“We are a Christian city here, we need peace, no more bloodshed. Stop killing our babies” a Mhardeh resident told me on the 9th September when I entered this Christian town on the border with Idlib province, an area dominated by the terrorist group, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the rebranding of Nusra Front, Al Qaeda in Syria.
Mhardeh is a Christian town of around 22,000 inhabitants to the north of the province of Hama in Syria. On September 7th 2018 a massacre was committed by the armed groups encamped between two and five kilometers from the town in the province of Idlib. At 6pm on the Friday evening, these U.S Coalition proxies, deemed “moderate rebels” by western media, fired 9 Grad missiles into residential areas of this densely populated town. According to reports from the volunteer National Defence Forces (NDF), six of those ground-launched Grad missiles contained internationally banned cluster munitions.
The NDF informed me that it was an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, Jaish Al Izza that had carried out the attack in September. This is an armed group previously financed and supported by the U.S and is representative of the extremism that threatens the towns that border their areas of control. This attack came in from the north of Muhardeh from the northern Hama countryside of Ltamenah and neighbouring areas in Idlib.
Earlier this year, before the September massacre, I met with residents of Mhardeh. Dr Firas Habib is a general surgeon from Mhardeh who has also pioneered research into the prevention of breast cancer at Aleppo University. Dr Habib told me that, since 2013, Jaish Al Izza and Nusra Front or HTS have fired almost 9000 mortars. The town has suffered more than 80 martyrs with hundreds more being terribly injured, many children. The terrorists deliberately target hospitals, schools and residential areas.
“They want to drive us out but we will never leave our land. Only 500 civilians have deserted Mhardeh since the beginning of the crisis.” Dr Habib told me.
Dr Habib told me that Mhardeh still has two operational hospitals which are supplied by the Syrian Ministry of Health despite the punishing economic sanctions imposed upon Syria by the U.S alliance in an attempt to weaken the Syrian state by collectively punishing the Syrian people.
Despite the ravages of war and siege by the terrorist factions, Dr Habib is proud of their authentic civil society projects that include - Help the Aged, Mhardeh Orphanage, recycling, tree planting, help for the physically handicapped and factory work training schemes for women whose husbands, sons or family providers have been martyred in the conflict. He wanted to be very clear that “these are genuine Syrian civil society programs, not those fake campaigns that are funded by the West in the terrorist held areas, financed by the West and serving only the West.”
Dr Habib also praised the Syrian government for maintaining electricity supply to Mhardeh, despite the terrorist groups systematically targeting the local power station on a number of occasions in an attempt to plunge Mhardeh into darkness. A darkness that would make it easier for the terrorist groups to draw closer to the town defences and threaten residents. As Tom Wescott reported for Middle East Eye in September 2018:
“Steam pours from the chimneys of a nearby electrical sub-station, one of the most fiercely-contested local facilities, which changed hands multiple times, repeatedly plunging Mhardeh into darkness for weeks on end. During a 14-day occupation, rebels graffitied the premises with mottos including: ‘We don’t need the electricity of Assad, the light of Islam is enough for us.’"
Dr Habib recounted a little of the history of the terrorist attacks upon his town:
“In March 2017, the armed groups cut the road to Hama. We had five martyrs in one week from their subsequent mortar attacks. We still have our bags packed today, ready to flee if we have to. We were so afraid at this point. We were surrounded in the North, East, South and partially to the West. During the East Idlib campaign to liberate these areas, we were targeted mercilessly with daily mortar attacks and threats of invasion.
"In 2014 a series of terrorist suicide cars massacred 25 students in Mhardeh. In March 2016, my uncle’s son killed the driver of a suicide car carrying 5T of explosives. He was killed but he prevented a massacre. He was a hero, all the soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army are heroes - if they did not exist, the terrorists would be here now, where we are sitting. We all stand with the SAA and we are proud of their sacrifices for our country and our protection.”
The Mhardeh described by Dr Habib is a thriving, self-sufficient community that has fiercely defied the extremist threats and attacks. The Mhardeh basketball club was established in 1971. In 2010 they reached the 10th stage of the Syrian League. There are 17 clubs and 170 basketball players in Syria. In 2008 Mhardeh set up the volleyball club. There are now 60 volleyball players in Mhardeh. The womens volleyball team won the Syrian national championships in 2015 and 2016 captained by Lilianne Deeb. I met with this extraordinary group of young women and their coaches during this visit to the remarkable town of Mhardeh.
Dr Habib left me with one message for people in the West:
“Please work to stop spreading the fire of this conflict, stop adding fuel to the flames that threaten to consume us all. If you dont, nobody will win, all Syrians will lose, the whole world will lose. We deserve to be left alone and to live in peace”.
