Qusair - the Syrian city that died

09.06.2013 04:28

There is a maxim that's often
been invoked in war - to save a
city, you have to destroy it.
That has been the fate of Qusair.
Before it was plunged into battle
some 18 months ago, it was a
thriving border city of 30,000 set
in lush groves of olives and
apricots.
Now, local officials tell us, only
about 500 people still live in a
place that lies in utter ruin.
On our second visit to Qusair
since it fell to government forces
in the early hours on Wednesday,
we found a calmer place, with
none of the edginess or frenzied
celebration we witnessed in the
immediate aftermath of battle.
There is more traffic on the
streets but it is almost all soldiers
travelling in tanks and trucks, on
motorcycles and bicycles.
Most are piled high with
mattresses, TVs, fridges and
furniture as soldiers move from
one abandoned building to the
next, taking away as much as they
can carry.
We only came across one family
returning to their house. They fled
a year ago when rebels captured
Qusair. They came back to a place
they didn't recognise as home.
Metal shutters are peppered with
holes from bullets and shrapnel.
Walls and ceilings are punched
with gaping holes.
And the floors are strewn with
remnants of the rebels' lives.
Blood group lists
Abu Samar sifts through one pile
and holds up a rifle scope, a
holster for a pistol, someone's
notes from classes in Islamic
teaching, a games console. Shirts
with symbols of the Free Syrian
Army's Farouk Brigades are
thrown on a chair.
Taped to the wall is a handwritten
list of the blood groups of fighters
who lived here.
Syrians of many faiths once lived
together in Qusair
Abu Samar's wife quickly bundles
up possessions her own family had
left behind, including children's
stuffed toys, glass plates still in
their boxes, and plump cushions.
"Will you come back here to live?"
I ask.
"No, never," she declares, fighting
back tears.
They quickly drive away in a car
bulging with their goods through a
city where every house on every
street is as ravaged as their own.
But even more worrying than
Qusair's immense physical
damage, the social fabric of
society has been ripped apart.
Down a desolate street, a battered
Church of St Elias symbolises how
many Syrians of many faiths once
lived here together.
This Christian place of worship has
not just been destroyed, it's been
desecrated by the fighting.
Its marble floor is now carpeted in
rubble and broken glass. Religious
icons are defaced, prayer books
burnt, the altar smashed.
On the other side of Qusair, next
to a shattered hospital used over
the past year by both sides as a
base, we ask a group of soldiers
about the terrible price the city
has paid.
"It pains me to see these ruins,"
says one young man doing military
service who wears civilian clothes.
"This hospital cost a lot to build,
from the taxes my family and
other families paid."
"People will return," insists
another young soldier who joins
our conversation. "They will come
back to a city that will be even
better, and their lives will be even
better than before."
They all blame the rebels for this
wasteland of war.
"This is what they call freedom,"
declares a soldier who stops to
show us improvised artillery
pieces wrapped in cling film and
packed with explosives.
"They use these against us because
they hate us."
The Syrian troops were joined by
Hezbollah fighters in the city
The battle lines in Qusair and
across much of Syria are harshly
drawn along political and
increasingly sectarian lines.
They're even more defined now
that Hezbollah fighters from
neighbouring Lebanon have
publicly joined forces with Syrian
troops.
They move openly in the streets of
Qusair. One man boldly
approaches us wearing a headband
in the movement's distinctive
yellow and green colours, and a
ribbon around his wrist.
I ask about the latest battle.
"It wasn't hard," he confidently
replies and then confirms reports
that Lebanese fighters are now
going in and out of Syria on
rotation, moving across a border
so close you can see it from the
edges of the city.
"It was easy as pie," boasted
another as he challenged me to
guess his nationality.
I ask some Syrian soldiers what
they make of the controversial
presence of Hezbollah.
"Why shouldn't they fight with
us?" one demands. "The other side
is sending in fighters from Libya,
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Afghanistan.
Half the world is fighting in
Syria."
Qusair made headlines across
much of the world as a small city
at a strategic crossroads became a
precious prize in a bitter battle.
The people who called it home are
now scattered in neighbouring
villages, in schools and on the
streets. Some fled across the
border to Lebanon.
We still don't know how many
were killed in the last three weeks
of fighting. But what we have seen
is a city that's died.