The 13 nuns and three maids crossed the border in the dark, in black cars, flying the black al-Qa’ida flag and driven by masked al-Qa’ida rebels that had held them captive for nearly three months.
Before they went on their way they exchanged pleasantries with the rebels from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group that fights for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. One nun, who was too weak to walk, was carried to the car by a rebel fighter who covered his face with a black scarf.
The remarkable scene was played out in the early hours of Monday morning, as a deal brokered between extremist rebels and the Syrian government saw the release of 13 nuns captured in December in exchange for the release of 150 female prisoners and four children held by the government. Later, one of the nuns would give a brief account of their time with one of the most feared rebel groups in Syria: “They were kind and sweet.”
The release is the latest in a series of similar exchanges between government forces and rebel groups, despite the country’s brutal civil war continuing apace. The government is keen to portray itself as the protector of minorities in Syria – predominantly Christians and Alawites.
A video released by activists showed the nuns arriving in the town of Arsal in Lebanon in SUV’s with the black Salafi flag used by al-Qa’ida fluttering in the wind. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog based in the UK, declared Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, was behind the abduction.
The group has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities of the Syrian civil war – including the deliberate targeting of civilians. Human Rights Watch have accused the group of taking part in a massacre of civilians belonging to the Alawite sect, to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. The opposition has always claimed the nuns were being held as “guests” for their own safety as the regime was shelling the area. The regime claims foreign terrorists, its name for rebels, target minorities, such as Christians.
But according to the nuns, they were treated well by their captors. The rebel video shows the nuns having good rapport with their captors, smiling and exchanging blessings. An unseen rebel says: “I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely,” he adds as the nuns got into the car.
The Greek Orthodox nuns and their three maids were taken on December 3 following a rebel offensive in the mostly Christian town of Maaloula, where Aramaic is still spoken. They were initially held in the monastery of Mar Thekla in Maaloula, but later moved to Yabroud, a rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border. George Haswani, a local pro-government business man, confirmed they were held at his villa there.
Yabroud, is the last rebel stronghold in the middle of Syria and has been under fierce attack by the Syrian Army. Due to the fighting in the area, the nuns were taken first across the border to Lebanon, before being transported to the Jdaidet Yabous border crossing in the early hours of Monday. Senior regime figures, family members as well as Muslim and Christian clergy welcomed the nuns back in Syria. A reception was held on Monday at Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where the nuns will now be staying. Clergy in Syria said the advances made by the Syrian army were behind the release of the nuns. “What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process,” Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka Khoury.
Talking to assembled reporters at the border the nuns said they were treated well, with one nun even describing her captors as “ kind and sweet”. Mother Pelagia Sayaf, head of Mar Thekla monastery thanked the Syrian government, who she said worked with the Qatari government for their release.
“We weren’t harassed at all,” she said. “No one forced us to remove our crosses.” In a video released in December, in which the nuns had already indicated good treatment, they were seen without their religious symbols. It transpired yesterday that removing the crosses was a voluntary decision as it “seemed like the right thing to do”.
The deal almost fell through on Sunday, as the rebels tried to use last minute pressure to bargain. In return for the nun’s release a number of female prisoners were freed from Syrian jails. At the end of the rebel video one could see a throng of women heading towards the rebels, including two young children. They are suspected to be the children of known rebel commanders who had been taken along with their mothers.
The prisoner exchange is the latest reconciliatory gesture by the government, which relies on support from minority Alawites and Christians. Negotiations are ongoing to facilitate the release of two archbishops, taken in Aleppo last April, as well as the Italian Jesuit, Paolo dall Oglio, who disappeared last July.
In January, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem said the government was open to exchanging prisoners. However, exchanges have been rare and have mostly focused on foreigners. The first big prisoner exchange took place in January 2013, when 48 Iranians were released by rebels in return for 1,200 government prisoners. Last October, rebels released nine Lebanese hostages in exchange for dozens of female detainees. The conflict, which has seen 100,000 killed, will reach its third anniversary on Saturday.