In September of 2008 I went to Syria for a few weeks. I only had two contacts in the country, and one of them was F, a middle class Christian and the prominent owner of local bakeries and a local pizzeria who lived in Syria’s Western province of Latakia.
I had never met F before, but according to friends at the University of Leuven, F would most likely be willing to take me in for a few days. F worked for years with the University of Leuven Archeology Department, and my friends promised that F would receive me.
After visiting Damascus, Homs, and a few Crusader castles like Krak des Chevaliers, I arrived in the city where F lived and worked. Not only did F provide me with a place to sleep, but during that week he and his family were the emblem of generous hospitality. Every time I reached for my wallet to share in the cost, F gave me the proverbial “slap on the wrist.” When I went north, to Aleppo, we exchanged phone numbers. We would stay in contact and I was told I was welcome back in Syria at any time.
Not even three years later, the Arab Spring swept throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Soon, it looked as if the Syrian revolution would turn into a full-scale, bloody war. When I contacted F, he initially said that there were no rebels in his province, and no sign of jihadists. That would soon change.
From all over the world would-be fighters, inspired by the promise of international jihad, travelled to Syria. F and his family managed to survive through all of the upheaval, but on several occasions were in grave danger. Sometime in 2013 I called F, warning him about fighters of Jabhat an-Nusra and ISIS who were active in the province.
On different occasions, my friends and I tried to get F and his family out of Syria, but our efforts initially failed. About half a year ago I decided to contact the Belgian Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken. After a few months, I got some good news at last: F and his family would receive a humanitarian visa and would be granted asylum in Belgium. What follows below is a part of their story, as told to me by F and his wife, whom I will refer to as L.
For safety reasons, the names of the family members and the name of their home town are not included. Some portions have been edited for clarity.
P: Could you tell me about March 2011, when the revolution started in Syria ?
F: The war changed everything… Islamists from all over the world came to Syria, they started killing everyone, they wanted to create an Islamic state. They came through Turkey, some through Jordan. They entered the villages and started killing everyone who wasn’t Sunni; Christians, Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Shi’a. In one village, close to Idlib, they only killed Shi’a. They changed the demography of these places forever.
P: What were the first jihadist groups to enter your region ?
F: Nusra, Jabhat an-Nusra. They constantly changed names, Nusra, Faylaq ar-Rahman… Until ISIS came. All of the time it were the same people over and over again, they just changed names constantly. The Syrian Arab Army was fighting the rebels in the south, many soldiers died in these battles. There was no safety anymore, corruption was widespread. Children got abducted for money, young girls were kidnapped for forced marriages, some people were killed for no obvious reasons.
We, Christians, were a preferred target for jihadists, both for killing and for abducting. The Christian population was driven out of several Christian villages like Rabla, Qusay, Saddat, Qassab and others. These towns were repopulated with islamists.
P: What happened to the Christians? Did they move to Aleppo ?
F: No, to Christian villages in Homs province, where it was still safe. But they had to start building up a new life, and trust me, that isn’t cheap in Syria.
Me, I’m looking for a new future for my three children, my wife and myself, because there is no future left in Syria. The war is far from over. There’s fighting every day, if they stop fighting at one place they’ll start again somewhere else. Do you realise what that means ? Did you hear about the Israeli bombardment [on September 16, 2018] of Damascus ?
Sometimes, there are accidents [involving] Russian planes close to our town; explosions and stuff like that. The jihadis now send in drones to attack the airbase with explosives.
P: Who sends in those drones ?
F: They’re coming from Idlib.
P: From Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham and other groups ?
F: You know, all these guys are just the same. I told you already, every day they change their name, if they have to. But if I see them I can say whether they belong to Nusra or Daesh [ISIS] or something else. In the end, they are all cooperating. The government gives them names as well, sometimes they are regarded as Nusra, sometimes as Daesh or Faylaq ar-Rahman or Faruq.
