The second of two mortar bombs killed Ghassan al-Khouly as he stood guard last Thursday at an ancient gate into the Christian quarter of the Old City of Damascus. It exploded right beside him killing him instantly, dark bloodstains and a small heap of stones today marking where he died.
Barakat al-Shamas who was standing guard with him, said: “I heard the sound of a shell coming in and I threw myself on the ground. When I got up I saw there was so much blood that I knew Ghassan must be dead.” Barakat was wounded with a piece of shrapnel penetrating his right hand as well as his neck and left leg.
Ghassan al-Khouly, an unemployed labourer who specialised in tiling floors, was one of the latest of an estimated 93,000 Syrians to have died since the start of the civil war in March 2011. Other than the fact he was a Greek Orthodox Christian, his experiences were not very different from those of many other Syrians caught up in the war.
His widow, Nour al-Sabek, says that until two years ago he was fully employed but when the rebels came all that was finished. They hold outer suburbs of Damascus where most of the new construction was, and as a Christian he did not dare go there. Everybody who is not a Sunni Muslim Arab assumes they are in danger of being killed, kidnapped or robbed in rebel-held areas. Forced to stay in the centre of the city he tried to eke out a living by doing odd jobs fixing electrical wiring, setting up satellite dishes and flooring. His family became poorer.
I started to learn about the life and death of Ghassan al-Khouly after I heard four rifle shots fired at regular intervals while I was walking to the great Umayyad Mosque in the Old City just before Friday prayers. It did not sound like a gunfight, and it turned out the shots had been fired by an honour guard bringing a body home for the funeral later in the afternoon. We learned the name of the dead man but were told that it was not a good moment to see his widow and her two sons. But if we wanted to know what had happened we should talk to Barakat al-Shamas, who had been wounded in the same incident but was just back from hospital.
I knew that Ghassan and Barakat had both been in the National Defence Force (NDF), a 60,000-strong militia organisation that has been publicised abroad as being a ferocious pro-government paramilitary organisation, freshly trained to turn the tide of war in Syria. The NDF may contain such units but in the Old City of Damascus its members are very much like the Home Guard in Britain in 1940. Everybody between the ages of 20 and 65 is meant to join, and many are quite elderly.
We met Barakat, not looking at all intimidated by his experiences, surrounded by friends sitting in the guest room of his house. He extended his right hand which was covered with a blood-stained bandage as if he had forgotten for a moment that he cannot shake hands with anybody.
I was surprised by the age of the two men who had been doing sentry duty: Barakat said he is 65 and Ghassan, the dead man, was 10 years younger. A photograph of Ghassan was on his death notice announcing funeral arrangements which had been pasted to walls in the Old City. The picture had the de-personalised look of head-and-shoulders ID photos, but showed a narrow-faced serious-looking man with a black moustache.
The rebels regularly fire mortars into districts of Damascus they do not control. This is difficult to stop because the rebels jump out of a car, take a mortar and a shell from the boot, fire it and are gone in a few minutes. This is their reply to government artillery which fires constantly at rebel-held districts. Ghassan and Barakat could not do much about the mortar attacks, but they were meant to stop rebels infiltrating through the Bab al-Sharqi, the Eastern Gate, into the Old City. “Old men are better at this because they know everybody who lives here and can pick out strangers,” said a local observer.
“Our shift was meant to end at 2pm,” recalled Barakat. He and Ghassan had moved to the north side of the gate to stay in the shade. It was then that the mortar bombs came down, one on either side of the gate. They did not leave much of a crater in the hard ground, but, aside from hitting the two guards, the shrapnel peppered an empty school bus and smashed its windscreen.
Nobody could be certain where the mortar was fired from but they thought it might have been Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold to the east of Damascus under pressure from government forces. The mortar fire is the rebels’ way of showing they are still in business.
The outside world focuses on the Syrian refugees that have fled the country, but millions have also fled to the uncertain safety of Damascus where they are crammed into houses. Christians, once 6 per cent of Syria’s 23 million population, feel particularly vulnerable. Wael al-Shamas, the son of Barakat who works in a bank and speaks fluent English, described how the world he lived in was increasingly confined to a few Christian districts. He said: “I don’t have the courage to go outside these areas.” He said a problem for the Christians is that they do not have many places to flee to where they are safe. They are also often unemployed.
There are other less obvious difficulties. Wael said his father suffered from diabetes, and so far the government provided medicine free but he was worried what would happen if that stopped because buying it privately was very expensive. He added: “There is also a transport problem simply getting the medication from one side of the city to the other.”
All over Damascus day-to-day living is getting more difficult and expensive. There is still cheap government-subsidised bread, but there are long queues outside bakeries. Everything which is not subsidised is costing more and even people with jobs are paid in rapidly devaluing Syrian pounds. Last weekend, the pound’s value fell 30 per cent against the dollar before making a partial recovery. The streets of the Old City which would have been packed with pilgrims and tourists around the great monuments two years ago are empty. The restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel still serves four different wines by the glass but had only a single customer.
I went to see Ghassan’s widow, Nour al-Sabek, in the family house where she was living with her two sons, Shadi and Sherbel. A friend had said he was worried that she would have nothing to live on, her close relatives and friends had also lost their jobs. As people came to pay their respects, the family sat near a large picture of the dead man. I asked Nour why her husband had joined the National Defence Force since it paid almost no money.
She replied that he loved his country and was frightened for his church, his children and his friends. Others said there were about 600 Christians in the neighbourhood who had joined the NDF and eight had been killed by mortars, snipers and bombs. Nour described how her husband had tried to scrape together a living by doing occasional jobs in the last two years. There was discussion among family members about the probability of Nour getting a lump sum from the government and a pension because her husband had been martyred. They thought this likely, going by past experience, but not absolutely certain.
While we spoke there was the booming of outgoing artillery in the background but nobody paid any attention to it since this has been typical background noise in Damascus for the past year. There was not much talk of general politics until Ebtisam, a thin, short, nervous-looking woman who was the sister of the dead man, asked me: “Why does your country send weapons to Syria? Without foreign support we would finish the rebels.” She said that in the past she could walk home in the middle of the night, but now I must ask my brother to pick me up.”
Everybody who had gathered to mourn Ghassan al-Khouly said how good relations between Muslims and Christians had been in Syria before the revolt. This has not always been true historically, since between 5,000 and 10,000 Christians were massacred in Damascus over eight days in 1860. But somebody remarked that there had been more Muslims than Christians in Ghasan’s funeral procession. His sons had remained silent while their older relatives talked about their dead father.
But just before I left, Shadi, aged 13 and looking grief-stricken, suddenly said in a loud voice: “The people and the world loved Ghassan al-Khouly.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.