HOMS, Syria -- And then there were 23.
Just 23 Christians, most of them elderly, left alive in the besieged Old City of Homs when a masked gunman killed the beloved Dutch priest who’d consoled them during nearly two years of government bombardment and rebel-imposed isolation, when food supplies disappeared, when the lone doctor fell ill with cancer. Throughout it all, he counseled hope.
“I drank scotch with him almost daily. He’d have just one glass,” recalled George Ibrahim, 75, who’d rescued a stash of Johnnie Walker Black Label from his shop. “Near the end, I was talking to Father Frans and he was telling me to be patient. This is going to stop. It’s like he knew there would be an end to many things.”
That end came in early May when the government and rebels agreed to a truce and the rebels pulled out. But the Rev. Frans van der Lugt was not there to mark the transition. He’d been gunned down 31 days earlier, April 7, in the Jesuit monastery that he refused to abandon, even when boiled grass and leaves were all that was left to eat. Now as life returns to the ruined heart of what’s been dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Assad, the priest’s presence runs like a bright current through the tales of privation from those who survived.
“Father Frans was neutral. He didn’t back any side,” said George Ghandour, 45, who helped bury van der Lugt’s body only steps from the spot in the shaded courtyard where he died. “He aided everyone, Christian and Muslim, young and old. When the crisis began, five Muslim families moved into the monastery and he took care of them.”
The reason for van der Lugt’s slaying is unknown. The esteem in which he was held by Homs’ majority Sunni Muslims makes the murder all the more perplexing to six Christian survivors of the siege interviewed by McClatchy during a two-day visit to their neighborhood of Hamadiya.
A fluent Arabic speaker from an Amsterdam banking family who’d lived in Syria since 1966, van der Lugt cared for the disabled and brought Muslims and Christians together for dialogues at a community center and farm he founded outside Homs. He helped support the monastery, Ibrahim said, with sales of arak — a traditional alcoholic beverage distilled from grape leaves and aniseed — produced at a small plant that the priest set up in the nearby city of Qusayr.
“He used to say he was a father to Christians and Muslims,” Ibrahim said. “Many times the rebels took him to the Shariah court to discuss his beliefs with him, but he refused. He’d say, ‘I will not discuss politics or religion. We are all humans. I will only talk about humanity.’ ”
When fighting began in Homs in May 2011, there were 60,000 Christians living in the Old City. As the fighting raged, and the rebels lost ground in other districts, they were pushed into the Old City. Most of the Christian population fled. By June 2012, when rebels closed the exits to prevent more people from leaving, only 102 Christians remained.
The rebels and the local population lived uneasily together. Then, late last year, as the insurgents became increasingly desperate as their food stocks dwindled, things changed. Christians began facing beatings, threats and thefts of their own meager supplies.
“Until January this year, the rebels didn’t disturb us at all. From January until the end, they broke into our house 38 times,” recalled Zaynat al Akhras, 65, whose tiny, sunken frame attests to the 55 pounds she lost during the siege. “At first, they collected all the food we had left. Little by little, they took everything else. They took money and a lot of gold jewelry.”
“Some people were beaten,” added her brother, Ayman, 57, a chemist who ran the family’s small clothing store. “Two people were taken as hostages. One was the brother of a retired army general. He was beaten very badly.”
Sectarian hatreds heated up. “Destroy the kafirs (infidels) called Christians,” says graffiti sprayed outside the Church of the Girdle of Our Lady, a Syrian Orthodox church on a street where posters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the radical anti-Assad group whose brutality has been denounced even by al Qaida, also were pasted.
The only witness to van der Lugt’s murder — who declined to be interviewed — told others that the lone gunman fired a single AK-47 shot into the priest’s head after ordering him to sit in a plastic chair in the monastery courtyard. The killer then left without a word.