There are so many groups that nobody can keep count; there are just too many names going around. Ten or 20 men can form a new group and choose a name — [these are] Arabs, Turks, Uzbeks, everyone — and then they man checkpoints, stop you on the road, steal your car, your money and, if you’re really unlucky, your wife.
P: Can we talk more about government corruption engulfing the country?
F: Corruption is everywhere. You have to pay for everything these days, for every little thing you need they want money.
P: Did you have to pay to get out of the country ?
F: No, but that is because I am an old man. If I were younger, I would have had to pay.
P: I recently saw a regime announcement, it stipulated that all men born between 1977 and 2000 would have to stay in the country unless they were able to bail themselves out.
F: You can apply for that every six months.
L: Yes, and it has to be renewed yearly.
F: You pay more taxes now in Syria, everything is a lot more expensive these days. And then of course there’s the corruption.
P: So, for you to keep your pizzeria running, you had to pay ?
L: From time to time yes. The plumber, the electrician. Sometimes they just came by themselves to check if there wasn’t something they could fix… Sometimes, we paid them in pizza.
P: You told that your father was kidnapped, could you tell me what exactly happened? Do you know who kidnapped him ?
L: We know who it was, but we can’t tell you. We really can’t say it.
He was fishing, they came to him and told him that they represented the regime. They asked him for his identity card, took it from him and then they pulled his sweater over his head. They cuffed him, blindfolded him and threw him in the back of car. One of them took my father’s car, as part of the loot. Then they drove off to an unknown location, it took about two hours to get there. They locked him up for three days.
On the first day they called [my husband], they found his cellphone number in my father’s iPhone. Of course they called F, he is a well-known man in our city. Then they started to negotiate.
F: They wanted 7 million Syrian pounds, that’s €35.000. And they kept his car, of course.
L: [My husband] told them that my father needed medication, he has been a heart patient for a long time, but he didn’t know the name of his medication.
F: My father-in-law is a Christian. If he had different beliefs, people might have helped him. [As such], nobody did anything.
I told them I didn’t have [7 million Syrian pounds] and could maybe give them 300,000. The man said that I shouldn’t mock him; he wanted me to pay a lot more.
I told him to take the car and just release my wife’s father. No, he wanted money, and 300,000 wasn’t enough. Then he told me he could give me a discount.
In the end, we agreed on 1, 200, 000 Syrian pounds. Put the money in a bag, he told me, put it on the side of the road, on the bank of a little river. Five minutes after I made the drop, I could call them and they would release my father in law. They gave me the location where I should put the money, a bit later they arrived in a Hyundai Accent, a brand new model. The Hyundai was followed by four other cars.
P: Did they release your father in law at that point? Did they bring him to you or was he allowed to leave on foot ?
L: They threw him out of the driving car on the highway. We had to come pick him up from the side of the road.
F: I had told them; take me instead, I’m famous. But no, they just wanted money.
Later they called me again; they asked me if I needed a new car. But I told them that I didn’t need a new car, because I couldn’t pay for it. It crossed my mind that if I would show up there with cash, they would kidnap me too. I told them that I no money, that I am a poor man.
Then suddenly I received a phone call from the police, they asked me about my father-in-law’s iPhone, they found it in Homs. I told them my father-in-law lost his phone in an accident and that I would come and get it. I went there, with the iPhone box with the phone’s serial number on it. When I arrived they told me that they were still working on the case, they told me to go home and kept the box. They promised me they would call me later, I never heard from them again.
P: At least your father-in-law survived. He is still in Syria?
L: Yes, he’s alive, but he very sick. He has gastric cancer. He is [also] afraid to leave the house; he is traumatized because of the kidnapping and torture.
P: They tortured him during those three days they held him?
L: Yes, of course… Afterwards my father told me that after three days of captivity, he was seriously thinking about killing one of his guards and making a run for it. He simply didn’t know what to do anymore. On the third evening his three guards were relieved by two younger ones. He told me that he had set his mind on waiting till his guards fell asleep and then kill one of them. Not a day passes that he doesn’t think of that horror, it was just terrible.
