Devastation… and inspiration in liberated Ma‘loula

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by Eva Bartlett

April, 2015

The western-backed takfiri terrorists have destroyed the ancient city of Ma’loula where churches and monuments from the time of Prophet Jesus (as) and Yahya (as) have been vandalized.

As Syrian and allied resistance forces fight NATO’s death squads in the outskirts of Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, I revisit the story of the formerly-terrorized ancient village of Ma‘loula, which I visited in June 2014, two months after it had been liberated. Although no longer beset by terrorism, the story of Ma‘loula is very much a current story, a case study of the senseless destruction, looting, and killing by Western-approved and supported terrorists throughout Syria.

When I visited in June 2014, a calm prevailed. One seemingly random observation that stood out was the sound of chirping birds, which just months earlier would have been lost in the tumult of terrorist bombings and gunfire. There was the expected destruction from battles waged by and on the terrorists. There was further — clearly-intentional — destruction meted out systematically by al-Qaeda death squads — particularly on Christian, cultural, and heritage sites.

In Ma‘loula, terrorists likewise took great apparent pleasure in destroying and desecrating Christian relics, to the extent of gauging out the eyes from icons and mosaics and shooting down the large clifftop Jesus and Mary statues that had overlooked the village. They likewise burned, robbed and vandalized churches and homes.

Maria Finoshina, correspondent for Russia Today, has reported numerous times from Ma‘loula, visiting the village prior to its devastation, during its occupation, and post-liberation. Video footage from a pre-destruction visit shows children singing in Aramaic inside the then-intact and lovely church in St. Thekla Convent.

In April 2014, during an Easter celebration at a Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) district restaurant in Damascus’ Old City, I met a stunning young woman, Diala. During a pause in the pro-Syria and pro-President Bashar al-Asad songs blasting all evening, she had stood up and beautifully sung in a cappella. As it happened, she was from Ma‘loula; many of Ma‘loula’s displaced residents have temporarily resettled in the Bab Touma district. We spoke briefly, curtailed by the raging party. Her words echoed reports on Ma‘loula. “We were living happily, no one bothered us, but when the terrorists came, they destroyed, slaughtered, kidnapped, and stole. They destroyed the holy churches, stole icons...” The terrorists weren’t welcomed by Ma‘loula residents, she said, but their numbers were so great that they were able to take hold of certain areas. Just how many of Ma‘loula’s residents were slaughtered is not yet known, but villagers were murdered by the West’s thugs.

In a September 2013 interview with Ma‘loula refugees, Maria Finoshina wrote, “Antoinette Taaleb, a Ma‘loula resident, had three members of her family killed by jihadists on the first day of the village siege. …Another of Antoinette’s relatives, an artist who’s hiding her face and asks to go by the name of Lady Oscar, says it’s hard to say how many people were killed in Ma‘loula because jihadists holding the village often keep bodies for further ransom and to instill fear.”

Chronology of terror

UNESCO heritage site nominee Ma‘loula was formerly best-known for its history and culture: over 2,000 years old, it is one of the last places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken. Its churches contain altars and relics dating 1,700 years or more back. According to Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM), Ma‘loula, “…houses various antiquities dating back to the Stone Age, was blessed by Jesus Christ (a), [and] is home to more than 400,000 historic sites.” These days Ma‘loula’s reknown comes from the massive devastation of these relics and churches.

On June 14, 2014, two months to the day after the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and National Defense Forces (NDF) freed it of Western-backed terrorists, I visited the attractive village nestled between cliff faces and brimming with living history. Although I took photos, videos, voice recordings and notes, it is difficult to adequately express the vastness of the terrorists’ destruction, and the great sorrow at witnessing it.

The highway north from Damascus was secured by endless SAA checkpoints, making any journey longer than formerly — but more importantly, preventing terrorist attacks. Syrian soldiers were focused and thorough in their vehicle inspections, but also flashed confident smiles with the vibrancy of soldiers and resistance who are fighting for a just cause. At the last checkpoint before the road to Ma‘loula, while waiting for military escort, the charismatic commanding general on site offered a seat in the shade and scolded a soldier to “dief humme,” (treat the guests). A plate of fresh, local apricots was immediately proffered.

With SAA escort, the car set off along the last stretch of road, winding over an open plateau visible from the cliffs of Ma‘loula in the distance — cliffs that terrorists occupied for so many months. Majed, a Syrian soldier at the village gate, who had fought the terrorists from the beginning, spoke about the battles and the final victory in April, 2014. “At 5 am on September 4, 2013, al-Nusra attacked the Safir Hotel, and the village below. They sent a car here packed with five tons of explosives, which detonated at the village gate and checkpoint. They killed eight soldiers on the perimeter of the village, and wanted to attack both checkpoints so that the SAA would have no defense. But the Syrian army and NDF fought and prevented them from reaching the main highway, pushing them back beyond the hotel. The fighting continued for about two weeks, until we forced them back out of the town.”