Terrorist Cluster Munitions Target Civilians Prior to Idlib Ceasefire
The Mhardeh I visited on the 9th of September was a town in shock. Many of the cluster bomblets had not exploded on impact and were still strewn in gardens, school playgrounds and in the streets. I was in the garden of one of the homes that had been targeted, with a member of the NDF, when he pointed to a bomblet nestled in the earth, beneath a shrub. He called the Russian bomb squad who were working to safely detonate more than 25 deadly bomblets in the town after the attack. They arrived and a young man in uniform picked the bomblet up by its red ribbon and carried it to nearby waste ground. I was able to follow and film as he followed the procedures to destroy the explosive. We ran to take cover as he lit the touch wire and placed the hissing projectile on the ground. After a few minutes the bomblet exploded safely away from civilian areas.
On the 9th of September the death toll stood at 9, by the 19th of September that number had risen to 13 as a number of the victims died from their terrible injuries inflicted by these destructive weapons that should never be used against civilian targets. International law is disregarded on so many levels in Syria, by the regime change alliance of the U.S, U.K and other NATO member states alongside the Gulf States, Turkey and Israel. Perhaps this violation of international law by their terrorist proxies in Syria should not surprise us. For the civilians in Mhardeh, the bloodshed was indescribable and the trauma will affect them for a long time into the future.
I was invited into the home of Simon Al-Wakil, the commander of the NDF in Mhardeh. The NDF in Mhardeh was formed in 2011 when the town first came under attack. Al-Wakil was adamant that they did not want armed conflict to escalate, they tried to reach out to the armed factions and to foster dialogue. He swiftly came to the conclusion that this was not a real “revolution”.
“There was no desire to negotiate or to hear what we were saying. We told them if they wanted to attack the Syrian government they should go to Damascus and leave us in peace but when we saw that they had no intention of allowing us to live in peace, we realised that this was a fake revolution.”
Then began the campaign of terror by the armed groups - the siege of the town, the shelling of residential areas, mining of roads and kidnapping of civilians, all familiar tactics used by the Western-backed armed gangs that have roamed across much of Syria. More recently, SAA allied liberation campaigns and Syrian/Russian-brokered Amnesty and Reconciliation deals have driven the majority of the remaining extremist groups into Idlib where they brace themselves for a final showdown with the Syrian-led forces.
Early on in the conflict in Mhardeh there was little SAA presence and a need to form a volunteer defence force made up of young men from the town, over the age of 18. These young men from all walks of life took up arms under the leadership of Commander Al-Wakil who had formerly been the head of a local construction company. Now the NDF comprises more than 250 fighters who defend a clearly defined territory bordering the Idlib front lines. They are reinforced by SAA units and according to Al-Wakil, are able to call up thousands more volunteers if needed if and when the official order comes to advance upon Idlib.
Al-Wakil has been injured many times in the conflict. He is a larger than life character, tall, well built and with an easily provoked, warm laugh. He proudly showed us an x-ray of a terrorist sniper bullet that had lodged itself in his neck.
We visited the windswept and vulnerable frontlines that overlook the Idlib terrorist strongholds, visible to the naked eye from the hilltop defended by impressive missile launchers. We arrived just as the artillery team prepared to fire one of the big guns at a target they had located - a Jaish Al-Izza position about 2 km away. The deafening blast reverberated around the sandbank defences and buildings that lined the road up to the frontlines. It was a successful hit judging by the cheers that went up as the plume of smoke appeared on the horizon. “We should withdraw,” Al-Wakil said cheerfully, “in case they fire back.”
Al Wakil told me that the gun that had been fired had a range of 23 km and they have cameras monitoring the movements of the terrorists. When they spot any hostile activity they will take preventative action. However, the NDF must follow the political decisions and if there is a ceasefire, this will be respected. In the last two days, the armed groups had clearly broken the “ceasefire”, “therefore these defensive measures are acceptable,” Al Wakil told me.
“We never target civilians of course, the civilians are not a part of this hostility.”
The Horrific Aftermath of the Attack
The “New Life” Hospital - Al Hayat Jadid - is a private hospital in Mhardeh that received the majority of the victims of the terrorist cluster munition attack on the 7th September. I met Dr Rami Hassoun who was exhausted and still shocked by the severity of the injuries he had seen:
“These were really critical cases, it is hard to even describe the wounds, they were some of the worst I have ever seen during this war. One person we received died the next day, their wounds were so bad and were immediately infected. We couldn’t save them. It was a massacre, that is the only way to describe what happened.”
