The economic war

We enter the big second-century Roman theatre. During the first occupation in the summer of 2015, ISIS did not only blow up the theater’s ancient stage wall, but carried out a mass execution.

Our companions tell us that, underage ISIS fighters shot 25 men, who were put in government army uniforms, on stage, while hundreds of Palmyra inhabitants were forced to watch. The atrocity went viral in an ISIS propaganda video. We find trails of blood dried on the stone floor. We do understand now, why it is so difficult to visit Palmyra and why there is so much security.

In March 2019, after the liberation of the small eastern town of Baghus, Kurdish fighters declared that ISIS had been defeated in Syria. The rebels are also facing defeat, as the Syrian Arab Army and its international allies are currently recapturing their last bastions in the northwestern regions around Hama and Idlib. But it is not only the conflict with Turkey, which is supporting the Islamist rebels, that causes new problems. Syrians we meet tell us that the economic war is still ongoing. This refers to the economic sanctions of the UN, EU and the USA against Syria, which continue to drive the refugee movements out of the country. Due to the sanctions, electricity is highly limited in time and place, medicine is expensive and rare and money transfers from abroad are restricted.

In daily life, people are particularly affected by the shortage of gasoline. Many gas stations are closed. In front of the few gas stations, that are open, the cars are jammed up far beyond the access roads. We also run out of gas when we return from Qara. Our driver stops on the verge and runs across the highway to the other side, where he buys a small canister of gasoline from a young street vendor. That should be enough to go to Damascus. With the tube in his mouth, our driver sucks in the gasoline and fills it into the tank.

Many Syrians tell us that the most important thing for their country right now is the end of sanctions, so they can normalize their economic and diplomatic relations to foreign countries again. We often hear Syrians criticizing Western media for blaming the Syrian government for the grievances in the country. But many Syrian Christians sympathize with their government and they tell us that there are many falsehoods about the government.

After we have finished our tour of the ruins of Palmyra, the soldiers say goodbye and we get back in our car. Again a car with two soldiers drives in front of us. The journey through the desert goes without any problems. Back in Zaidal, we are served coffee and pastries in the archbishop’s office. When we thank him for organizing the trip, he waves away with a smile and lights a cigarette. There is still some time left until dinner.

Father Fuchs and I go out to the street when we hear some music. A procession of over hundred young people and young families appears, with a choir and a brass band of scouts at the top. A young mother with a pram gives us candles. Singing and praying the procession continues their way through the small village.