The road to Palmyra

Land Rover Monthly - - Products -

We have been try­ing for a week to reach Palmyra, a city in the Syr­ian desert famed for its an­cient Greco-ro­man ru­ins, that gov­ern­ment forces have just re­taken from the Is­lamic State. Late one night, the call fi­nally comes. We leave at seven the next morn­ing. Dis­ap­point­ingly, so do a group of other jour­nal­ists, the full num­ber of which be­comes clear when we head out of Da­m­as­cus in a file of minibuses and 4x4s.

We cruise past check­points where Syr­ian flags fly high and posters de­pict the face of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad who, con­trary to many West­ern me­dia por­tray­als, is not hated by all his peo­ple, many of whom re­main fiercely loyal to him.

The main road, just 15 kilo­me­tres out­side Da­m­as­cus, is closed, run­ning through ter­ri­tory still con­trolled by op­po­si­tion forces, and we take a se­ries of di­ver­sions, skirt­ing the edges of Syr­ian towns and vil­lages dec­i­mated by fight­ing. When we head east, to­wards the desert, which was IS ter­ri­tory for nearly a year, other road users melt away, leav­ing our con­voy of jour­nal­ists and mil­i­tary per­son­nel alone on the road, ex­cept for the odd mil­i­tary truck trundling past in a cloud of dust.

We are be­ing led to Palmyra by a Syr­ian Army Gen­eral who halts us in the desert for a pep talk about fol­low­ing or­ders and not wan­der­ing reck­lessly around once we reach Palmyra, which is rigged with ex­plo­sives – a part­ing gift from re­treat­ing IS mil­i­tants who left IEDS in prop­er­ties across the city.

Back on the road, the Gen­eral steadily over­takes the whole con­voy, to re­gain his po­si­tion at the front. And what does a vic­to­ri­ous Gen­eral from the Syr­ian Army drive? Like all dis­cern­ing mil­i­tary men, of course, he drives a sleek shiny black Land Rover.

It is a Free­lander 2 HSE – one Land Rover model about which I know next to noth­ing – but, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Land Rover web­site, is adept at tack­ling the tough­est ter­rains. “On tar­mac, gravel, sand or snow, Ter­rain Re­sponse makes sure your drive is re­spon­sive, steady and con­trolled,” it de­clares. If the en­gine is as pris­tine as the ex­te­rior, I imag­ine the Ter­rain Re­sponse in this Free­lander is in good work­ing or­der. Apart from snow, the Gen­eral puts it through its paces, over bro­ken tar­mac, blown apart by road­side mines, the coarse sand of the Syr­ian desert and loose gravel on a moun­tain pass with which our lit­tle minibus strug­gles.

Just five days ago, Palmyra was an active con­flict zone be­tween the Syr­ian Army and the most in­fa­mous ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion of the 21st cen­tury. I re­mem­ber the Land Rover ad­ver­tis­ing slo­gan ‘Go Be­yond and think that this trip could epit­o­mise it.

The Free­lander cruises ahead of us, lead­ing the col­umn of jour­nal­ist-filled ve­hi­cles to­wards the me­dieval citadel on Palmyra’s out­skirts that over­looks the war-torn city. At the sum­mit we pile out and the pho­tog­ra­phers line up along the edge of the precipice to take near-iden­ti­cal shots of the col­umns of black smoke ris­ing from the mod­ern city, where bomb dis­posal teams are det­o­nat­ing hun­dreds of booby traps and IEDS.

I hang back and try to line up a shot of the Free­lander with the me­dieval citadel ris­ing be­hind. An officer mak­ing a de­scent down the steep hill on foot pauses, cast­ing me a sus­pi­cious look.

“I love Land Rovers,” I say with a smile, re­peat­ing the phrase in what I hope might be com­pre­hen­sive Ara­bic. He frowns. “I have same Land Rover in Eng­land,” I lie, since my Light­weight is a world apart from this shiny ve­hi­cle, but I do not have enough Ara­bic to go into de­tails. Thank­fully.

“Me and Land Rovers from Bri­tain,” I throw in, for good mea­sure. His face re­laxes into a smile, but he taps the white num­ber plate, with its dual Ara­bic-in­dic and Euro­pean nu­mer­als, and shakes his head and a for­bid­ding fin­ger.

My trans­la­tor says: “Thom, stop dis­ap­pear­ing all the time,” she says, with a tired smile. “This is a dan­ger­ous place and you’re my re­spon­si­bil­ity.” The officer talks rapidly to her in Ara­bic and she turns to me and asks if I have Pho­to­shop. I can only use the pic­ture if I blur out the num­ber plate. Re­as­sured, the officer says: “You are wel­come in Syria,” and con­tin­ues his de­scent down the moun­tain.

It seems some­how fit­ting to have been led to this lib­er­ated piece of Syr­ian land by a Land Rover. But, al­though Palmyra is a bat­tle the Syr­ian Army has won, the coun­try’s ru­inous civil con­flict is far from over.

“What does a vic­to­ri­ous Gen­eral from the Syr­ian Army drive? Like all dis­cern­ing mil­i­tary men, a shiny black Land Rover”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.