He can’t fly [to join us in Belgium], because of his heart disease. And he’s still on medication for the cancer. (At this point in the interview, L starts to cry)
P: Your son, W, told me that there was a kidnapping attempt on him as well.
L: Yes, a little later. A short while after [it happened to] my father. He was coming back from school and some stranger grabbed him by his backpack. He struggled free and started screaming. But the stranger told him he had to come along. W kept repeating he would never trust a stranger. That is what we taught him, to never trust strangers.
F: It was another attempted kidnapping, there were people looking for money everywhere. It almost became a national trend, not only where [we used to live], but throughout the whole of Syria. People get kidnapped in this country every day.
L: Ever since that day I accompanied W and his sister to school and came to pick them up in the afternoon. Every day at school they were in terror, the bombings never stopped.
P: You mean bombings by jihadists who attacked the city with mortars.
L: Yes. On one day, they attacked two targets at once; the hospital and the garage.
F: Same moment, three bombs in total. At the hospital, two bombs exploded.
L: They transferred the wounded from the garage to the hospital; when they arrived there they tried to blow that up as well. Those who survived the attack in the garage were killed in the attack on the hospital. Two months later there was another attack, near the school.
F: They blew up our son’s best friend.
L: The son of our neighbours, he was just 12 years old. (Cries)
P: I’m assuming there are a lot more people back home who are facing similar dangers. And that they can’t go anywhere, unless they have enough money to buy protection from the Syrian government. Does the government aid local citizens?
L: They try as well as they can to keep the whole city safe. There are checkpoints at the borders of the town, and there they will control you when entering or leaving town. But that’s it.
P: Have there ever been suicide bombings carried out by jihadists in your home town?
L: Yes, of course. The second and third bomb we mentioned earlier were suicide attacks. In the garage they apparently put something under a car. When that exploded two suicide bombers attacked the hospital and blew themselves up.
P: Did you ever find out which group was responsible ?
F: No. There are so many of them… Some said they came from Idlib. But we just don’t know.
P: In 2012-2013, there were many young Europeans who left to fight in Syria. Among them were a lot of Belgians. Did you notice them while in Syria?
F: Yes. From all over the world they came… And from [Saudi Arabia in particular]. The Saudis paid for everything: food, clothing, vehicles. Even the cheese and meat came from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis supported [the jihadists] with everything they had: money, transportation, weapons, ammunition, and so on. And everything entered Syria via Idlib, everything was smuggled in through Turkey, via the Syrian-Turkish border. Lebanon and Jordan [by contrast] didn’t care too much about the war …
L: Until Jordan also opened its borders for the jihadists.
P: Did you happen to observe the split between Jabhat an-Nusra and ISIS? Did you see ISIS leaving for Raqqa ?
F: After the split, the same guys stayed. Everybody picked sides and changed groups and names again. But Daesh and Nusra, they are the dangerous ones. They kill everyone. If you’re captured by Daesh or Nusra, you die.
P: There is a heated debate in the Netherlands about government support for a so-called jihadist organisation, Jabhat as-Shamiyya. It looks like they are rather a more moderate group in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. Here in Europe, people have debated the moderate opposition — do you think it exists? Was the Free Syrian Army also involved in kidnappings and robberies?
L: Yes. They’re all the same.
F: Ahrar as-Sham, Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaysh al-Hurr (FSA), Jaysh al-Islam … all of them are the same. There are as many leaders as there are groups and everybody does what serves them best. And all those leaders are coming from everywhere, one from Saudi Arabia, another one from Turkey, Pakistan. There is no unity whatsoever, they’re all fighting each other for nothing.
At one point Jabhat an-Nusra abducted a bishop from a village north of Jisr as-Shughur. They took all the title deeds for all of the buildings and land the church owned. They brought him in front of an Islamic court and they forced him to transfer everything to Jabhat an-Nusra; they made him ratify everything with his episcopal seal. Now there are three Christian villages up there that are almost completely abandoned. The only ones still living there are old men who can’t leave the village. The rest is all Islamic land now, if you dare enter there as a Christian you are arrested on the spot.
