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.
St Elias Catholic church has been badly damaged, its icons destroyed or stolen. Graffiti on a wall reads, "Shias and Alawites to the tomb, Christians to Beirut." A jumble of plastic chairs and a geranium in a pot show that some still worship here, although the houses and shops of the Christian quarter are ruins.
The faceless clock tower at the centre of this small town, once inhabited by 30,000 people, still stands. Trees and bushes are white with dust whipped up by a steady wind. We drive through street after street of devastation. Buildings gutted, crushed, blasted. Homes with holes in the walls made by rebels who travelled from building to building through the city to snipe and fire rockets at besieging troops.
In spite of pleas to carry on with the tour of Qusayr, Usama insists I interview Fr Bacchus and makes for Rableh, 3km to the west but serene and whole, where we have an ad-hoc encounter, instead, with mukhtar Salah Fayyad, the local administrator, a Christian who lives next to another St Elias church. “The whole area is known as St Elias,” he explains.
As we are served chilled glasses of mulberry juice, he says, “Fifty Christian families from Qusayr took refuge here. They will return to Qusayr. The government is preparing to rebuild and has set up an office for claims. Sunnis can return also, if their hands are not bloodstained. Qusayr was 65 per cent Sunni, 20 per cent Christian, and the rest Shia and Alawites. In Rableh there are 7,000 Christians out of a total of 8,500.”
The extremists of Jabhat al-Nusra "did not come here. We were protected by the army and the national guard. But they kidnapped 60 women and 218 men from Rableh last July and demanded an end to the siege of Qusayr. They were freed after 15 days" under a deal mediated by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Rableh has both electricity and water, of which only partial supplies have been restored to Qusayr. Telecommunications are being repaired. “The state is still functioning,” says Fayyad.
As we swerve and bounce along the road to Qasr in the golden afternoon, Usama puts on a tape of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras, perfect music to enjoy the peace of Syria before encountering armed men stopping cars while tanks and troops try to contain a four-body Sunni-Shia skirmish on the Lebanese side of the border.