Robert Fisk – The Independent September 1, 2012
A week is a long time in violence. It seems only yesterday – five days ago, in fact – that armed men shot Sheikh Abu Haitham al-Bortawi outside the el-Noor mosque in the Rukenadin suburb of Damascus. Went to the scene. Middle class area. Tree shaded, clean street. Ten in the morning. Turns out he was the cleric who knelt right next to Bashar al-Assad for the Eid prayers at the end of Ramadan. A dagger to the heart of the body politick.
I meet an old friend the next day at a café in Mezzeh, and he’s crying. His dentist lived in Zabadani, in the hills near the Lebanese border, in Free Syria Army country. His son was warned the family home was unsafe because of incoming fire. From the army? No one’s sure. But a shell hit the house and the dentist has just arrived at the French Hospital. Dead, his grieving family still at the morgue.
Then there’s the two Christian guys outside town. One runs a DVD store, the other a pharmacy. Murdered. Next day, their funeral cortege is car-bombed. Twelve dead, at least 40 wounded. Turns out they had brothers in the Syrian army, apparently conscripts. Hardly a sin. But the opposition says the two men were “connected to the military”.
A Syrian journalist calls me. Six Armenians have been “slaughtered with knives” in their homes. I race to the Armenian church and there is brown-robed Bishop Armesh Nalbandian next to the ancient chapel of Saint Sarkis – he has around 6,500 parishioners in Damascus – and only a few metres from the memorial to the 1915 Armenian genocide. Many of those one and a half million victims of Ottoman Turkish slaughter were put to death in the deserts north of Damascus, now the scene of another Calvary.
But the “six-dead” story is untrue, Armesh says. Good news. But no. Three Damascus Armenians have just been murdered, apparently shot. Thirty-nine-year-old Bedros Matosian died along with his younger brother Kevork and the son of one of them – the bishop isn’t sure which – called Levon, who was only 22. Armed men. No identity. But the Matosians had Alawite and Sunni neighbours who were also massacred, because, so the local story goes, they refused to join the Free Syria Army.
The story depends on where you go in this divided capital. Yesterday, I take another prowl, through the Damascus suburbs; Malayha, Harasta, Zamalka, Bab Shawkeh. Thirty government checkpoints, maybe 40, but in Harasta, the Syrian Arab Republic has no sway. There are dozens of painted green, white and black FSA flags on the walls. “The free people of Harasta are denied their liberty,” a slogan informs us. “Assad should go.” There’s a mosque so packed that the crowds have spilled on to the boiling roadway; a guy in a pick-up tells us it’s safe to head for the motorway. An opposition man. A Syrian soldier in sunglasses waves us back to the autostrade of the Syrian Arab Republic.
We drive through the Assad Suburb, government housing, though some home-owners have rented to people from Zabadani – maybe a little security problem? – and just past the Tishreen military hospital (former student, one Bashar al-Assad), there’s an explosion and a car with headlights zipping the street dust under its shrieking tyres and a pulverised dead dog lying inside a garage.
Up to the Kassioun mountain overlooking Damascus for lunch at Al Montagna – the only guests, save for three tired Syrian officers – and we look across at the Omayad mosque and there’s a roar from the government guns on the other side of the jebel and a rumble of sound relayed mountain-to-mountain on the other side of the city. Fifteen seconds later, there’s a pop far away on the edge of the Palestinian camp at Yarmouk and a smudge of grey smoke. Then another report and another rumble and another pop a bit to the right, four miles away through the heat haze. Palestinians. I close my notebook for the week.