An hour’s drive from Homs on the road to al-Qaryatain lies the Old Testament village of Sadad, said to be the world’s oldest. Two elderly men in dark suits break away from a clutch of villagers watching a workman dig a hole at the side of the road. “Sadad withstood two attacks by Daesh, ” says one, in reference to the terrorist group also known as Islamic State, or Isis.
“The first in November 2014 and the second in December 2015,” adds the other. “In the first there were lot of martyrs, in the second a few.”
At least 30 people were killed and consigned to a mass grave on the edge of Sadad, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. Sunni and Alawite Muslims populate neighbouring villages. Our destination, al-Qaryatain, its name meaning “the two villages,” is on an oasis in the Syrian Desert and is in a strategic location – 125km northeast of Damascus – on Islamic State supply routes.
Prior to its capture by Islamic State last August, it had population of 40,000, augmented by thousands of villagers and townspeople from Homs and elsewhere who took refuge during early phases of the Syrian war. Last Sunday Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, drove the Islamic State militants out of town.
Now the town is smashed, inhabited only by an lone cat here and there. The wreckage is worse than the worst quarters of Homs. We meet a quartet of soldiers from al-Qaryatain who have come from different fronts for the first time in four years to see what has happened to their homes. When asked about his house, one says, “nothing is left.” Another shrugs.
The tallest of the four gives me his peaked army cap for protection from the sharp sun. “Now you are in the Syrian army,” he quips. They lead us to the wrecked church of Mar [Saint] Elian. There are no mines here as in Palmyra, just destruction and desolation in a poor town on the edge of a baking desert. I hand the cap back before moving on to the 5th century Syriac Catholic monastery of Mar Elian on the edge of town.
Last May, Islamic State kidnapped the prior, Fr Jacques Mourad (pictured), and a deacon. In August, the monastery was captured by Islamic State and 270 Christians abducted. Two weeks later Islamic State fighters bulldozed the oldest, mudbrick parts of the complex, turning walls into rubble and dust.
They torched the interior of the stone-built church and trashed an extension built to house guests and hold receptions as well as accommodation for refugees of all faiths. All the books in the extensive library have disappeared. Bones in ancient graves were dug up and scattered while the cemetery has been levelled, in line with Saudi Wahhabi teachings that forbid tombs.
In October, with the help of a Muslim friend, Fr Mourad escaped and negotiated the release of 50 Christians. Others were freed later. Slips of paper are handed around stamped in the name of the “Damascus District of the Islamic State” permitting named fighters, several of them Chechens, to take delivery of stated amounts of fuel oil.
The nom de guerre of one was “Abu Qa’Qaa al-Iraqi”. Qa’qaa, south of Baghdad, was the site of Iraq’s largest munitions factory before the 2003 US war. We pause on the main street of al-Qaryatain, giving way to transporters loaded with tanks and crews going to the next front. The town is secure, so the caravan moves on.
The general accompanying us states, “We are fighting Daesh to prevent them from reaching Europe. ” He is a veteran of the battle for Raqqa, which became the de-facto capital of Islamic State. Soldiers given leave are hitchhiking on the road to Damascus.
We pick up an infantry general who took part in the three-pronged offensive against Islamic State. “We besieged the fighters for a week and took the city in a day. We have old weapons, no flak jackets, and little equipment but we prevailed.”
by Michael Jansen