Hadi Abdullah is the General Director of the hospital, he told me:
“The terrorists only ever attack civilian neighbourhoods, never military targets. Why? Children were playing in the street and they deserve to die? Why? The armed groups always attack during our Christian celebrations. Friday, we were celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary and they murdered our children! Where is the 'peace and democracy' in this? All of the groups attack us, Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army, Ahrar Al Sham, Jaish Al Izza - there is no difference between them.”
The doctors took me to see three of the victims who were fighting to recover from their terrible wounds. Luis Sisi was the first I saw, both his legs were in traction, his face and torso were covered in jagged, deep shrapnel wounds. I have seen the effects of war many times, but these injuries were devastating. Luis was barely conscious and did not respond as the doctors and nurses discussed his progress next to his bed.
15 year old Ibrahim Fares lay on the bed in the adjoining room. He was on life support. The shrapnel had passed through his brain and doctors told me they were not hopeful for his recovery. Ibrahim died a few days after my visit.
Daher Lammoth, a Syrian living in Bulgaria but from Mhardeh told me:
“Ibrahim’s father Elyas Fares has problems with his back. He was my neighbour. He was a very nice, calm guy, always smiling. He was an electrician and he works next to my home. He dreamed to have a son for such a long time. Elyas did not deserve that. Ibrahim was a lovely son to him.”
Luis’ mother, Anisa Zayod, was in a separate ward surrounded by her family who were gathered around Anisa as she struggled to survive the damage done to her body. The doctor showed me the wound in her stomach, the shrapnel had sheared through her intestine and the resulting infection was proving tenacious. Anisa was visibly wracked with fever and pain, barely conscious, she died a few days later. She was 65 years old.
Shadi Yousef Shehda lost his three children, his wife and his mother in the Mhardeh massacre. His entire family were wiped out in a matter of hours. Shadi was working in his shop when news reached him of the tragedy. He rushed home to find his entire world had been destroyed in this attack.
Shadi’s mother Afifeh, his wife Rama, his eldest daughter Maria, six-year-old son, Fadi and his two-year-old daughter Stefani had been “sliced to pieces” by the missiles that had been launched by the Western-backed terrorist groups.
Independent journalist, Eva Bartlett met with Shadi on the 11th September and she wrote:
“They were martyred just after they took a bath,” Shadi said, pointing to each dead child’s robe, then to their drawings pinned on the wardrobe above, then pointing out the cupboard with his eldest daughter’s drawing, and the toys laid out on a sofa on along wall. He pointed out every detail, lifting each of their backpacks and saying whom they had belonged to.
"The family were strong believers and went regularly to church, he told me, repeating again and again how his eldest daughter and son went to church, prayed; how she always wrote, 'Jesus is love, God is love;' and how, some days before they were murdered, his son Fadi wanted to take a photo with the church father.”
I also met with Shadi on the 14th September when I returned to Mhardeh to pay my respects to the families of all the martyrs during their grieving period. I entered the same open courtyard in front of his home that had been targeted by mortar/rocket fire three times previously. One attack had happened when his wife and children were at home. The rocket had landed on the tiles in front of where we were sitting but had not exploded. This time his wife and children escaped injury but now they were gone.
Shadi sat next to me and showed me the same photos he had showed Bartlett including heart-shattering images of his children’s broken, mutilated bodies immediately after the attack. He seemed transfixed by the photos, his right leg in spasm, jerking backwards and forwards as if the grief could only escape through his reflexes. Surrounded by mourning relatives and community representatives, Shadi seemed to be locked into an inner world of pain and grief.
Shadi asked me why people in the West do nothing to stop the suffering in Syria and in Mhardeh. “Why do they allow our children to die? What did our children do to them? Our loss and pain is indescribable”
I had no real answer.
Paying My Respects to the Families of Martyrs Killed by Western Imperialism
On the 14th September I arrived in Mhardeh in the early evening to meet with the families of martyrs and to pay my respects. I passed from house to house and sat with the families of the martyrs. I did not visit these people as a journalist but as a human being sharing in their loss and pain. I did not want to intrude upon their tears and agony but I wanted to stand in solidarity with their suffering. Nevertheless each family expressed anger at the inaction of the West and demanded to know why people had stood silent for 8 years while Syrian Christians were being slaughtered by terrorists financed and armed by Western governments who claimed to support the Syrian people.
The grandmother of 14 year old Ilias Djbera held my hand as she wept for the loss of her grandson. She showed me his photograph, stroked his face in the photo with her trembling hands. Through her sobs she told me:
“He was so beautiful, now he is dead. He was polite and gentle. Look at him, look at him, look how beautiful he is.”
