celebrated Krak des Chevaliers castle. Government forces had recently recaptured the citadel. Inside the massive walls, there were slits that were once used by bowmen, and more recently had been sniper positions. There’s something about Syria that’s mind-boggling: one of the world’s best preserved medieval citadels had been employed again as a military bastion.
The road to Krak des Chevaliers is revealing in its way. You drive from Homs city, towards the coast, and turn into the so-called valley of the Christians – a series of towns that are still in pretty good shape. Driving up the hill towards Krak, you come to a final checkpoint before Hosin, a town that was a rebel stronghold and that has been completely decimated. To see that in the middle of the countryside, where it’s very green, was jarring. It’s the last town before the castle. Then you get to the castle that has some significant damage, but appears in reparable shape. In Syria, what you see along just a little strip of road can sometimes take you through the entire course of the war.
From Damascus north to Homs, you can take the main highway through the Ghouta area. It’s quite a menacing drive, through scenes of apocalyptic devastation in the capital’s suburbs. The highway straddles Qaboun, where one sees block after block of skeletal, hollowed-out buildings. Passing through Harasta, both sides of the road feature surreal scenes of these upscale car dealerships just completely burned out, destroyed, ransacked. It’s a kind of gauntlet of wreckage and ruin that, lamentably, is indicative of what has become of large swaths of Syria.