Syrian Christians remain in Damascus despite war
Damascus - It’s one of the most treacherous areas in Damascus because of its location on a Syrian battle front.
The Eastern Gate of Damascus houses the predominantly Christian neighbourhoods of the Abbasids, Kassaa and Bab Touma, near Ghouta, which the Assad regime lost to rebels more than three years ago.
The neighbourhoods have seen the worst aspects of war from car explosions, rocket and sniper attacks to ferocious close-in fighting on the front line on their doorsteps. About 150 Christians have been killed, hundreds wounded and thousands have fled to safety elsewhere.
Despite the dangers, hundreds of Christian families remain.
Physician Rafla Kardous lives a block from Abbasids square. His house’s windows are shattered and walls are pierced with bullets. Still, he refuses to abandon it even though he says Abbasids is “one of the most dangerous areas, not only in Damascus but also in all of Syria”.
“It’s the first line of contact with Jobar neighbourhood and ultimately into the Ghouta East, where a car explosion… in March 2012 killed 25 people, including government officials, and wounded more than 120 others, mostly civilians,” he said.
Six vehicle explosions since have killed dozens and wounded scores, the physician added.
Kardous, who works at the French hospital in Kassaa, said nightfall is when clashes start.
“We keep hearing tremendous shelling and loud explosions that make you think you won’t see the morning,” he said. “But complete calm is restored during daytime as life returns to normal and we go to work as if what happened at night was just a bad dream.” Kardous’s son Elias, who graduated in September from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Damascus, interrupted, saying there are times when clashes occur during the day.
“Sometimes, a rocket falls, so we don’t have school or work that day,” said the younger Kardous. He said that on “calm” evenings, people venture out to restaurants, which offer dancing to music from local bands.
“Restaurants are usually packed. People want to enjoy life, even during the war,” he explained.
Facing Abbasids Square, which is usually packed with cars and pedestrians, is a small street corner coffee shop surrounded by water fountains and so packed that the wait time could be a full hour. It belongs to Emad, a young Syrian who suffered a shrapnel wound after a rocket exploded outside the shop.
“I worked in this place for ten years. I literally live here, despite the rockets falling everywhere around us and I will stay here,” he said. “And, in spite of the situation, customers continue to come. They need an outing and this place makes the perfect one.”
Some people are working to document the number of missiles that fall in the area. Maher Mones, of Kassaa, said more than 2,250 mortar shells were fired at Damascus in 2013. Of the total, 350 fell on Bab Touma, Kassaa and the Abbasids, Mones said. Other reports triple those estimates.
Bab Touma resident Elias Sargi said a service was recently conducted at the cathedral to commemorate the 150 residents of this neighbourhood who perished in battles.
Iyad Khoury, another neighbourhood resident, said many victims “had nothing to do with either side of the conflict”.
“Their only problem is that they lived in this neighbourhood and they refused to leave,” Khoury said. “We lost many friends and relatives. Some were killed either in their homes or in the street, others had legs or hands amputated and are now disabled and some who left the country.
“What can we do?” he asked “We are here and we continue to go to the coffee shop to smoke the water pipe, despite all the wildness around us.”
Elias Zehlawi, a priest, warned of Syrian emigration, saying that was part of a “scheme to empty the country of its population, Muslims and Christians”.
“We were raised to love the country and the land but some people felt they reached their limit, couldn’t bear to die in a rocket attack and favoured to die in the sea on their way to their new home abroad,” he said.
Zehlawi, who lives in the Church of Our Lady overlooking Abbasids square, said: “Our roots as Christians in Syria date to 2,000 years ago and we lived throughout in total coexistence with the Muslims who came here 1,400 years later. We prayed, lived, studied and ate together. You want me to leave this legacy elsewhere?
“I just can’t.”