Overcoming Savagery and Treachery, Maaloula’s Heroic Defenders Fight for the Future

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© Eva Bartlett

Oct 18, 2016, Strategic Culture Foundation, (republished at SOTT.net)

-Eva Bartlett

Since 2013, September has for the historic village of Maaloula been a month of tragic anniversaries. Crimes and atrocities committed by Western, Gulf, Turkish and Zionist-backed terrorists there in September alone include murders, maimings, kidnappings, and the beginning of what would be the vast destruction and looting of Maaloula’s rich and unique ancient heritage.

On September 4, 2013, a Jordanian suicide-bomber exploded his truck at the Syrian army checkpoint at the arched gate outside the village. This was immediately followed by attacks on Syrian soldiers nearby, mainly by al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) terrorists—including Chechens, Uighurs, Turkestanis, Libyans, and Saudis, as well as locals.


Gate at the outskirts of Maaloula, where on September 4, 2013, al-Nusra and other terrorists carried out a series of coordinated attacks on Syrian soldiers, the start of the battle for Maaloula. © Eva Bartlett

On September 7, 2013, terrorists point-blank assassinated three unarmed Maaloula men after they refused to convert to Islam, critically injuring one of the men’s sisters.

On September 13, 2013, a group of roughly twenty Syrians, including a Maaloula local, climbed the mountains above the town in an attempt to observe the never-interrupted, nearly 1,700 year old, annual traditions of the Festival of the Holy Cross. Terrorists attacked the men, killing roughly half of them and abducting the others (1).

Although since March 2013 al-Nusra and FSA, among other terrorist factions, had occupied areas of the cliffs above and beyond the over 4,000 year old village, the September 4th attack began what would be an eight month battle by Maaloula’s defence forces, the Syrian Arab Army, and Hezbollah to liberate the village from terrorists who bombed, burned, looted, and in any way possible attempted to destroy the heritage of Maaloula.

According to Maaloula local defence soldiers, between September 4, 2013 and April 14, 2014, at least 200 soldiers of the Syrian army were killed in the battles to liberate Maaloula, including at least four who were savagely beheaded in the initial terrorist attacks. Their honourable sacrifices will not be forgotten.

The less-recognized heroes in Maaloula’s fight against terrorism were those villagers who defied terrorists’ commands or with arms resisted them, and continue to do so now.

In July 2016, I returned to Maaloula to see how life had improved since April 2014, and to hear the accounts of Maaloula’s heroic defenders and of a woman left for dead.

Testimonies of Terror and Bravery

Mikhael Taalab, a baker in nearby ‘Ayn at-Tina, Anton Taalab (Mikhael’s nephew), a shoemaker and a postman, and Serkis Zakhen a fourth year university student, were assassinated by terrorists on September 7, 2013, with the aid of treacherous local terrorists (2).


Mikhael Taalab, Anton Taalab, and Serkis Zakhen, point-blank assassinated by terrorists on September 7, 2013. © Eva Bartlett

Anton’s sister Antoinette survived the attack, but is physically and mentally still wounded. Her left elbow is jointless from the grenade, which tore off flesh and bone, and while the chest bullet wound has since healed, when recounting the events, she struggled to breathe, affected by the memories. Sitting on her balcony, to a backdrop of evening calm Antoinette delivered her horror story.

“We woke up on September 7th to the voices of terrorists shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

As al-Nusra and FSA terrorists spread through the streets and main square of the town, at least three of the armed men passed through an iron gate, and continued up a narrow, winding path in the old quarter, reaching the home of Antoinette and Anton.

“When they arrived here, our door was closed. They broke it open and burst into the house.”

Traditional Maaloula homes have a small curtained cave off the central sitting room, used like a pantry for storing grains and other goods. When the terrorists began shooting that morning, Anton, Antoinette, her elderly near-blind and near-deaf father, her aunt, Serkis and Mikhail hid in the cave. Had the terrorists been solely outsiders, the family might have survived the attack. The terrorists went straight for the cave.


The elderly near-blind and near-deaf father of Anoinette was wounded in the September 7, 2013 attacks which killed his only son. © Eva Bartlett

“They told us to get out, told us they would give us safety,” Antoinette recounted. “Anton, Serkis and Mikhail went outside to the balcony to plead with them and my father, aunt and I stayed in the sitting room.”

