“A hymn, soft as a breeze, wends its way across the street from St Sarkis Armenian church, circles round the Roman columns of the gate, and rises over the heads of armed soldiers lolling beside a sandbagged position.”
Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
As Arabs and Christians gather to pray, the service is punctuated by sirens of ambulances carrying casualties of the daily mortar attacks
First published: Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 01:00
A flurry of mortars falling in the embattled countryside and the Old City shakes Bab al-Sharqi, the Eastern Gate, putting to flight a flock of pigeons roosting on rooftops of houses and shops ranged around the small green park where youngsters in jeans and sweatshirts are taking the sun. A merchant standing in the door of his shop warns: “Don’t stay in the street. It’s very heavy today. Four children and a driver of their school bus were killed here a week ago.”
A hymn, soft as a breeze, wends its way across the street from St Sarkis Armenian church, circles round the Roman columns of the gate, and rises over the heads of armed soldiers lolling beside a sandbagged position.
Mortars, bombs and bullets are commonplace here. This neighbourhood is mourning Venicyia Mikho (9) and Hovanis Autokanian, Majd Shehada and Munir Sehoun (6), students at the Reosaleh school.
A Greek orthodox bishop in tall hat, a pectoral cross suspended from a heavy chain on his chest, strides into the church. The service is ecumenical, connecting the Arab and Armenian Christian communities living in this place of peril.
They are being repeatedly targeted by radical Muslim fundamentalists seeking to topple the secular Syrian government. Another five children at St John of Damascus school died the same day as the four here.
The church is filled with men and women, most in black, as an Armenian cleric, in pointed black hood and purple robe presides over solemn Communion taken by a few, men in suits and women hurriedly covering their heads with scarves.
The Armenian Catholic bishop comes down the aisle, fresh from the service at his church at Bab Touma, St Thomas’ Gate.
Mounted photographs of the dead children surrounded by paper roses are placed before the splendid dark red velvet curtain, a simple cross in gold and white embroidered at its centre, that veils the altar but is opened and closed during the service.
The cleric reads out the names of the children in Armenian and Arabic and speaks of their common Syrian “watan”, homeland, but when he intones the word, “salam,” peace, mortars crash, loud, flat and metallic into the fields beyond the gate. The choir in the balcony strives mightily to sing above the din.
We file out of the church into the hall to convey condolences to the parents of the children. Amira Hannah, a distraught distant relative of Venicyia, can hardly speak. “I blame the terrorists, the armed groups.”
Antonis Mikho, Venicyia’s uncle who went to the hospital after the strike, chokes. “I cannot describe by words . . . I saw children completely covered in blood, mangled.”
Venicyia’s little sister Vergine holds out her hand, too shy to speak, as several Muslim clerics, led by Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun, the grand mufti of Damascus in his wide white turban and robe, sweep into the crush of mourners. He speaks to each set of parents , sharing their grief and shock. His 18- year-old son died violently 13 months ago.
Beyond the gate in the street, his heavily armed escort waits. He has been threatened with assassination. No one is safe here in Syria, great or small.
Today’s mortar toll in Damascus is eight: one slain outside Farouk school at Bab al-Sharqi, three at Bab Touma, two in Baghdad Street in the new city, and six near a bus garage in al-Abbassiyeen. None of these places is a military site.
Ambulances carrying the dead and wounded shriek along the streets until stopped and stymied in dense, seemingly immovable traffic jams.