Agnès -Mariam de la Croix is the mother superior of a Carmelite convent 90km north of Damascus. At the Monastery of St James The Mutilated, she runs a choir, enjoys listening to the Rolling Stones and, beneath the cuffs of her nun’s habit, has the faint remnant of a tattoo on one of her palms – a fading reminder of more carefree days as a young woman in India and Nepal.
But Mother Agnes has become one of the more unlikely figures in the investigation into an alleged chemical attack in a suburb of the Syrian capital.
The attack, she says, was “staged and scripted” by foreign operatives in Syria’s war. The videos that emerged online in the hours following the attack – of children screaming, crying and gasping for breath – were fakes, she says.
As the row over the veracity of those videos threatens to make Syria’s war the West’s war too, Mother Agnes has taken it upon herself to analyse and document the footage that emerged from eastern Damascus in the hours following the alleged attack.
“I’m not a medical expert,” Mother Agnes said in an interview with the state-supported RT news network – “I am a just an observer, a normal citizen and as a nun I’m trying to find out what is the fate of those little children.”
Mother Agnes’ report into the attack on 21 August might have gone unnoticed. But when Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov endorsed it as testimony that informed much of Moscow’s opposition to military intervention being planned in Washington DC, the spotlight fell firmly upon her.
The nun’s claims may have been picked apart and undermined by journalists and human rights organizations but they nonetheless allow just the right amount of doubt to seep into the Syrian debate. They also fuel the idea that when a nation begins to splinter, the truth begins to splinter, too. There are millions of other independent “truths” being forged in the minds of Syrians across the country every day.
When I lived in Lebanon a couple of years ago, I had friends who told their own versions of events – their own truths – that had taken place in their lives. The experience of Lebanon’s own bloody Civil War – where faith fought against faith – had spawned multiple versions of the truth that people from either side of the sectarian fence were still clinging to 20 years on.
Ultimately, when all is said and done in Syria (whenever that may be) it’s these millions of truths – the tiny pieces of the shattered mirror of Syria – that will be hardest of all to reconcile.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.