Although they knew that only women and an elderly man remained in the room, the attackers shot inside. One of the bullets ricocheted off a wall and went through Antoinette’s chest. “When I was hit, I crawled under the chest in the corner of the living room and prayed to the Virgin Mary.”

Stepping inside her home, Antoinette showed me the white-walled, timber-ceilinged sitting room where her slight father lay sleeping under the photo of his murdered son. His sole son.


The author with Antoinette Taalab, critically-injured in September 7, 2013, terrorist attacks on her home.

The tiny storage cave in which they had initially sheltered, a large window, and the sofas were all covered with the same pattern of cloth. With its small, curtained opening, the cave entrance would have been almost unnoticeable, had the attackers not already known where to look.

Antoinette recounted how lying bleeding inside the house, she heard her brother, brother-in-law, and nephew being murdered.

“The terrorists told Anton to say the Shahada. Anton told them ‘I was born Christian and I will die Christian.’,” Antoinette recalled. Mikhael and Sarkis were likewise ordered to convert to Islam, and likewise refusing, were assassinated.

At some point in the invasion, the terrorists threw a grenade into the room. “There was a bright light and I felt something hit my arm,” Antoinette recounted, grasping her destroyed elbow.

Before leaving, terrorists deliberated on bringing a gas canister into the sitting room to explode, but in the end shot at and exploded it in its kitchen location.

When four hours later local defence force soldiers—braving heavy sniper fire—reached Antoinette, she was sallow and weak.

One soldier carried Antoinette over his shoulder while running under sniper fire for about 500 metres along the old quarter’s narrow, stepped, paths. He later explained that shehad been brave and had also refused to cower to her attackers, refusing their order to go with them in return for treatment to her chest and arm wounds. He quoted her as saying: “I told them leave me alone, I’d rather die.”

Due to the heavy sniping, it was impossible for the soldiers to return for Antoinette’s father. Wounded in his hand, he and her aunt remained one day in the home, with the bodies of his son and relatives, before being reached and taken to a home nearby.

It was three days before the Syrian Arab Red Crescent could retrieve the bodies of Anton, Mikhail and Serkis, also bringing out Antoinette’s father and seven other surviving elderly residents. Terrorists kidnapped six Maaloula men on the same day. Until now their whereabouts are not known (3).

Initial Attacks

According to Maaloula advocate Abdo Haddad, the number of terrorists attacking Maaloula were far more than what was initially thought to be 400 terrorists.

“After they first attacked Maaloula, every terrorist group wanted to claim they were part of the attack. We had people from every neighbouring village attacking us, including Yabroud, Rankous, and including terrorists of Hamas, Ahrar al-Sham, Ahfad al-Rasoul, among others. These people were rewarded after they destroyed civilization,” he said, referring to how the West supplies “moderates” such as these with TOW missiles and other weapons to kill more Syrians.

Head of Maaloula City Council, Naji Wahbi, echoed what other residents said regarding the subject of local terrorists:

“The people who were in the FSA in Maaloula, we knew them personally. They were first FSA, then became al-Nusra, and some later became ISIS. The local FSA brought al-Nusra to Maaloula.”

According to Wahbi, the Syrian army did not have a presence within the village and had not for some months. “It was all civilians.”

Local defenders had until September succeeded in keeping terrorists at bay, but early on the morning of September 4th, al-Nusra and other terrorists descended from the mountaintop, first in the suicide pickup truck, then followed by a number of vehicles loaded with terrorists.

Although defence forces on guard in the village tried repeatedly to warn the Syrian soldiers at the checkpoint beyond, there was no response. One of the soldiers explained that it is believed the Syrian soldiers had been drugged or poisoned:

“On the morning of the attack, one of our Muslim families took food that was drugged to the soldiers at the checkpoint. When we saw the pickup truck going down, we shot rounds in the air to warn those at the checkpoint, but no one replied. The truck reached them and exploded.”

Abdo Haddad, further explained:

“Our defenders did everything they could to alert the soldiers at the checkpoint. They called their cell phones, their landlines, their radio. They shot five warning shots, in intervals. The soldiers—if they had been awake—should have been alarmed.”

One of the more notorious terrorists from Maaloula, Emad Diab, was the number two in command of the terrorists attacking the village, Haddad explained.

“He is also the uncle of the woman who we believe poisoned the soldiers at the checkpoint.” According to Haddad, Diab in late 2014 is believed to have used the same drugging technique, in tea, on Syrian soldiers and Hezbollah resistance at Assal al-Ward, leading to their killing or capture.

