MHARDEH, SYRIA — (War Report) On September 7, Mhardeh, a small Christian town in northern Hama, was targeted with nine Grad missiles — six of which were fitted with internationally-prohibited cluster sub-munitions — by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists roughly four kilometers away from the town center, occupying the northern Hama countryside areas of Ltamenah and surroundings.
Four days later, I went to Mhardeh and took the testimony of a man who lost everything to the terrorist attack: his wife, three young children, and mother were all killed in the initial bombardment.
By September 19, a total of 13 civilians had died as a result of the September 7 terrorist attack, including four who had sustained critical injuries. One of those four was a 15-year-old boy who had received shrapnel to his brain, as reported by Vanessa Beeley, who had visited the then-critically injured teen in hospital on September 9.
According to Mhardeh’s National Defense Forces (NDF), the attackers were Jaysh al-Izza, a group that works directly with al-Qaeda in Syria, as documented by a September 7, 2018 video celebrating the firing of an elephant rocket on northern Hama. Jaysh al-Izza was previously backed by the U.S. and operates in northern Hama and southern Idlib areas.
Also, on September 7, the UN Security Council (UNSC) met to warn Syria’s government “against the use of chemical weapons” in Idlib — something the Syrian government had been repeatedly warning the UN about for weeks prior, specifying that terrorists within Idlib, and the White Helmets propaganda front, had been moving canisters of chlorine around in preparation for a new staged chemical attack. The Syrian and Russian governments warned that children who had been abducted from Idlib and the Aleppo countryside would be used in staged videos, surely to star the fake-rescuers of the White Helmets.
But at the UNSC, the United States continued its hypocritical exceptionalism, again blaming Syria and Russia for alleged attacks not even yet faked by Washington’s terrorist allies in Syria.
On the same day as the massacre in Mhardeh, residents in Ltamenah, one of the northern Hama terrorist bases, held a protest condemning any reconciliations of armed Syrian militants with the Syrian government. Reconciliations are precisely what would bring an end to the missile tyranny of these terrorists occupying Idlib, north Hama, and parts of Aleppo province.
On September 9, terrorists in Madir Citadel, a northern Hama region, targeted the Christian town of al-Skalbiyye. Beeley, who went there the following day, wrote:
Last night around 6 p.m., 10 Grad Missiles containing cluster bombs were fired into the Christian town of al-Skalbiyye. Thirteen bomblets had been found and detonated, [including] three while I was interviewing two residents — by the same bomb disposal expert as in Mhardeh.
… Madir Citadel is entirely under the control of Al Qaeda (Nusra Front), Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, all working together.”
On September 11, I travelled by rented taxi to Mhardeh to hear first-hand about the massacre and, as it happened, about one man’s life-shattering tragedy.
The commander of Mhardeh’s NDF, Simon al-Wakil, like the hundreds of volunteers in the area’s NDF, chose to defend not only Mhardeh but Syria in general, also fighting terrorism outside of Mhardeh. According to Commander al-Wakil, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham terrorists lie just two kilometres north of Mhardeh’s frontlines, along with the mishmash of other terrorist factions that the West attempts to dub “moderate” but who work alongside al-Qaeda in Syria.
Mhardeh, he explained, is a Christian town of 23,000 people. It is also on the front line of confrontation against terrorists who have attacked the town and its people for seven years. The line of confrontation extends over twenty kilometres, from Mhardeh to al-Skalbiyye.
Over the years 117 of Mhardeh’s civilians have been martyred in terrorist attacks which also claimed the lives of 52 Syrian soldiers, and injured 150.
On taking up arms to defend his town and country, like so many civilians have all over Syria, al-Wakil said:
We are civilians but, due to the terror attacks, we decided to be steadfast, and to stand with President Bashar al-Assad and our Syrian Arab Army. Indeed, what they have faced, no other army in the world has faced.
For seven years we’ve been subjected to terrorism in Mhardeh. But, again recently we were attacked, and the towns of as-Skaylbeyyeh and Salhab were attacked, with internationally prohibited cluster-bomb rockets, by terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra.”
And yet, no condemnation from the Western powers that are so concerned about civilians in Idlib and the pending move by the Syrians, Russians and allies to liberate that province from al-Qaeda & Co.
