The Berm Between

For the Team, Mark Mueller

Our travel to Mhardeh on Wednesday had two bookends. The first that ended the previous day was the stimulating conversation we had with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir, the pastor of our Presbyterian church in Aleppo. The other was the massive destruction we witnessed at the end of our day as we drove at sunset into Homs. It was within these bookends that we traveled in the early hours of Wednesday into Mhardeh to visit with the faithful church of that region whose witness and perseverance we had heard.

Whereas the fighting between the government troops and the terrorists is largely complete in Homs, it is anything but finished in Mhardeh. I could tell we were getting into a more troubled area simply by the regular stops we made to acquire more national guardsmen for protection. Our first stop added three vehicles with nine armed men. Our next stop saw the addition of three 50-caliber gun trucks, where the tarps were taken off the guns by men in military fatigues. “We are headed into trouble,” I thought. Our last stop involved adding a special police force similar to the FBI in the States. Those charged with protecting us now outnumbered this American team 3:1.

And so we traveled stopping at numerous checkpoints. Unlike the damaged buildings in Homs the countryside on our way to Mhardeh showed little evidence of war. This could be Iowa, Indiana, or parts of California except for one visible barrier we encountered upon entering the 25,000-member city of Mhardeh. This barrier was a ten-foot berm of dirt. It meandered for miles and was created to protect the people of Mhardeh from the sniper fire of terrorists in the next town.

Strangely, it was next to the berm that we exited our vehicles. We were told the terrorists were fighting a mere kilometer away. We were also told to stay close to the berm so as not to be seen by snipers. All of it was more than believable as heavy artillery sounds could be heard nearby. We didn't stay long at the berm. Thank God! We were quickly moved to the church as we now were going to experience life on this side of the berm.

                   The martyrs of Mhardeh

                   The martyrs of Mhardeh

At the church we met preschool children who had enjoyed a day at school. We ate at the home of the pastor and drank freshly squeezed lemonade prior to our meeting. Then, two very significant events took place for our team. The first was meeting the families of those who lost loved ones in this civil war. It was a receiving line of sorts similar to funeral visitation in the United States. I didn't know any of these people. Yet, somehow I connected with them. Perhaps death connects us. 66 people in Mhardeh have died in this war, and our team now faced the grief of war and looked directly into its sadness. Moms and dads, brothers and sisters, children and family friends were all touched by war and its aftermath. I had been touched by it now. I felt sad and sorry about it.

Our second significant event was listening to the church and these families who had lost loved ones as they tried to make sense of the evil in humanity. We heard from a mother who had lost her 13-year old son to sniper fire because some radicals on the other side of the berm thought that all infidels should be removed from life on this earth. We heard from a husband who mourned the loss of his precious wife whose body parts had to be picked up after a mortar landed next her while she was in the kitchen of their home just weeks ago. We listened to a 12-year girl express how much she missed her dad. On and on the stories were told. Each story added a tear to the sea of grief and loss in Syria.

It is hard to describe the impact today had on our team. We all walked away carrying something. For me, if I saw the grief of losing a home on Monday in Yazdieh, then today I saw the grief of losing a loved to war in Mhardeh. The commonality in both that seemed especially painful was this: none of it needed to happen.

Since it has happened, however, we pray for the radicals on the other side of the berm that they will learn that war is not the way to solve problems. War brings more war. And as we pray for the radicals we pull alongside those who suffer on this side of the berm. In their dark times, we must be the light of Christ by showing up and being present. It is our task to look into the grief and both embrace and kiss those those who have not wanted to be part of the violence and who now feel deeply touched by it.

Rev. Dr. Mark Mueller
First Presbyterian Church, Valparaiso, Indiana