By September 7th, after days of battles against the terrorist factions, another effort was made to cleanse the village and return it to safety. Local soldiers in the old quarter largely kept the terrorists from entering, but eventually terrorists did infiltrate some areas, including their assault on the home of Antoinette and Anton.

Dr Joseph Saadeh, a dentist and also a city council member, lives in old Maaloula but was in neighbouring ‘Ayn at-Tina that day, doing what he could to defend his village.

“We were at the centre of the army commander, and we helped them with some locations. Our defenders in the old city told us the areas where the terrorists were, and we pointed them out on the map so that the army could give the coordinates to fire on the terrorists.”

The odds weren’t in the favour of the defenders of Maaloula that day. Terrorists were able to take positions in the caves above the village, and eventually to take over the village, the start of an on-off occupation which lasted until April 2014.

Maaloula defence were able, however, to escort the remaining elderly from their homes in the old quarter, through twisting narrow lanes to a drain tunnel near the Thekla convent where the most infirm were evacuated in armoured vehicles. Those remaining residents who could walk took an arduous route of walking along inside the drain until they reached the Green Valley area, which they traversed and walked about two kilometres to ‘Ayn at-Tine, Dr. Saadeh said.

The local defenders remained until after the last civilian who wanted to leave had left.

Selfless Vigilance

Directly below the cliffs of Sts Sergius & Bacchus monastery lie old Maaloula’s ancient stone and earthen homes; homes wedged in between and into rock walls. Beyond is the newer areas of the village, the fertile and treed Green Valley, and in the distance the Damascus to Homs highway. From along the cliffs above Maaloula, al-Nusra and other terrorists sniped at villagers and soldiers, and rolled tires packed with explosives onto the houses below.


With safety returned to Maaloula, so too return traditions like this elderly man’s daily pilgrimage to pray at the Sts Sergius & Bacchus monastery. © Eva Bartlett

During my overnight July visit, in the late afternoon one of the local defenders collected vegetables from a small garden plot below the monastery balcony, for a meal of rice, cooked zucchini and potatoes, and cucumber yogurt.

Instead of returning to their homes and lives, these men forego comfort to maintain, in shifts, a 24 hour/day vigilant watch for attempted incursions by terrorist factions as close as ten to fifteen kilometers away in different directions (4).


A serenity and calm which was interrupted in 2013, and for which Maaloula defenders remain vigilant. © Eva Bartlett

The blue and white Virgin Mary statue which was absent from its perch on a ledge beyond the Saffir hotel when I visited in June 2014 had been restored to its position overlooking Maaloula. Church bells, the massive 1,700 year old wooden door of Sts Sergius and Bacchus monastery, and some of the artifacts stolen from the village had also been returned.

On a street below, near the main square, a man and some children collected water from a spring. It was at that spring on September 17, 2013, that 65 year old farmer Zaki Tabib was shot in his head by a terrorist sniper. Tabib was one of about fifteen mostly-elderly villagers who had refused to evacuate a week earlier.


A spring in the centre of Maaloula where in September 2013, terrorists sniped and killed an elderly man collecting water. © Eva Bartlett

Abdo Haddad, also one of Tabib’s nephews, commented on the stoicness of his uncle and men like him. “These old men are so pure in their heart that they don’t believe someone in their village would kill them.”

Left bleeding on the street, the elderly man was dead by the time two courageous nephews braved a torrent of sniper fire to retrieve his body, in order to give him a proper burial.

In the evening at the monastery, in the midnight quiet, a Syrian flag fluttered softly in the breeze, and the village below glowed dimly. This quiet and calm betrayed the horrific violence and terrorism, which plagued the village just two years prior.

As I slept in one of the monastery rooms, in shifts throughout the night the local defence forces maintained their watch, protecting Maaloula.


A Maaloula local defence soldier traces the battles on a map of the town. © Eva Bartlett

Moving Beyond Tragedy

When walking around Maaloula, an air of relative normalcy prevails, with people on the streets and some shops open—some newly opened. When I visited in July, a group of youths in the central square stood clapping, whistling and joking with each other as one skillfully played a rhythmic traditional song on a cheap tin flute.

Yet, piles of rubble lay at many corners, and gaping holes in some walls remained evidence of the near total damage to the old part of the village. Although official estimates were that 80% of the homes were damaged, Abdo Haddad pointed out that “damage” in most cases means missing entire walls, and that in fact every house in the old quarter suffered damage, from mild to entire.

