DAMASCUS, September 14 (Itar-Tass) - Ilyas Karabay, who just days ago was doing his daily chores at the Monastery of Equal-to-the-Apostles St. Thekla in Syria’s town of Maaloula, is sitting in front of us in the basement of a semi-finished house just several hundred meters away from the entrance to his hometown. He is no longer a church employee, he is a soldier, who has had to find a rifle go and fight for his war-ravaged country. A week ago several thousand foreign mercenaries riding military off-road vehicles raided a Christian shrine of world importance and staged a blood bath. Ilyas does not know how many Christian civilians died at the hands of Islamic militants, because for several days in row he and also nuns, children and old people had had to hide in the basement of the local monastery, without food or water. One night he managed to escape, sneak his way through the militants’ positions and join the volunteers - all local civilians, like himself, whom the very course of history forced to take up arms and defend themselves and their families and homes.
Syria, a country where each stone is history, is now struggling through turmoil and chaos. War has hit literally every home. Two hundred thousand people have been killed and hundreds of thousands injured, and two million have had to flee their ruined homes and cities. Damascus - the pearl of the Middle East - is under a state of siege. Whole neighbourhoods are bombed and shelled every day in day out, and fire exchanges continue unabated in certain quarters round the clock. Only the central streets, surrounded by roadblocks are relatively safe. The military firmly control all entrances into the city, just as the main roads leading to Damascus. Yet, these roads remain most vulnerable to sniper fire. Even the Damascus-Beirut highway - the road of life that lets thousands of refugees escape to neighbouring Lebanon and shuttle trucks, bring essentials to the city is said to be unsafe. The Russian embassy officials, who welcomed Itar-Tass correspondents on the border, surely had a good reason to come to meet us in armoured off-road vehicles and, under the protection of a Russian military escort, to cover the 60 kilometres to the city at full throttle in virtually no time.
But even despite the gravest situation in the country war-exhausted Syrians remain very friendly and amicable. As soon as you tell them you are from Russia, they invite you to have chat over a cup of tea. Ordinary people are very disposed towards Russia and many have told us only that country is able to help them. On the wall at the entrance to the Russian embassy somebody left an inscription with words of thanks. At evening street processions in support of President Bashar Assad, which are quite frequent here, demonstrators carry Syrian and Russian state flags.
...Ilyas gets into a military jeep. The militants’ positions in the mountain caves and gorges are no more than a kilometre away. Every square inch of land is under sniper and mortar fire. The Syrian army has orders to avoid using heavy artillery in Maaloula so as not to damage Christian shrines. Any step forward is a deadly risk. The military say they are confronted here with what they describe as international Islamic terrorists, whose immediate aim is to create an Islamist state of Iraq and Syria, living by the sharia laws, and in the longer term, a global Islamic Caliphate. Ilyas knows that he is fighting not just for his hometown. He is fighting for the freedom of the entire civilized Muslim world.