Yabroud was peaceful until Al-Qaeda Germ Rebel Terrorists arrived in Syria
Inside Syria’s model town: Peace, until al-Qaeda arrived
The residents of Yabroud have established an independent government that manages everything from schools, the court and emergency services to humanitarian aid and defence. It is remarkably efficient – as long as they can keep al-Qaeda out.
By Christine Marlow, Yabroud6:34PM BST 05 Oct 2013
When the men of al-Qaeda came to the mountain town of Yabroud they wasted no time in making their ambitions clear.
Two foreign jihadists, their explosive belts clearly visible over their black uniforms, entered the mosque where Muslim residents were observing Friday prayers. The congregation watched, horrified, as the men stormed to the palpate and ordered the imam to leave.
They would be giving the sermons now, the al-Qaeda operatives explained; as has happened in many other towns and villages in Syria, the worshippers were to live under their “black flag”. Yabroud, they said, should be part of a wider Islamic caliphate.
As the words sunk in, the frightened hush that had fallen on the crowd in the mosque gave way to anger. Dissenting voices shouted at the suicide bombers. They were quickly joined by others, until, in a crescendo of furious yells, the worshippers faced down their occupiers. The al-Qaeda men, wild eyed and angry, were forced to retreat, the implied threat of the suicide vests never acted upon.
Though the incident happened in September, it remained the main the talk of the town when last week The Telegraph visited Yabroud, north of Damascus.
“Al-Qaeda came here to control us,” said Dia’a, 32, a male resident who had been in mosque that day. “We told them that we have our own people to preach to us. We told them we didn’t need them; we know what Islam is.”
In the two years since it fell out of the grip of President Bashar al-Assad, Yabroud has avoided the fate that has crippled so many other parts of rebel held Syria. Its residents have kept out foreign jihadists and avoided succumbing to warlords and mafia gangs. They have refused to allow the community to be torn apart by sectarianism or by a primordial scramble for money and power.
This moderate Sunni and Christian town, with its neat rows of houses and tidy tree-lined streets, has remained exemplary of the ideals of the peace activists who began the civil uprising against a dictatorship in 2011. It is a place where civilians, not armed fighters, have taken control of the town’s future, and brought a working alternative to Assad’s government. Yabroud is the model town of what the Syrian revolution could be.
The town had even escaped the attentions of the Assad regime, most likely because one third of its population are Christian – one of the minorities in Syria, which the government says it wants to defend.
But that in the last month that has changed. For the first time Yabroud finds itself fighting a war on two fronts. At night it has started to suffer night-time barrages of rocket attacks by the Syrian army, by day it’s residents battle to avoid the threat of occupation by al-Qaeda.
From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, as anti-government protesters took to the streets, Yabroud’s businessmen and educated elite began putting together an independent council to manage the city.
“The idea was to start a new government that leaves us free of needing the regime,” explained Majid Jumaa, the head of the town’s civilian council.
Using funds supplied by expatriate businessmen, local and foreign charities, the residents have established an independent government that manages everything from schools, the court and emergency services to humanitarian aid and defence.
It’s leaders were elected in a democratic ballot. They even answer to the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed opposition in exile that has been shunned and deemed impotent by much of rebel-held Syria.
It was late at night when The Telegraph visited, but the council building was in a flurry of activity. Several council members sat in a side room, the door closed, deep in discussion. A large flow chart pinned to the wall detailed the hierarchy of the more than a dozen departments. The head of the finance department sat at a central table, gravely reviewing figures.
He was interrupted by men who required his signature on a steady stream of receipts. “We even have our own stamp,” councillors showed The Telegraph proudly.
The effects of this efficient bureaucracy are easily seen. Traffic police and rubbish collection men are visible on the streets. The field hospital has become the main medical point for all opposition held villages in the province.
Yabroud bustles with community spirit. In the main shopping thoroughfare mothers stood in the vegetable market gossiping to each other as their children chased cats on the streets. Three elderly men sat outside a barber’s shop purveying the scene. Guns are not welcome here, with rebel fighters ordered to leave their weapons at home or at a rebel military base, all of them located outside the town.
Residents have also established a charity, al-Khayer, which is feeding and providing shelter for at least 27,000 refugees, many of who have fled to Yabroud from other war-torn areas.
The Telegraph watched as volunteer employees distributed boxes of food aid – pasta, cans of tomato and tuna, rice – to refugees from the neighbouring town of Qusair that was destroyed in fighting.
Elsewhere, two female volunteers sorted through clothes that had been newly donated for refugees. The basement of the building has been converted into a warehouse where locals have been gathering hundreds of shoes, jackets and jumpers to provide refugees with protection for the ensuing winter.
Perhaps most extraordinarily, local armed and civilian opposition groups are to ensure that the war does not destroy the close relationships enjoyed by the town’s Christian and Muslim residents.
