Battle-scarred Syrian towns flicker with signs of new life
Mixed Muslim-Christian resorts of Zabadani and Bloudan look to the future
Amineh Bou Aish (67), grandmother, farmer and head of household, in her home in Zabadani, Syria. Photograph: Michael Jansen
The highway from Damascus to the resort towns of Zabadani and Bloudan climbs the slopes of the Qalamoun mountains near the Lebanese border. En route we pass through Madaya, an ex-jihadi-held town that suffered siege and hunger during 2015-2016.
While the main village higher on the slopes is battered, large villas on the outskirts remain whole and shuttered. Returned inhabitants have resumed their traditional profession of smuggling all manner of items from Lebanon.
Further along in Bukein village, famous for pure water, two men are filling large bottles at a spring beside the road.
In 2012, Zabadani, a mixed Muslim-Christian town, became the first town in Syria’s civil war to fall to the insurgent Free Syria Army. It was heavily damaged during the army’s 2015-2017 campaign to return it to government rule.
While solar panels provide power for street lights, piles of reeking garbage and water from leaking mains foul the potholed and unpaved streets. Before the war, Syrians flocked to Zababani – which is renowned for its small, sweet apples – to escape baking Damascus in summer and enjoy the snow in winter.
Three women sitting on the stairs of a partially wrecked house invite me in for a chat. Over coffee and walnut pastries in her large sitting room, Amineh Bou Aish (67), grandmother, farmer and head of household, says, “Thank God, the situation is getting better. We left for seven years, for [the nearby towns] Madaya and Bloudan.
“When we heard our town was open, we came back. Walls had collapsed from bombs and mortars,” she says, gesturing toward repaired sections and newly installed aluminium frame windows. “My husband was killed on the road when he was coming to check on the house and trees.” The family’s apple trees, their source of income, were cut down.
Six people live in this room: Amineh, two unmarried daughters, her daughter-in-law and two children. Her two sons work in Lebanon and send money to the family. Electricity is three hours on and three hours off on weekdays, and on all day on weekends.
“Now there are 4-5,000 people [in the town],” she says.
There are two more large, handsome rooms, plaster blasted from the mud-brick walls. They are used for storage.
Across the landing, the stone mason husband of Fatiha Tinawi, a lively younger woman, has repaired three rooms. The large kitchen boasts a huge stainless steel fridge from Lebanon, the freezer compartment filled with food.
Her family fled to Lebanon where her husband found jobs and her son was employed in a shop. But the $300 rent was too expensive. After the Tinawis returned, her husband worked for three months; he has been unemployed for four. While in Lebanon, “I missed my home,” she says. “All the people want to come back.”
In the town centre, a shop selling European make-up smuggled from Beirut stands next to a grocery, its shelves filled with mainly Syrian-made comestibles. On the edge of Zabadani, a white stone rose sprouting from a waterless fountain and a small ferris wheel are symbols of the town’s posh days as a resort.
A short drive away, Bloudan, a Roman-era town, snoozes in the sun. The five-star Phoenicia hotel – war damaged, repaired and reopened 18 months ago – is fully booked, its swimming pool filled with splashing children.
At a shop selling Syrian-made cotton clothing, Karim Hajj Hamood says “We used to have shops in Zabadani. Now we have only this one [in Bloudan]opposition] fighters in. I am from Zabadani. I left for Paris where I stayed for several years before returning.”
5,000 Christians and Muslims
The imposing, elegant Grand Hotel Bloudan was built in the 1930s by a French firm before Syrian independence from France in 1946. In its heyday, the hotel hosted pan-Arab conferences in 1937 and 1946 which rejected the partition of Palestine. The hotel closed in 2011 and reopened in 2017, after repairs.
The Paradise restaurant, which can seat 1,500, dominates the summit of Bloudan’s highest hill. Several dozen families are taking breakfast, both men and women smoking water pipes as they gaze at the splendid view.
On the veranda of the vicarage of the small Protestant church down the hill, Pastor Fuad Masri offers coffee and pastries. He counts 125 families from Bloudan and 160 from Zabadani in his congregation. “Bloudan has 2,500 Christians and 2,500 Muslims,” he says.
Some 20,000 displaced people, mostly from Zabadani, came here during the war; 2,000 are left. “We were a minority. Some Damascenes let them live in their summer houses. During 2015-2017, every three months, the Red Crescent brought aid for the displaced. [Opposition] fighters tried to enter the town but we refused. All Bloudan’s people fought for the town. Christians and Muslims co-operated, were united. Bloudan is an example for the whole region.”
Patrick Seale: author and journalist
Anglo-Irish author and journalist Patrick Seale lived in the vicarage in Bloudan for 14 years as a boy while his father, Morris, a Presbyterian missionary and theologian, tended his flocks in Bloudan and Damascus.
The house, built in 1930, faces the church, erected in 1970. “The electricity bill is still in Morris’s name,” says the pastor, Fuad Masri. “Patrick spoke Arabic with a Bloudan accent.”
The Irish mission began in 1854 and lasted until 1950 when the Protestant church became “independent, national”, the pastor says.
Belfast-born Seale attended Oxford’s Balliol and St Antony’s colleges where he focused on Middle East history. He reported for the Observer and Agence Global and wrote seven books, including The Struggle for Syria, dealing with post-second World War Arab politics, and a biography of president Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current leader.
Patrick Seale died in April 2014 at the age of 83.