29th January 2013
Rebels are occupying Alawite houses in a region known for its tradition of sectarian coexistence in an offensive that looks likely to determine the fate of the country’s cosmopolitan heart
Around one bend, white crosses jutted starkly from the graves on a hilltop. This was the Christian village of Jdeida, on the edge of Idlib province and Jebel al-Krud. Barely a home here had escaped shell damage since it was taken by rebel groups six weeks earlier. And next to none of the locals had remained.
One family had stayed behind. “We don’t have an option,” the elderly Christian man said. “The situation is as you see it. This is the first time there hasn’t been shelling here in more than a week. We haven’t seen the sun or sat in our garden in all that time.”
The man’s wife picked an orange from the tree at the centre of the courtyard and offered it on a silver tray.
His 90-year-old mother sat on a stone wall, her left eye red with a chronic infection, her right streaming with tears. “We can’t go anywhere to get medicine,” she said between sobs. “We are not with anyone, my son. We are too old for this. Please let it end.”
Neither side seems to have any will to bring the war for the mountains to a close. Further up the hill, the town’s church stood empty and barricaded, part of a wall hit by a shell. And from the bell tower, rebels pointed out the next target in their seemingly relentless sweep to the east and south, the town of Yaccubiya.
“We have a very big problem with this town,” said the leader of the military council in Idlib province. “These Christians are our friends. We have lived with them for a long time, and we respect them. But the regime has put weapons in the cathedral there. We don’t want to attack it but we know we must.”
Purple-grey smoke from at least a dozen cigarettes and a wood-burning stove swirled around the room. The 10 or so men sitting cross-legged on the floor seemed to crouch ever lower as the haze descended before one finally opened a window, letting in a shock of frigid air.
“We have asked the Christian authorities,” the rebel leader said as the smoke cleared. “We have even asked the priests in the north what to do. One gave us his permission to attack the town; another said not to. We want some guidance. Will the west talk to us about this?”
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