The gunman “insisted on seeing him but he was told that Father Frans doesn’t come out before 10 a.m. Father Frans heard the voices, came out and asked what’s going on,” said Nazam Kanawati, 50, a civil engineer who arrived minutes after the slaying. “The gunman said, ‘You should come with me.’ Father Frans replied, ‘I’m not going with you, especially when I can’t see your face.’”
“The gunman said, ‘Oh, you’re not coming? Then sit down.’ He arrived with the gun already cocked. He just shot him,” Kanawati said.
Like other survivors, Kanawati said he believes the killer was a local man because virtually all of the rebels came from Homs. The Rev. Ziyad Hilal, a Jesuit colleague of van der Lugt, agreed that the 1,200 rebels who were evacuated from the Old City during the May 7-9 truce — he rode on the buses that evacuated them —were Syrians.
“They all spoke very good Homsi dialect,” he said. “There weren’t any foreigners with them.”
Van der Lugt was the Christians’ interface with the rebels, survivors said. He’d persuade the rebels to share some of the food they brought in with ammunition through their tunnels. He’d also arrange evacuations of the sick and injured and the smuggling of medical supplies.
“He was a man of peace and because he wasn’t Syrian, those people (rebels) liked to talk to him,” said Hilal. “He had this power to listen to others. Nobody had a problem with him before or during this situation.”
Akhras recalled how van der Lugt arranged for the evacuation of her brother, Anas, the only doctor who remained in the Old City, when the cancer from which he suffered made staying on impossible.
Van der Lugt convened a meeting between rebel commanders and army officers at which he won their agreement to evacuate Anas Akhras, she recounted.
“At 2:30 a.m., Father Frans came here and told us to have Anas ready at 8:15, but not to tell anyone,” she said. “We don’t know exactly how he got him out. They took him straight to al Assad University Hospital in Damascus, and he survived just 19 days.”
It was just one tale of the horrors that reigned here as the siege tightened. Of the 102 Christians who were in the neighborhood after rebels closed the exits, 27 had died by the time most of the rest straggled out in a U.N.-brokered evacuation over six days in February, leaving just van der Lugt and 23 others.
Some of those who remained were too ill or too old to crawl to the evacuation area through a network of tunnels dug by the rebels, said Ghandour. Others, like Ghandour, stayed to care for elderly parents or simply refused to abandon their homes.
Akhras recalls the precise date the rebels sealed the neighborhood — June 8, 2012.
“People had been going in and out,” she recalled, sitting amid piles of dusty books and other belongings in the apartment she said she left only four times after that date. “We had food and everything. But after that, no food was coming in. The rebels wouldn’t allow anyone out.”
Those inside Hamadiya relied on stores of rice, lentils and the home-pickled vegetables that many Syrians traditionally stock. Rebel-run generators provided four hours of electricity in the evening. Cellphones and televisions were crucial links to the outside world. Water was hauled from old wells.
But the food and fuel steadily ran out.
As the rebels’ own food ran low, survivors said, the rebels began pressuring Frans to make a video appeal to Pope Francis that could be posted on the Internet.
“The rebels thought Father Frans had the power to ask the pope to send food and the food would be here the next day,” said Kanawati. “But he refused. He did not want to use the Christian community or his power to get food for them. He didn’t want the Christians used.”
Eventually, however, van der Lugt agreed to make the video, but he “asked for food for everyone. He wasn’t speaking as a Christian priest,” recalled Kanawati, who lost 77 pounds caring for his elderly parents.
“We don’t want to die,” he said in the video.
Van der Lugt’s grave, in a garden in the courtyard where he died, has become a shrine for Christians returning to the devastated neighborhood. It is covered by flagstones scavenged by Kanawati from destroyed buildings and flanked by a statue of St. George and by photographs of the priest and marbled epitaphs.
The plastic chair in which van der Lugt died stands nearby, adorned with a small bunch of plastic flowers.
“He is still here. He is with us,” said Hilal. “Now this place has become a place of pilgrimage.”