The war in Syria has played on sectarian tensions, often causing minority groups, including Christians to flee rebel held areas. In Hasake, in northern Syria, a historic centre for Syria’s Christians, almost one third of the Christian population has escaped after being exposed to kidnappings and persecution by Islamic extremists.
Yabroudis however have set up a ‘crises committee’ designed to prevent this social decay: “The propaganda of state media, and news of what is happening in other parts of the country scared many of the Christians here,” said a wealthy Christian businessmen, going by the pseudonym George.
“In this council we worked to explain that the threat is in our minds, not in reality.”
In the early days of the revolt tension had grown between the two religious groups, he said. The Church leaders had pressured the Christians in Yabroud not to join in protests against the government, which had angered the Sunni opposition in the town. During the holy Muslim month of Ramadan then, the crises cell arranged for Christian residents to invite Sunni protesters to take the last meal of Ramadan in the historic Christian cathedral of Constantine and Helena.
Mr Jumaa said: “We have lived here together for more than 1,000 years. Most of my friends are Christian. On Sunday they go to church, on Friday I got to mosque. This is the only difference.”
Western governments have been hesitant to provide support to the armed opposition in Syria for the Islamist hue displayed by many of the fighting battalions. With local rebels fighting alongside the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda proscribed by the US as a terrorist organisation, there is, western diplomats say, too great a risk that the weapons will fall to “the wrong hands”.
In Yabroud the four main fighting groups are with the western aligned rebel Free Syrian Army. Most of the fighters – who probably number around 3,000 in all – are moderately Islamic, or even liberal.
For a long time the people of Yabroud then had hoped that Western countries would provide support to their fighters. But after the United States called off it’s military strikes against President Assad after the chemical attacks, resident said, they realised they were alone.
Dia’a said: “After two years of disappointments we don’t rely on foreign countries anymore: not Geneva, not the US. We have to do this by ourselves. We have the idea that nobody wants to help us; not really”.
Until recently Yabroud was left almost untouched by outside influences.
But now its ability to survive by itself, and stay true to it’s revolutionary hopes, is being tested. It is coming under increasing pressure from both the Syrian regime, and jihadists intent on “hijacking” the revolt to build an Islamic state.
Every afternoon, as dusk starts to fall, shops are shuttered, residents go home, Doctors and volunteers make their way to the field hospital in expectation of what is to come.
The Government tanks are so close to Yabroud that the outgoing tank bursts are heard first, followed, seconds later by the screeching, sickening impact. In this small town of just four main streets, the ground shook with every explosion. The rounds come in steadily, slicing open homes and shops and spraying shrapnel up the walls.
The Telegraph was in the field clinic – a home that had been converted to a medical centre after government jets destroyed the town’s municipal hospital, as the rounds came in last week. Doctors dispatched an ambulance to search for wounded, and made calls to check on friends and loved ones.
The government has not yet tried to re-enter the town, for it knows that rebel groups from surrounding villages would soon come to their rescue and cut off access to the nearby highway that provides the regime with crucial access to the north of the country.
Yabroud however is dangerous for the regime as it goes against the government’s narrative that it is fighting only terrorists from al-Qaeda.
To that end then, the shelling is designed to destroy the fabric of the society: last week tanks shelled the Christian neighbourhood for the first time, puncturing the town’s historic cathedral with artillery. “They are trying to scare us, to make us leave,” said Suzanne, 24, a Christian student.
The same, sectarian motivated, pressure is also being put on Yabroud by the al-Qaeda linked groups the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“Recently some men from ISIL passed through our Christian quarter,” said Abu Nour, who heads the Yabroud police department. “He was furious to see a woman wearing jeans and no hijab; he shouted ‘this is a Kaffir’. The ISIS men came to me and asked me permission for them to lecture in the mosques. I refused.”
The jihadists sought to take over anyway, breaking into the church one night and desecrating some icons, and seeking to force a sermon in the mosque.
Dia’a said: “Al Qaeda is exactly the same as the regime. But with a beard.”
The rebel FSA has been fighting to keep them out. One fighter said: “All the FSA united behind this idea and we have sent soldiers to guard the mosques and churches. They come with traditions that go against our beliefs. They wait until the FSA liberate a place and then they move in to destroy it.”
For now the town’s churches and the mosques stand in unison; the social structures built over the last two years proving resilient.
Residents of Yabroud believe that other parts of Syria, had they been offered the same space, free from attacks, prepare as they have, or western support, could one day follow their lead. The extremist Islamists that increasingly control Syria’s north are the result of a vacuum of leadership and western aid, they said, and do not represent the hopes and dreams of most Syrians.
“In Yabroud, we are not a special case,” said George. “We are like all other Syrians. The only difference is that we had the financial and political chance, and the time, to carry out the revolution. If the West helped, others would too”.