Al-Nusra and other terrorists again attacked at the end of November, and on December 1 kidnapped 13 nuns from St. Thekla convent, having first detonated an explosion at the convent entrance. It wasn’t until March 2014 that the nuns were released. “It took time for the Syrian Arab Army to finish them off, because we were taking care not to damage the historical buildings,” Majed said. “There was a Chechen sniper shooting on us from the monastery, but we didn’t shell him because he was in the church,” he said of the historic Sts. Sergius and Bacchus Monastery. “We could have ended it quickly, but because the army had instructions not to target the terrorists in the monastery, we didn’t attack it. Remember, we are not only protecting our people, but also our country, and the antiquities and relics of our country… unlike those terrorists from outside who are destroying our historic and cultural places.”

Nonetheless, Ma‘loula’s historical buildings and relics suffered immensely from the terrorists’ mortars and desecration. UNESCO noted, “Damages, looting and vandalism have been reported at the Monastery of Saint Thekla, the church of Saint John the Baptist, the monastery of Saint Sergius and Bacchus and the Saint Leontius Church. Damages have also been reported in the old town.”

Following the fall of nearby Yabroud, part of the larger battle of Qalamoun, things changed for Ma‘loula. “The SAA and Hizbullah came from the hilltop behind the insurgents, surrounding the area. They cut off all supply lines,” Majed said. Victory came soon after. The Syrian general accompanying us added more on the last battles and importance of the victory. “The army surrounded and besieged them. The terrorists ran out of food, ammunition, everything. They had no way to get supplies. The SAA came from behind and took over the area. They fled to nearby hills, to Rankous. That’s where the big battles happened, where most were killed or captured. The majority of them were foreigners: Saudis, Tunisians, Afghans, Chechens. Had the terrorists kept Ma‘loula, they could have stopped any movement on the Homs-Damascus highway, which Ma‘loula overlooks. They could have closed it completely.”

Clifftop occupation

Atop the cliffs hosting the Safir Hotel and Sts. Sergius and Bacchus Monastery, the destruction and damage to the city was visible in every direction. Directly below the cliffs adjacent to the Safir lies the densely-packed old city, the roofs of many of its houses damaged from mortars fired by terrorists from above. Where the Virgin Mary statue once stood overlooking the village, only a stump remains. This was one of endless attacks specifically on Christian relics and symbols in the village. “You see those walls, they were filled with snipers who would shoot at the people in the Old City below,” the general said, pointing to caves and holes in the surrounding cliffs.

Nestled in the cliffs to the northeast, St. Thekla monastery was also invaded, inhabited, and desecrated by the terrorists. The general explained, “they shot and killed the priest’s daughter, to force the nuns to open the gates for them,” a fact I’d not read in corporate media reports on Ma‘loula. They also detonated explosives at the monastery gate to terrorize the nuns into opening the gate.

The “S” of the “Safir” Hotel’s name was missing, the four golden stars intact, the rest of the hotel in ruins. While not ancient like much of Ma‘loula’s buildings, the Safir was nonetheless a landmark that visitors would patronize, even if just for lunch.

Outside of the early fourth-century CE Monastery of Sts. Sergius et Bacchus, NDF volunteers and other locals swept rubble, and prepared for the long process of restoration. Beyond the low-arched doors, the courtyard of the convent appeared more or less intact, but some of the rooms surrounding the courtyard had suffered damage and looting, including the museum/gift shop, from which a Ma‘loula resident and volunteer in the cleanup said “they’ve stolen everything of value.”

Inside the ancient church, light poured through mortar holes in the unadorned white dome smashed by terrorist-fired mortars. According to the general, when the SAA had pushed the invaders back beyond the monastery, the terrorists fired mortars toward the monastery and village. They later occupied the monastery, then looted and vandalized it. Although rubble and dust covered its pews and floor, broken and tilted frames were emptied of their icons, the small church still exuded a certain grace somehow surviving the wrath of the terrorists. “They stole many idols from here, including the oldest one in the church,” the volunteer said. The smashed altar with its unique ridged rim is said to be from between 330 and 325ce. “In other churches, the altar is rectangular and flat. And only here the altar is a half-circle and rimmed, like the altars of pagans for their animal sacrifice,” she explained. Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) noted, “Drilling operations were carried out under the altar in search of treasures.”

On a wall and the curtains of an east-facing monastery room overlooking the village below, the sordid reality of the battle was recorded again, the blood splatter of two snipers who had targeted residents and the Syrian army, themselves finally killed. “For three months they were here. Many of our Syrian soldiers were killed in the main square below, sniped from here,” the general explained. Similar snipers continue to target Syrian civilians and military in Aleppo, Yarmouk, and other areas the NATO’s death squads still occupy.

Burnt to ashes

Opposite from the Safir Hotel on the cliffs to the north, a statue of Jesus Christ (a) once towered: once again, the terrorists left only a stump. Nestled into the rock wall below, the arson at the tenth-century Convent of St. Thekla was visible from the street, the top two floors utterly blackened by fires set by the invaders.

