The testimony of Jesuit priest Van der Lugt who has spent fifteen isolating months standing by the poor in the Bustan al-Diwan neighbourhood of the Syrian city of Homs
“For the past fifteen months we have been surviving off the emergency supplies we had in our basements and in abandoned houses throughout the neighbourhood. All we have left is a load of bulgar which is slowly running out. And we don’t know for how much longer this siege is going to go on.”
Dutch priest Fr. Frans Van der Lugt has given a dramatic testimony of his experience in Bustan al-Diwan, Homs’ oldest neighbourhood. Homs has been controlled by the rebels since June 2012 but is surrounded by Syrian government forces. Vatican Insider wrote about Fr. Van der Lugt in an article published at the beginning of August, when the Jesuit Provincial of the Middle East, Fr. Victor Assouad expressed concern for the fate of the Dutch priest and Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Roman priest who was kidnapped about two months ago in northern Syria.
In June 2012, when Homs’ population fell from a million to a worrying 200 thousand inhabitants within the space of just a few days as a result of the war, Fr. Van der Lugt decided to stand by the side of those who were unable to flee from Bustan al Diwan – one of the toughest fronts in the Syrian conflict. The priest has been living alongside innocent victims of the conflict in this besieged rebel stronghold for fifteen months. The sound of Assad’s artillery fire echoes above them indiscriminately, regardless of whether the targets are Christians or Muslims.
Bustan al-Diwan is still cut off from the outside world, Fr. Ziad Hilal confirmed at a meeting in Geneva a couple of evenings ago. Fr. Hilal is another Jesuit who lives in the part of Homs that is controlled by Syrian government forces. “There are 900 metres between Fr. Frans and I but this impossible distance has not stopped us from communicating with each other or from supporting each other,” he said.
With Fr. Hilal’s arrival in Europe comes Fr. Van der Lugt’s story, which has been published on the website of French Catholic NGO, L’Oeuvre d’Orient. His testimony describes the dramatic situation faced by a tiny Christian community made up of around 80 people who are experiencing the extreme poverty of about ten thousand inhabitants who stayed behind in the neighbourhood and cannot go beyond the designated one kilometre perimeter.
“We will soon begin to experience food shortages because supplies have not been coming in for fifteen months,” the Dutch Jesuit said. We thank God for the flour we receive (a kilo per person a week). But we know we cannot go on living off this for long. We are especially concerned about the winter approaching. We are all suffering from the cold, the lack of running water, gas and oil. We’re even short of wood. The houses we live in no longer protect us from the cold as all the doors and windows are damaged. And it’s impossible to go out of our neighbourhood; it’s completely surrounded.”
Despite all these difficulties, Fr. Van der Lugt did speak about life and the mood within the community: “Our weekly Sunday meetings take place in a spirit of love, openness and reciprocity. We feel united as a community because living alongside one another in these difficult circumstances makes us stronger.”
“We are all increasingly in need of each other’s help. We remain hopeful despite our difficult living conditions, the Dutch priest said. Knowing that the whole of the Syrian population shares in our suffering should help us get through these tough times, allowing us to experience a solidarity that will help us find new horizons,” Fr. Van der Lungt concluded.