One man’s heartbreaking testimony
In Mhardeh I went to the home of Shadi Yousef Shehda, the man whose family were murdered on September 7.
On a street potholed by the missile blast, the walls leading to an inner courtyard were puckered by the impact of shrapnel.
Entering the open-air courtyard, I saw the heartbroken man, and his extended relatives and neighbours, sitting on chairs in an oval, a photo of his dead wife and children and mother pinned by a door.
Shadi Shehda was in his shop in Mhardeh when the terrorist attack occurred. Shortly after, neighbours warned him his area had been targeted, but couldn’t bring themselves to tell him the extent of it. He rushed home to find his family, “sliced to pieces,” from the missiles.
“I sacrificed the [ones] most precious to me ever: my mother, wife and children,” he said.
He flicked through photos on his mobile, pausing to show me a photo of his wife, himself, and their children; then another of his children dressed up for church.
His house, he told me, was targeted three times. Again going through photos on his phone, he showed the damage done the first time a rocket hit his home, a year ago, when his wife, children and mother were home. This rocket impacted the tiles but didn’t explode, landing a few feet from where we sat in the courtyard. The tiles have since been patched but the damage was still visible.
Later, inside the room nearest the impacted courtyard, Shadi Shehda pointed to the shrapnel hole and said, “Last year, the shrapnel didn’t reach my wife, she survived it. But this time, she didn’t.”
His mother’s name was Afifeh. His wife, Rama. His eldest daughter (third grade), Maria. His six-year-old son, Fadi, and his two-year-old daughter, Stefani (whom they also called Susi).
Still visibly torn with the pain of losing the most dear to him, Shadi Shehda took me to see his children’s room, as it was the day they were murdered. Hanging on the large wardrobe at one side of the room, three tiny bathrobes.
“They were martyred just after they took a bath,” Shadi said, pointing to each dead child’s robe, then to their drawings pinned on the wardrobe above, then pointing out the cupboard with his eldest daughter’s drawing, and the toys laid out on a sofa on along wall. He pointed out every detail, lifting each of their backpacks and saying whom they had belonged to.
The family were strong believers and went regularly to church, he told me, repeating again and again how his eldest daughter and son went to church, prayed; how she always wrote, “Jesus is love, God is love;” and how, some days before they were murdered, his son Fadi wanted to take a photo with the church father.
Watch | Shadi Shehda on losing his children, mother, and wife to a terrorist attack
Again, he brought out his mobile and started showing me photos: together in the church; Fadi’s sixth birthday, two days before his death; more photos of his kids in the church; the family on a trip they took to a sacred mountain; his kids at an amusement park; his two-year-old Susi on tiptoes lighting a candle at church; he and his children at a rally for Syria, holding the Syrian flag.
“Every time they went to the church, they lit a candle,” he kept repeating. Unexpectedly, he showed me death photos of his murdered children. “I also have a photo of my son when he was injured: this is my son; those are my son, my daughter and my other daughter, the three of them,” the bodies laid out, lifeless and bloodied.
When there was an appropriate moment to ask, I asked if he had a message for people outside of Syria. Without hesitating, he replied:
I just want them to stand beside us, see what happened to us, to see what we have been through; we are suffering a lot in Mhardeh. We need to get rid of the terrorists, end this terrible situation. It’s been eight years, eight years of shelling. In Mhardeh, there isn’t a house that doesn’t have a martyr or someone injured. Our suffering is indescribable.”
A town terrorized, a community resilient but insistent that Idlib be liberated
Back in the courtyard, one of the neighbours showed me scars on her neck from previous terrorist bombings causing shrapnel that not only lodged in her neck but remains there, removing it being too difficult. Another neighbour, an older man, spoke of his then-23-year-old daughter, Jinan Ratib Zayoud, who had been studying French literature at university. After finishing her final exam some years ago, she came back to Mhardeh. She never reached home. An explosive device planted by terrorists on the road near the entrance to the town took her life.
This tortured man pulled out his mobile, showing me another element of the hell people in Mhardeh, and other towns being targeted, are enduring: the psychological torture of terrorists taunting them by posting videos of their pending attacks on the villages. The video he showed me showed two sneering terrorists standing in front of a number of missiles, mockingly saying good morning, promising to send the missiles at them.