The city of al-Qusayr, where there was heavy fighting, was half Christian before the war, there were numerous atrocities there against Christians. In a village nearby al-Qusayr, Rabla, they — either Nusra or Daesh, I don’t know — killed a Franciscan bishop and killed all Christians.
Another story is that of Brother Paolo Dall’Oglio. He went from Damascus to Raqqa to negotiate with Daesh over some captured Christians. ISIS took him as a prisoner, tortured him and forced him to convert to Islam. Then they just killed him. He wasn’t even Syrian, he was Italian… Another famous story is that of Brother Frans van der Lugt, a Dutchman. He was in Homs and took care of the Christians during the jihadist siege of the city.
And what they did with the Christians in al-Qusayr is unthinkable.
L: They forced women to hold their babies in their laps. One [jihadist] held the woman, another would cut the baby’s head off while she was forced to watch. Then they slaughtered the women.
F: They didn’t only do that to Christians. Alawites were also treated that way. The first time we heard such stories, we cried, but now, now we are used to it. Almost every day you hear about something similar.
Pieter, do you remember when you called me one day and told me to leave as soon as possible because the jihadists were coming to my town ? That same week we heard of some unimaginable horror stories. Pregnant women were killed, they just cut their unborn babies out of them.
Do you know Adra? Near Damascus, another Christian village. There was a story there: An entire family of Christians was forced to get into a large, tunnel-shaped oven and then slowly cooked to death. An entire family cooked … To escape that fate at least one family blew themselves up. To die was better than to be captured by jihadists.
We also saw videos of people tied behind horses and then dragged through the streets. They also used cars and motorcycles to do that.
P: Did anything change when Hezbollah and other Shi’a militias joined the conflict in Syria?
F: Hezbollah? They are not here anymore, maybe in low numbers. At the beginning, they were all over the country. But everyone who’s coming here does it for their own, personal reasons. They don’t come to help Syrians, they do what suits them best — this includes Russia and Iran.
P: Are there many Iranians in Syria now, since Hezbollah left?
F: Probably. We didn’t see them [before they left], but it is said that they are everywhere, yes. They control the airports, apparently. And Russians. All over the place there are Russians nowadays.
P: How do the Russian soldiers conduct themselves? Do they also steal from the general population?
L: No, mostly they behave quite well. I’ve never seen them robbing Christians.
F: Indeed, the Russians are quite good for us. If anything [untoward] happens, you go report that to one of their officers and then the soldier will be punished.
The Russians even started their own tourist industry here. They buy and sell about anything local — souvenirs, copper, pottery — everything that’s made here is bought.
P: Do you think that Western governments should do more for the Syrian people ? What, do you think, can be done?
L: The problem, usually, is the media. All these horror stories about an Islamic takeover of Europe, all refugees are now regarded as dangerous. There certainly are dangerous people among them, but what about ordinary people, like us? We are all regarded as the same.
P: Do you think the Belgian government should be accepting more refugees like you from Syria?
F: If you stop the war in Syria, then we will stay there. If there is safety, we would prefer to live there. That’s our country. But if I have to choose between memories and safety, I choose safety, that’s why I am in Belgium now. My heart is in Syria.
The Saudis and their Wahhabism ruined everything. They disrupted the whole society, Islam here in Syria was pretty moderate and progressive until the Saudis came. Everybody in Syria lived peacefully together, Alawites, Christians, Sunnis… From a kind of moderate Islam everything evolved rapidly to the most extreme.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of the media. Everything that happens in Syria is almost always broadcast live by al-Arabiyya or al-Jazeera. They show literally everything. People killed, blood, torn off limbs, all of that on TV, the whole day through, it has become the new normal. How can my children live with that ? They see it every day, they almost became numb.
Maybe, if you’ll ask me again in about four years, then, maybe, I will cry. Now I can’t cry anymore, there is too much, it just doesn’t stop. Yesterday another 40 to 50 people were killed in Syria, civilians. Every day, it doesn’t stop.