Ilias’ mother told me that he had been planning to travel to Sweden to join his father and uncle. They were just waiting for the paperwork to be processed. She told me:
“Ilias had ambitions to finish his study in Sweden. I lost my soul. Our children are our soul, why should they be murdered? They are killed every day by the missiles from the terrorist groups. The Western media says we are the criminals and they hide the truth about the reality in Syria. We have been here for thousands of years and we have never bothered anyone, living in this peaceful country."
I asked Ilias’ mother if she could pass a message to people in the West, this is what she told me:
“First I would like to ask them to come to Syria and to see the truth. The media confuses everything, makes us criminals and the terrorists the good people. It is the opposite. All the terrorist groups in Idlib are terrorists, not 'moderates'. Despite all these attacks, we will stay in this land, we believe in our President, our Army, we will stay in this land forever. The Syrian Arab Army are defending their people, so is our President. Our sons are the SAA, we are all the Syrian people.”
Mari Hella, the wife of 62 year-old Anwar Nahas told me that her husband had gone to help the children hit by the first rocket that landed close to their home. As he stepped out of the door, a second rocket slammed into the house and killed him. She told me:
“We ask all the people over the world to stop killing our children, our people. We love our country and we will never leave, we will stand by this country forever.”
Ayman Saloum is the father of Lin 4.5 years-old and Selina 13 years-old. He told me his daughters had gone to the shop for their school books, they were killed immediately when the first rocket landed. Through his grief he passed this message on:
“My message - they are children, what responsibility do they have? None. We need this war to finish, we need to return to the peace and security that we had before this war started. We are optimistic but people need to understand, we believe in our leadership, in our Army. Only they will return this country to peace and stability. In our prayers, as Christians, we support our Army, our President and our country.”
The mother of 21 year old Amira Karim Zarov, a student in the 3rd year of University told me:
"She is so beautiful, polite, clever, smart. All the beauty in this world was in her character. We lose her, we lose her, we lose her by these attacks. They targeted children, innocent people. They killed our children. Why!?
"Please stop killing us. We love peace, the terrorist groups tried to destroy the beauty of our society. Stop eight years of devastation and destruction that destroyed everything in this town. Please stop, enough targeting of innocent civilians. We have had eight years of being targeted by these terrorist groups, its too much. You must stop these attacks against the Syrian people."
The final visit I made that night was to the family of 65-year-old Anisa Zayod. They remembered seeing me in the hospital when their mother was still battling to stay alive. Mikhail Sali was the husband of Anisa’s daughter and he spoke good english. He was adamant that his message should be spread far and wide.
“The matter is clear. Syria was a peaceful country before. We had everything we needed. Once Europe and America started to corrupt our country, they created division and war. They created the enemies of our government. They created ISIS. They cover them from one side and attack them from the other, but it is their creation.
"This union of the U.K, the U.S and Europe are attacking Syria for their own benefit not for our benefit. We don’t need these countries. Let them leave us alone, we can manage our own affairs. These people, these terrorists cannot survive in a lawful country so they are trying to destroy our country. People are dying for nothing, honest people, innocent people.
"We are in danger all the time from mortars and rockets. Let the people in the West tell their governments to remove their hand from our country, we don’t want them to control us like animals, we are human beings. We have a government, a good system, a good President, a good way of life. We don’t want this war, we want the terrorists to go back to the countries that created them, armed them, supported them. My President and my government are ready and capable of defending this country.
"The terrorists threaten us every day. They send us videos taunting us. Recently they have told us they will attack us with chemical weapons. We live with this threat, our children live with this threat, enough, please it’s enough.”
The people of Syria are effectively under siege by the West, their client states in the Gulf and Israel, and they are being creep-annexed by these states and Turkey. They are under constant threat of attack from the invading Western proxies that comprise some of the most battle-hardened brutally sectarian militants and terrorists the world has ever witnessed.
The Syrian people demand peace, they demand to be released from the threat of Western “democracy” that has broken the heart of almost every family in Syria and left many destitute, displaced,penniless and grief-stricken. The Christian town of Mhardeh lies at the borders of this Idlib nest of terror that has been incubated in Turkey, financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, but is the Frankenstein of the West - they ask us to help them lift our government’s hands from their country. It is the least we can do to support the courage of these people who have refused to submit to the pressure of economic, media and military terrorism during an eight year imperialist “humanitarian”-intervention-war.
Vanessa Beeley is an independent journalist, peace activist, photographer and associate editor at 21st Century Wire. Vanessa was a finalist for one of the most prestigious journalism awards – the 2017 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism – whose winners have included the likes of Robert Parry in 2017, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Nick Davies and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism team.
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