Many homes were boobytrapped by terrorists, to further kill and destroy. “They rigged houses so that when someone opened the door, an electrical trigger with a small charge would detonate and explode a gas canister,” Haddad explained, saying that they could not count the number of rigged houses, maybe tens, maybe more: “The whole village was on fire. For the safety of the soldiers, in many cases the army had to blow the booby trap instead of diffusing it.”

Early on the second day of my July visit, the local soldier who had saved Antoinette poured us coffee and pulled out maps of the town and surrounding area, narrating the battles they fought to save Maaloula. Although I later learned that these men endured hardships of sleeping in winter cold without adequate coats or blankets and not daring to make fires the enemy could see, and at times survived for days on dried fruits, this soldier never mentioned the difficulties, instead speaking only of the battles and of his love for Maaloula and Syria.

We walked from the monastery to the famed gap in the mountain, a meandering path which leads to the St. Thekla convent. Cliff walls swell on either side and tower over the winding passage, a path at times narrow and at times broadening into natural amphitheatre pocketed with caves. An older man walked slowly the route he might have walked countless times. Further along, a man transported concrete blocks by donkey into the narrow pathways of the old quarter.

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A Maaloula resident walking through the historic crevice leading to St. Thekla convent. © Eva Bartlett


The paths of the old quarter are too narrow and stepped for anything but a donkey to carry reconstruction materials inside. © Eva Bartlett

The church walls and dome roof of St. Thekla convent remained blackened with soot from the fires terrorists lit within. Local stone masons stood on scaffolding, patiently rebuilding the thick walls in the traditional manner. Up the long staircase above the convent, the tomb in the cliffside grotto remained sooty black but was tidied up, with a few of the icons returned until complete restoration is possible. Other icons will never be returned, destroyed or stolen by the terrorist bandits, which occupied the convent.

Some of Maaloula’s devastated houses have been rebuilt or patched up, and from the vantage of the St. Thekla grotto’s balcony, their freshly painted walls were visible, as was laundry drying on outdoor lines atop a number of homes, more evidence of life returning and persisting in Maaloula.

The Institute for Aramaic Language, a two-story building which terrorists looted and destroyed, was in July ready to re-open, according to Naji Wahbi, with programs for all ages, as well as for foreigners wwanting to study the language.

Abdo Haddad noted that Maaloula’s elementary school is functioning mainly thanks to a number of young women who have for the past two years been teaching without salaries. “They are qualified but not officially accredited as teachers in the public sector. Had it not been for them, the school would have been closed.”

On September 7, 2016, villagers came together as they have every year since 2013 to honour the martyrs of three years prior. Close friends met early in the morning near the graves of Anton, Serkis and Mikhail, to share coffee and their memories. They brought with them three extra cups, for their fallen friends, and quiet solidarity for one anothes’s unspoken pain.

The afternoon saw Maaloula honouring the martyrs, with a procession which stopped at intervals to pray for their local protectors and the Syrian army, to pray for the kidnapped villagers and for the martyrs, and finally, to pray at the Virgin Mary statue above the village that peace would return to Syria.

For the third year renewed, on September 13th, Maaloula celebrated the Festival of the Holy Cross, observing traditions dating to 326 AD.

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*From Maaloula History Facebook page, celebrating the Festival of the Holy Cross.

Epilogue

Maaloula is still rebuilding, and much of its population is still displaced, but the people of Maaloula are not defeated. They cling tenaciously to their history and culture, and fight as tenaciously for their future.

Maaloula advocate Abdo Haddad emphasized how this fight is not only for his village and people, but for Syria.

“This formidable people who resisted tyranny, persecution and oppression, those are the people of Maaloula, of Syria. This is not about Christians versus Muslims, this is about defenders fighting for their people, country, futures.”

It is thanks to these heroes and their Syrian Arab Army soldiers and allies that future generations will carry on the language and traditions of the ancient village.

This continued and unwavering defence is emblematic of the defence waged by Syrians all over Syria.

_____________________

(1) Information on the September 13 murders and kidnappings is from a Maaloula defence soldier.

(2) These accounts are corroborate by various Maaloula residents and defenders.

(3) These accounts are corroborate by various Maaloula residents and defenders.

(4) According to Maaloula defence soldiers.

fighting against the worst conceivable terrorism for their lives and for Syria.

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