In order to avoid the Labour conference and yet more predictable media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, I escaped late last month to Syria, where children were returning to school after the summer holidays. Large tracts of the country have recently been liberated from the control of jihadi groups, meaning that in some places children are going back to school for the first time in five years. At Sinjar elementary school in Idlib province, I found the local headmaster painting the school sign. Five years ago rebels gave him the choice of closing down or being killed. He was confined to his house while the school buildings were converted into an arsenal. He took me into a room where an alert, motivated, mixed class of about 25 children spoke of their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers and teachers. Just 150 yards away, the jihadi emir, known as Al Yemeni, had forced people to watch public beheadings. We walked over to the railway track where they took place. Part of the axe lay on the ground. I ruminatively ran the blade across my thumb. It was sharp as a razor. Locals said there had been 80 beheadings during half a decade of jihadi rule.
Schooling did not cease in all rebel areas. A 35-year-old headmistress in the south Damascus suburb of Douma told me her school had continued to operate under the control of the Saudi-backed rebel group Jaish al-Islam. However her students, girls between 13 and 16 years old, were forced to wear the hijab and banned from clapping their hands and taking public exams. Lessons in music, art and sport were banned. Outside the headmistress’s office was the entrance to one of the many deep tunnels dug by fighters in order to avoid detection and protect them from attack. She said that she had refused offers from Jaish al-Islam to double her modest government salary if she agreed to teach at its own Islamist schools. She said: ‘Jaish al-Islam hated us. We are just small ladies teaching.’
I was supplied with a press minder. Fadi was a travel guide before the war but had to close his business when it started. He went to work in the oilfields in Deir Ezzor, but was kidnapped by Free Syrian Army fighters. They had already beheaded three of his companions when he talked his way out of trouble, claiming a nonexistent acquaintance with a local al Qaeda warlord. Then he became a truck driver but found the work too physically demanding. He produced a children’s TV programme which was a success, but there is no money in TV in war-torn Syria. Now he works for the Ministry of Information.
Fadi and I went to Mhardeh, a Christian town to the west of Idlib province. A car mechanic told us how his wife and three children had been killed by a rocket attack a few weeks ago. He was broken: ‘I have lost all my feelings.’ Mhardeh is surrounded by rebel villages which have pounded it with artillery fire for five years. Several times the local civil defence force has repulsed direct attack. We drove up to the edge of the town where you can look across to the front lines, two or three kilometres away. Local people cross these lines daily, going to and from work. There are seven churches in Mhardeh, and a priest told me that if the western-backed rebel forces had broken through, every last Christian in the town would have been killed or forced to flee.
The devastation is unbelievable. Think Dresden, Stalingrad. Much worse than the Blitz. Miles of total destruction. In the old city centre of Homs, I find a family living deep among the ruins. They returned two months ago, six years after being driven out by a rebel attack in which their daughter was killed. Kemal, a security guard at the bus station, looked round his tiny home, walls smashed by shells and wide open to the elements, as his wife provided coffee. He said: ‘There is nothing sweeter than my own house. I am the most happy man in the world because I am back home.’
In Homs I visited the home of Frans van der Lugt, a Jesuit priest. He refused to leave when rebels captured the town in 2012, providing prayer and healing throughout the occupation. He never took sides. Doors of his house were open to all, Christian or Muslim, on condition that guns were left outside the front door. Just two weeks before Homs was liberated by Syrian government forces, he was shot in the head during a kidnap attempt. There was no priest in the town to bury him, so the ritual was carried out by laymen taking instructions over mobile phone. Yet the sense of peace, tranquillity and holiness by his grave was overwhelming. As I prayed I wondered whether one day the Catholic church will acknowledge his supreme example by making him a saint.
For relaxation I read The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914, by Simon Heffer, one time political correspondent at The Spectator. Heffer has turned himself into one of Britain’s most accomplished and formidable men of letters. There’s a life of Carlyle, a study of the political consequences of King Edward VII, a manual on language and two massive volumes on Victorian intellectual history. His exhaustive biography of Enoch Powell was awarded a PhD by Cambridge examiners. Heffer is a genuine intellectual with a shelf of books to his credit. Yet it’s notoriously the case that no Guardian or Observer columnist is too boring, and few BBC producers too ignorant or obscure, for preferment at Oxbridge. Why hasn’t Heffer been offered a headship at Cambridge, his alma mater? Heffer’s on the right (though he has many left- wing friends). That in itself rules him out. So congratulations to the University of Buckingham, which has had the wit to appoint him Professor of Modern British History. A superb decision, and Heffer will be a magnificent teacher of undergraduates. Oxbridge’s loss is Buckingham’s gain.