Christians come under attack in Damascus
First a roar, then a tremor that makes windows shake, echoes through the narrow streets of this maze of houses, churches and schools on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. A girl raises her head, looks up at the sky trying to dodge the bombs. But the first has already fallen and its echo spreads the usual terror. In a moment fear grips the neighbourhood – doors and windows close, people barricade themselves in their houses and the girl, now alone in the middle of the road, runs f breathlessly and disappears panting in this maze of narrow streets where the sewage gutters are mixed with rubbish. This is Dwala, a popular quarter in the eastern suburbs of Damascus inhabited largely by Christians. Here the explosions of mortar shells and missiles launched from Ghouta, the rebel stronghold less than two kilometres away as the crow flies, provide daily horror.
Today is no different. It’s 3 pm and the third bomb of the day has exploded just a few minutes ago. Allah Nasser, a National Defense officer, the paramilitary body responsible for security in the civil quarters, needs to find out where. He slips into this maze of streets as the crackle of his radio transmits the coordinates of the new incident, while ambulances sirens converge in the same direction. Three minutes and they are there. A wounded man holds his bloodstained back, a group of faithful are outside the door of the church of Saint Joseph. All around is a bed of glass and rubble. “Journalists come here, tell the truth for once” – a woman shouts. Behind her, an old man and a boy drag a cross of dented and dusty metal. The mortar bomb that exploded on the roof of the church hit the cross which rolled on the tiles and fell into the street.
“I left the shop for a moment to greet a friend and suddenly there was the explosion. I looked up and saw the cross falling in a rain of rubble. I do not know how I’m alive “- says Alain as he raises his shirt and shows the streaks of blood drawn on his back by a sliver of metal. Another of those splinters is in the hands of Father Imad Challah, one of the priests of this Syro Catholic church built between Dwala and the Tabbaleh district, less than two hundred meters from the Memorial which recalls the conversion of St. Paul.
“Today luckily it went well … thank God we only had two minor injuries” says the priest. “But it’s not always like that. More bombs fell here in Dwala in Tabbaleh, but also in Bab Touma and other Christian neighbourhoods. Now they arrive without interruption. Every day we count at least seven or eight. You in Europe are careful not to tell it, but the mortars of the terrorists in Ghouta are hitting us. For you, the only victims of this war are those of the Ghouta villages. But is not so. The bombs and missiles launched from those areas kill the women, men and children of Damascus … and the most exposed areas are ours, because Dwala, Tabbaleh, Bab Touma and Kassah, the areas where most of the Christian families live, are very close to areas of armed groups. We have already had dozens of victims here in Dwala. “
“Look here, since mid-February, since our army started the offensive to hunt terrorists from Ghouta to Dwala and Tabbaleh, we had 17 civilians and 20 soldiers killed. Now these neighbourhoods are a front line ” explains the National Defense officer. And as in every front line, there is no person here who does not count a friend or a family member among those killed. “Three weeks ago a bomb like this took away my poor son” – says Samaan, a retired professor from Dwale.
“We are Christians and we are ready to forgive. Most Ghouta civilians are not to blame. Probably many of them are only victims of armed groups who have taken possession of their villages and their homes. But we can not go on like this. It’s time to end it. In Europe what would you say, what would you do if an armed group occupied the suburbs of your capital city and fired on your citizens. Would you let them do it? Would you accept to have your people killed? I really do not think so. Here it is the same. We Christians no longer want to live next to terrorists ready to kill us. For us, peace will return only when the army has freed Ghouta and chased out those rebels.”
Fr. Bahjat Karakachm, head of the Franciscan community in Bab Touma, said that “two or three people die every day.” He recalled that in early March ” three schools were bombed but, thank God, there were not many students because parents do not send their children out of fear. On January 8, a missile hit our church, the Sanctuary of the Conversion of St Paul. According to tradition, the apostle fell off his horse in that place on the way to Damascus. “Our neighbourhood is the most dangerous in Damascus. The population here feels abandoned by the West. Everyone looks at Ghouta, but in our neighbourhood mortars fall and people die,” said Fr Karakachm. In January of this year, the terrorists threw rockets and mortar shells at the neighbourhoods of the so-called “Old City” of Damascus, where there are several churches and the headquarters of the patriarchates.
(Translated and adapted from an article by Gian Micalessin)