Anti-Assad rebels have been forced out of many parts of Syria’s ancient Christian village of Maaloula, but the fighting there remains heavy, RT correspondent Maria Finoshina reports from the scene.
After arriving in the center of the village Wednesday, Maria Finoshina and the RT camera crew saw signs of a recent battle and heard shelling. Syrian Army soldiers said the village was freed from jihadists. The claim would later in the day turn out to be premature.
Al-Nusra Front fighters first attacked the village last Wednesday. The following seven days saw Maaloula torn between the rebels and government forces, with both occasionally gaining control over the village.
Some residents, who claim rebels have resorted to looting, executions and forcing residents to convert to Islam, chose to join the Army to defend their village. Among them, Saba Ubeid, a store owner, said when filmed by RT in 2012 that he was sure the rebels would never come to the village. This time he was armed with a gun and fought alongside Syrian soldiers.
“They sent terrorists here from all corners of the world to kill Syrian people and each other. Why? I ask the world, why?” he cried out. “While in Europe if a citizen is simply slapped in his face, there'll be a scandal. While Syrians – how many victims, how many hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered? When it will stop?”
Maaloula, a mountain village of 2,000 people, is the center of Christianity in the region. Alongside with Catholic and Orthodox monasteries there are the remains of numerous convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries. It is also one of the very few places in the world where people still speak Western Aramaic, a Biblical language that Jesus is believed to have spoken.
The village, built into a rugged mountainside, is a major pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims from around the world. It is an ancient sanctuary on a UNESCO list of proposed World Heritage sites.
Despite sporadic reports of government troops regaining control over the village, at the time RT’s Maria Finoshina was in Maaloula the rebels still occupied the mountaintop Safir hotel, a strategic vantage point for sniper attacks.
“Our goal was to free it and go to the Mar Takhla monastery, but we still haven’t have been able to,” one of the soldiers says.
The Mar Takhla monastery – one of the oldest in Syria – holds the remains of St. Takhla, who is said to have converted many people to Christianity in Syria.
On their way out of Maaloula, the RT were caught up in the crossfire between the rebels and the government troops. The engineer was slightly injured.
The RT crew left the village when it was already dark. Government forces were still continuing their offensive on Maaloula.
The village, 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, located on a highway between the capital and Homs, is a strategically important location. If the village falls to the rebels, the pressure would be significantly increased on government defenses in Damascus.