In the NDF headquarters, I also met Salem Haddad, an inventor who works with agricultural equipment. He is also a member of the national committee, a group founded in 2011, comprising 40 Mhardeh men and women whose focus is caring for the community — particularly the poor and families of martyrs — providing food, water and financial support, including especially to the guardians of the town.
Watch | Simon al-Wakeel on Mhardeh’s National Defense Force and civilians under terrorist attack
They work to help repair homes damaged by the years of missile and mortar attacks, as well as medical care for those injured by such attacks.
“For Martyrs, our righteous martyrs, we take responsibility for everything: funerals, financial support to the families,” Haddad explained.
Most I met in Mhardeh, when I asked about the issue of Idlib, insisted only the liberation of Idlib and northern Hama would bring them peace, after so many years of being attacked.
“Mhardeh has been heavily shelled since the beginning of the crisis. We have paid dearly to be able to stay steadfast in our homes and our land,” Haddad said.
Reverend Maan Bitar, of Mhardeh’s Presbyterian church, told me:
We as Syrians, we don’t accept at all any part of Syria to be divided, or any part of it to be taken. Turkey has some kind of dream to take control of Idlib. We don’t accept that; no matter what whoever says about Syria, we don’t accept this. No matter what is the price, we don’t accept to have Idlib removed from the map of Syria. Syria is our land, home and history, and we don’t want Syria to be divided.
Now, a decision has been made, by Russia and Syria: Idlib will be taken back.
The gunmen, the terrorists, they are in all the region of Idlib, not just Idlib city. They are also two kilometres from here (in northern Hama). We’ve received more than 7,000 missiles, rockets, and mortars these past eight years.
Every time the terrorists feel they are in a critical situation, militarily speaking, from the government, they shell civilians. Nobody spoke about that. For eight years, Mhardeh town is being shelled, and civilians killed, but nobody spoke of that.”
America’s rhetoric of late was that they would strike Syria if there was some sort of chemical incident. Russia and Syria had for weeks been warning that terrorists together with the White Helmets were planning on staging, indeed already filming, another fake chemical attack story precisely to bring such an American attack on Syria, at a time when Idlib would be liberated.
Then the U.S. upped its rhetoric to specify it would strike not only if there was a chemical incident, but if there is any attack on Idlib, where there are, by a modest estimate, at least 70,000 extremists (or more likely 100,000 terrorists) with heavy weapons, including tens of thousands fully affiliated with al-Qaeda. There are also Ahrar al-Sham, and child-beheading Nour al-Din al-Zenki, under the coalition, the Turkish-backed “National Liberation Front”.
On September 17, Russia and Turkey came to an agreement on a demilitarized zone — which is, in theory, to clear al-Qaeda and its heavy weaponry from the to-be-established DMZ, to avoid mass civilian casualties in the fight to liberate Idlib of al-Qaeda.
As with liberations prior — Aleppo, Ghouta, Daraa and elsewhere in Syria — Russia and Syria have opened humanitarian corridors to enable civilians to leave areas occupied by terrorists, to avoid the coming fighting. And as with prior humanitarian corridors (including one I was standing on in November 2016, before Aleppo was liberated), terrorists have been firing on and shelling the Abu Duhur crossing in eastern Idlib.
Further, as with previous corridors established to enable civilians to flee to safety, they are being forcibly prevented from doing so by the “moderate rebels” inside. That said, numbers of civilians have recently exited via the Abu al-Duhur corridor.
Whatever Western leaders are saying about Idlib, Syrians want Idlib returned without a terrorist presence.
For Shadi Shehda, who lost everything dear to him in the September 7 terrorist bombings, the liberation of Idlib and its environs is a priority:
What’s is important for us now, just one thing, is liberating from outside Mhardeh to Idlib. Idlib has become a serious burden to Syria and a burden most of all to Mhardeh. All that has happened here is because of Idlib.”
Feature photo | A makeshift memorial commemorating the residents of Mhardeh, Syria killed in terrorist attacks. Photo | Eva Bartlett
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian independent journalist and activist. She has spent years on the ground covering conflict zones in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Palestine. She is a recipient of the International Journalism Award for International Reporting. Visit her personal blog, In Gaza, and support her work on Patreon.