In the convent’s Church of St. John the Baptist they likewise set fires, black soot reaching the painted dome high above. They completely destroyed the altar, as well as the pews — which presumably fueled the fire. Throughout the halls of the convent and inside the church itself, NATO’s mercenaries tore, stabbed, burned, or stole Christian iconography, looting what they could, meticulously destroying what was unmovable. Since neither was possible for the images painted directly on stone walls, they instead machine-gunned the eyes and faces of Mary and Jesus, as well as a stone cross.

A long stair-climb up above the convent, Thekla’s tomb was likewise ravaged. Surprisingly, the meditation cave leading to the tomb was unscathed. A sense of calm prevailed, twisted tree limbs sprawling gracefully across a moss-covered stone ceiling in the cool cave. Metres away, the small room of Thekla’s tomb itself was thoroughly scorched. However, the stupidity of NATO’s thugs worked against them when it came to the scorched tomb. In their frenzy to destroy the grave and steal Thekla’s bones, al-Nusra & co. threw many of the ancient grave-top icons to the ground, slinging upon them the stone slabs covering Thekla’s remains. It was only this rushed act of stupidity that preserved some of these valuable relics from the fires they soon-after lit. “These icons are probably as old as the church. They had no idea of the value of these things,” Thekla’s priest-turned-local defense (NDF) soldier Konstantin al-Khouri told me. Priest-turned-soldier, please note, MSM: Syrians protecting themselves and their heritage.

The monastery, he said, remained intact while Mother Superior Pelagia and the other nuns were here. “But after al-Nusra kidnapped and took them to Yabroud, the takfiris occupied the place and stole whatever they thought valuable, even church bells.” Although visibly weathered by the battles and the desecration of beloved holy sites, al-Khouri continued with the tradition of the Thekla Convent hospitality to visitors, handing me a small packet. “It’s blessed oil. It helps a sick person to heal,” he says.

From a terrace just off the meditation cave, a panoramic view of Ma‘loula hammered home again both the beauty and current tranquility of the town, and the destruction by NATO’s death squads. Birds chirped here, too, flitting about between cliff faces, and a Syrian flag atop the scarred Safir Hotel fluttered in the breeze.

As the car descended from St. Thekla’s Convent, we passed by yet further destruction, including to the masjids the general had mentioned, but also passed a more hopeful scene: a boy holding a football, walking in the street — life returning to a town that until the arrival of the terrorists had only known peace.

Ma‘loula updates

Just before Christmas, last year, I spoke with Iyad Khuder, a Syrian journalist who had recently visited Ma‘loula. He mentioned that while security prevailed in the town, “the locals haven’t returned yet to their houses, only about 20–30% of them have.”

Buthaina, a Ma‘loula resident and English literature student at Damascus University, is now living in Bab Touma. Also in December 2014, she told me her story through Skype. “My family and I were in Ma‘loula when the terrorists attacked. We left one day after they made the explosion at the town gate.” She spoke of loss — a friend murdered by the terrorists — and of how the attack on the town affected her personally. “I went back in August, 2014, and I can’t find the words to express my feelings when I went back: the greatest feeling of happiness, even though we saw lots of destruction… we felt that we had come back to our home. We are so grateful, firstly to our president, and then to the Syrian army and the government, they are the rescuers, saving us in Ma‘loula and in our country. Up till this moment we are still living under their protection against the terrorists.”

More recently, in February, 2015, Syrian-Australian, Reme Sakr, visited Ma‘loula and updated me on some of my questions. “There hasn’t been any visible rebuilding. The locals said that the Thekla and Sergius churches will soon begin restorations, but there was nothing that we could see yet, besides a few statues and other pieces in the churches being stuck back together. Right now there are about 2,500 who have returned and are living there. The local Christians we met were broken for their lost history, they said they don’t care about rebuilding their houses, but their history has been destroyed and could never be replaced.” Syrian SANA news on December 25, 2014, published a video of Patriach Laham’s sermon at Ma‘loula — who spoke, among other things, of reconciliation and of peace in Syria and in Palestine.

Back in June, when I’d exited the ravaged St. Thekla Convent, the SAA General had waited to say goodbye and impart a few heartfelt words. “The important thing about you visiting here is for you to share publicly what happened here. In the 2,000 years this village has existed, nothing like this ever happened… not until the takfiris came and started all the terrorism here. This was a peaceful area until then. Muslims live here, a minority, but yes, they lived here with their Christian neighbours. There are two masjids here; they were also damaged by the mortars. The terrorists didn’t care if it was a masjid, a church, a normal house… they didn’t care if the place was sacred or not. They think like the (former) US President, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Please tell exactly what you saw here.”

The story of Ma‘loula is the story of Syria and of Syrians of all faiths fighting external terrorism and NATO’s “democracy” delivered through car bombs and mortars. But in spite of the Axis-of-Destruction’s terrorists, Ma‘loula is secured, life will return, and people will rebuild.



Projecting the ISIS takfiris as "Islamic"