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The Syrian horses of war, stolen, abused and traumatised – only a lucky few came home

The Syrian government run stables where the few horses, that were recovered from the extremist armed gangs, are now living. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

Vanessa Beeley
21st Century Wire 

Part of Syria’s heritage is their pride in the authentic Syrian Arabian horse. It had never occurred to me that even these noble animals may have been affected by the eight year conflict that has raged in Syria sustained by the criminal U.S coalition of interventionist states who have armed and financed the extremist groups that have destroyed infrastructure, massacred civilians and occupied vast areas of Syria prior to being driven out by the Syrian Arab Army and alllies. 

One of the returned horses, skinny and clearly traumatised. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

Mr Mohammed Ghaith Al Chaieb, Director of the Office of Arabian Horses in Syria, told me that despite all the ravages of this externally waged war, the Arabian horse has been protected as a national treasure thanks to the efforts of the Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform and Mr Basil Jadaan, member of the Executive Committee of the World Arabian Horse Organisation (WAHO).

The registering of Arabian horses has continued regardless of the sanctions and restrictions imposed upon Syria. Over the last two years, 2,500 horses have been registered successfully after DNA had been inspected in a laboratory in Germany which has continued to collaborate with the organisations in Syria.

Al Chaieb told me that during the war they have lost a third of the Arabian horses that had been registered, an estimated 3000 horses, many with exceptional bloodlines have disappeared during the conflict. In Eastern Ghouta armed gangs, dominated by Nusra Front and Jaish Al Islam, destroyed the Centre of Martyr Basil Al-Assad for the breeding of Arabian horses – the Syrian state stud, established on an area of 150 acres which included stabling for 250 Arabian horses.

Basil Jadaan told me that the terrorist groups had no understanding of what the artificial insemination laboratory was used for so they simply destroyed everything in sight, smashing years of research and state-of-the-art equipment. A meeting room for 300 people, eight residential buildings for workers, technicians and engineers families were also wantonly destroyed.

Rescued, another of the 22 recovered horses, stolen by armed gangs from Eastern Ghouta. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

Along with the theft of equipment, vehicles and electricity generators, the marauding armed gangs stole 197 horses from the stud from some of the most ancient and rare blood lines.

In early 2016 the Syrian government supported the construction of an alternative barn with twenty stables for the re-establishment of the Arabian horse breeding programme in Syria. Of the 197 horses stolen, 22 have been recovered and brought to the sanctuary of the new stable block. I visited these horses during my last trip to Syria, March 2019. I was confronted by horses in varying stages of recovery but all of them still clearly traumatised and profoundly afffected by the experiences they had lived through. Most had been taken to Eastern Ghouta and the SAA had called Al Chaieb and his colleagues to come and identify and reclaim the horses that had been found alive in areas held by extremist armed groups.

Safe and sound but the eyes express the not-yet-forgotten trauma. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

One horse was recovered from Al Bukamal on the border with Iraq, an area intermittently under control of ISIS. Two horses were found in Qalamoun and six horses in Deir Ezzor. It must be presumed that the armed groups recognised their worth and were trying to export them to Lebanon or Iraq. The tradition of freeze branding is what enabled the identification of the stolen horses, including those taken from private breeders across Syria.

It is hard to imagine what these gentle and courageous animals had gone through and what happened to the 175 horses that have not yet been restored to safety. At least the 22 I saw can begin life again and with kindness and time they will forget the horror they have been subjected to.

The green shoots of recovery 

Qatana District of Rif Dimashq Governorate where Basil Jadaan has established his Arabian horse breeding center. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

As part of my journey through the world of the Syrian Arabian horse I was privileged to visit the wonderful breeding center in Qatana (east of Damascus) belonging to Basil Jadaan, a horseman with a breathtaking knowledge of the history of the breed and a senstivity and gentleness that was reflected in the behaviour of the stallions, mares and foals at his center. Jadaan’s passion for the Arabian horse is unmistakable and his horses are the embodiment of the nobility, strength and endurance of the breed.

Basil Jadaan’s Arabian horse stud in Qatana. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

Jadaan’s pride in the center was also visible, every stone had been brought from the mountain itself and the buildings and outdoor arenas extended from the mountainside to form an integral part of the glorious landscape. What more fitting back drop for the beauty of the horses themselves.

One of the magnificent outdoor arenas at Basil Jadaan’s breeding center. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)

“The Arabian horse should cover his rider front and back” Jadaan told us as one of his stallions cantered around the sand arena, neck arched and tail held high above his back.

A new addition to the Jadaan family, little Sultana, born one day after our visit. (Photo: Basil Jadaan)

As you find everywhere in Syria, after the storm of war comes the calm of peace and restoration and the horse world is no different. Amidst the turmoil of the conflict years many of the horse activities had been curtailed or abandoned altogether. Now the celebration of one the national symbols of Syria will return with a festival of the Arabian horse in April 2019.

Jadaan and associated equestrian teams across Syria and worldwide have been planning and organising what promises to be a spectacular event, a homage not only the Syrian Arabian horses but to the resilience of every aspect of Sryia’s identity and culture that has resisted destruction and chaos and is re-emerging more powerful and magnificent than ever before.

Sugar should only be given to mares according to Jadaan, stallions will learn to bite you if you feed them titbits. (Photo: Basil Jadaan)

The Festival will begin on the 16th of April and will run through until the 20th. Parades and displays of equestrian skills will take place during the event with the Syrian Arabian horse taking pride of place on Syrian streets and in Syrian hearts.

Brick by brick, stone by stone, Syria is rebuilding after the U.S Coalition of terror tried its best to reduce this triumphant nation to another failed state. The Al Sham International Arabian Horse Festival is just one green shoot among many springing up across Syria as, for many areas, the effects of war begin to fade. As we drove out of Damascus on one my trips to Northern Hama, my translator commented on the magical greening of the desert region along our route:

“We haven’t seen it green like this since the war began, it is wonderful to see Syria come back to life like this” 

On Jadaan’s land there is a fresh water spring that is fed from the mountains that towered behind us. As we stood by the side of the road a car drove up and people got out to fill their bottles directly from the spring. The water was so sweet and cold. “This spring has not flowed since the war began”, Jadaan told me.

I paused to reflect upon these phenomena – maybe nothing more than coincidence but it really felt as if Nature herself was recovering and showing us that the war really was over and it was time for Syria to regain her historic equilibrium. Perhaps just fanciful thoughts, but who knows? That Syria has resisted such an onslaught for eight years is a miracle in itself, miracles of nature should come as no surprise in this land of the unexpected.


READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files




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