Rebels overran the ancient Christian village of Maaloula in Syria on the fourth of September, and held it for eleven days until the Syrian army could retake it.  It always made for a curious target in a broad civil war. Maaloula had no particular strategic value; it’s 56 kilometers north of Damascus in rugged mountain territory, enough of a backwater that it’s one of the few places where Aramaic is still spoken along with Arabic. It’s off the highway between Damascus and Homs, and away from the railroad that links the two Syrian cities.  Why bother with Maaloula at all?

Lee Stranahan has been in Beirut for the past several days interviewing survivors of the Maaloula fight, and reports that religious cleansing was the motive all along — with forced conversions and an effort to empty Maaloula of its Christian population:

Christians in Maaloula report in interviews that their neighbors took part in the religious cleansing:

The Maaloula survivors, speaking out for the first time, said that the Free Syria Army troops were as one with the al-Nusra warriors. They described in heartbreakng detail how Maaloula’s townspeople were terrorized and some killed for being Christian.

The attack began with a suicide bomber attacking the local checkpoint. One survivor said that armed Muslims were inside her house almost immediately, and held a machine gun to her husband’s head. The Islamists bragged about smashing a statue of Mary and taunted the family for their Christianity. The survivor broke down in tears describing her fear that her daughter would be raped by the men and that the family would be killed.

When the Maaloula witnesses was told that U.S Sec. of State John Kerry had referred to the FSA forces as ‘moderate’ in Senate testimony, she closed her eyes, shook her head both and forth and said “No no no no no.”

She said that she didn’t trust the press after seeing their reporting on the situation in Maaloula, which deemphasized the Islamist elements of the attack.

The Syrian army took control of Maaloula on September 15th, but that’s not necessarily a great improvement. The refugees aren’t really pro-Assad, but just anti-jihadist, and one had an interesting take on the trade-offs that had to be made with the Assad regime and how well they worked out:

Lee also filed this report about the tensions between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese, and gives a better accounting of the cultural dynamics in play:

Lee is posting a number of his reports today on his YouTube channel, so be sure to check them out.  If you want to help Lee continue his reporting, follow this link to Lee’s contributor page.

Update: Fixed the link to the contribution page, thanks to Becca Lower.