Hours after we arrived in Damascus from Tehran we went on to Lattakia – a 330 km bus ride.
The road was surprisingly good – no major destruction. There wasn’t much traffic and the streets around the highway were empty. Everything seemed to be quiet. The entire highway is under government control and we felt absolutely safe. Every 10-15 km we had to pass a check point which slowed down the journey. We easily doubled the estimated three hours drive by Google.
Only now and then we saw some destroyed houses – it almost felt like picnic ride to the sea. When we turned west in Homs and drove down to the Mediterranean Sea, all of a sudden spring was there. Everything was blooming – nature “re-loaded”. Hopefully a sign for entire Syria.
The Governor of Lattakiah, Mr. Abdel-Qader, was welcomed us with tea, coffee and delicious sweets … extraordinairy cookies;-) While most of our group was listening inside to the Governor’s words I went outside and connected with the people in the park. It didn’t take long and I had a bunch of kids and parents around me and we had a great time giving away the peace cards Indian and Pakistani young students had made for the Syrian kids. While I was reading out their messages (luckily translated by a friendly visitor of the park) the kids started to sing and write messages back to the Indians and Pakistanis… A beautiful intermezzo ….
Inside the topic was much more serious. Governor Abdel-Qader told our delegation that the Syrian people are facing with steadfastness an international plot against their country. He pointed to thousands of Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters that swarmed across the Turkish border on March 21, 2014, with Turkish military support to attack Christian Armenian Syrians north of Lattakiah. Eyewitnesses reported that 50-90 residents were massacred, others taken into Turkey against their will, and a large number sent in flight to Lattakiah. We visited some of these refugees, who were staying in an Armenian Church.
Outside the church Father Dave and Salomom, two Australians from our delegation, were running the “alternative program”: boxing. The boxing priest, 6th degree black belt and social activist (a real character I can tell you) and Solomon, a real boxing champion from Nigeria (now living in Australia) rocked the street;-) They carried the “equipment” all the way from Australia with the vision to start sport activities for Syrian children to bring them back to “normal life”. They’ve had several meetings with the Sports Ministry in Damascus and various clubs. Hopefully something will come out of it!
Our next stop inside Lattakiah was a refugee camp where people from Haram, near Idlib, Syria, found shelter. They told us horrifying stories (watch the video further down). Over a year ago hundreds of foreign fighters had crossed from the nearby Turkish border, kidnapped over 300 people and brutally killed another 150. Many had fled and were afraid to return to their area, seeking instead to live in as refugees in Lattakiah. They also reported that Jabhat al-Nusrah fighters received support from the Turkish military, and launched cross border artillery, tank fire and missile attacks against not only Syrian Army positions but at the civilian population of Lattakiah. (Some Syrians told us that Turkey has evolved into a major military operational base for a NATO backed invasion of Syria.)
We delivered parts of the two tons medical aid and toys we brought from Iran and we tried to cheer up the kids at least for a little time by making music for them. And again a boxing session took place.
It was already dark when we arrived at our hotel in Lattakiah. A few of us were too tired to attend the last sessions of the day – an official dinner in some restaurant 10 minutes away from the hotel. We stayed at our place and had a lovely dinner with delicious Syrian food and local red wine! A long day came to an end …
Just before we left Lattakiah for Homs, I did this interview with Paul Larudee, an American born in Iran, now working for various NGOs on Middle East issues. He summarizes pretty well our experiences in the refugee camps.