Strategic Syrian town of Qusayr reduced to rubble
Only the Shia and Sunni mosques have survived the onslaught
Residents of Qusayr carry bags after visiting their houses to collect belongings. Photograph: Reuters/Rami Bleibel
Our journey begins at a small Shia mosque outside the Lebanese hill village of Qasr, 10km to the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr retaken on June 5th by the Syrian army bolstered by seasoned Hizbullah fighters. Usama, our driver and guide, flashes an identity card at the Lebanese checkpoint before plunging the Jeep along the narrow winding back road to Qusayr. No passports are shown, no questions asked.
We whizz past fields of stumpy golden wheat, cherry and apricot orchards, olives and figs, jouncing over potholes, slowing for a bailey bridge over the fast-flowing Orontes River that irrigates this rich agricultural area.
Usama, a portly young local, says, “Hizbullah first came here to defend 25 Lebanese villages on the Syrian side of the border and had to take part in the battle for Qusayr because the extremists were kidnapping, looting, and killing Lebanese.”
A cow lies in the shade of a mulberry tree, laundry flaps on the veranda of a red house, youths zip by on motor bikes, lorries carrying boxes of apricots trundle along the road. A patch of blackened earth, downed trees, houses pock-marked by bullets and a checkpoint manned by gun-toting lads remind us we are in a war zone.
The arch of the gate of St Elias monastery outside Rableh, the village before Qusayr, is broken, the outbuildings shot up, a statue of the Virgin Mary smashed and the church vandalised. Usama, a Shia, pauses to place the top half of a broken icon of the saint into a pocket outside the door of the shrine. Inside the small Ottoman building, the tomb has been demolished, the room torched. Red and pink roses bloom in the garden.
“I used to visit as a boy. Muslims and Christians came together. They had a fair and sold popcorn, ice-cream and icons. Is this the freedom the extremists demand?”
Syrian soldiers dressed in camouflage wave us through another checkpoint. A sign peppered with bullet holes announces “al-Qseir”, or Qusayr. A tank sits on a pile of rubble at the edge of a field of rubble, pancaked buildings, crumpled metal shop shutters. Only the Shia and Sunni mosques have survived the onslaught. The rubble is too much even for heavy duty bulldozers trying to clear one side of the two lane street.
Our back tyre is flat, the jack is broken, and we wait till a motorist stops to help. It takes three men to change the wheel while bulldozers, lorries, cars, and a pick-up filled with a family’s belongings drive by, enveloping us in fine dust.