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If These Walls Could Talk: A War Correspondent Revisits a Hotel of Ghosts

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ANTAKYA, Turkey — When I step into the narrow, dim cafe, I expect to see them sitting there on the stiff, brocade-covered chairs. I expect to hear their murmurs and arguments echoing off the walls of rough yellowish stone. The Syrians.

This cafe at the Liwan Hotel, a century-old mansion in the southern Turkish town of Antakya, used to hum with Syria’s hopes and fears. For the first few years of the war just across the border, Syrians opposed to their government met and networked here. There were people from Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, Damascus: doctors and engineers; army defectors and civilian activists; the secular and the religious; the severe and the flirtatious.

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CreditAnne Barnard/The New York Times

And me. And my notebook. I had my own corner in the back, where the Syrians, one by one, opened a window to their country for me and my Times colleagues.

But now, the room is silent, often empty. Antakya, better known to the wider world as the Antioch of the Bible, has returned to a sleepier normal. The pedestrian street outside rings with the quiet that comes after a storm has passed.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has prevailed over what began as a revolution. The war spawned by that contest — multiple wars, really — has contracted. President Trump has declared victory over one of its progeny, the Islamic State.

And the Syrians of the Liwan? Some are dead. Some are missing, disappeared by Mr. al-Assad’s secret police or by the Islamic State. Some became killers. Some held to their ideals. Most are scattered, across the region and the world.

But the Liwan cannot shake Syria. It is a hotel of ghosts. In a corner of the bar hangs a photograph of James Foley, the journalist beheaded by the Islamic State. Then there is Room 203. Our own friend and colleague, Anthony Shadid, stayed there before his last trip into Syria in 2012. I booked the room for him. In the cafe, he met one of our earliest revolutionary contacts, Rami, a pony-tailed Damascus activist, to arrange his trip. Anthony was on his way back to meet his family at the Liwan when, trying to reach the border via a difficult smugglers’ route, he died of a severe asthma attack. Rami is gone, too. He went back to Syria, where he was detained by the government and never seen again.

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CreditAnne Barnard/The New York Times

We ask to see the room, a ritual every time we visit. The manager gives me a sad smile and grabs the keys. Last time, someone else’s clothes were on the bed. This time, the housekeeper is busy inside with her daily rounds.

Anthony loved the Liwan for its intricate floor tiles, made in the Mediterranean style called cemento. Built in the 1920s, it was once the home of Subhi Barakat, the president of the French Mandate’s Syrian Federation. Back then, Antakya was part of French-ruled Syria. Mr. Barakat later supported the rebellion against the French.

I don’t know if Syria’s modern-day rebels were aware of that history. I was too busy learning about their present. The Liwan cafe was where I met many online Syrian contacts in person for the first time, and made the acquaintance of others with whom I later kept in touch online. All of us — the Syrians and me, a Lebanese journalist who grew up amid civil war — were enthralled by the chance to talk with people we wouldn’t have met if not for the conflict, about subjects, such as politics and religion, that were once taboo.

Anthony never made it back, but I did, again and again. The rooms are tiny and the internet connection isn’t great, but the place has a charm, especially in the rain; you can hear the drops tickling the skylights.

From 2012 to 2014, the hotel stayed busy. The talk was about Syria’s future. Some of the Syrians wanted a freewheeling secular model like Beirut’s; others wanted a religious state; others’ only dream was to get rid of all the pro-Assad slogans, especially the ones that labeled their country “Assad’s Syria,” as if it were a family possession. Some resisted the militarization of the rebellion; others repeated, “What is taken by force must be regained by force.”

Some smoked and drank wine; at first even some of the Islamists did not mind sitting alongside them and me, a single woman. (Inevitably, the talk would turn to my marital status.) But Abdelrahman, a skinny Palestinan-Syrian fighter with a gray hat pulled low over his face, insisted on moving to a different cafe with no alcohol. He avoided eye contact and, though he spoke softly, he did not hide his hatred for Shiites and Alawites. His unlikely friend Abdelkader Dhon was the opposite: cheerful and chatty, tolerant of everyone, excited about his humanitarian work for refugees.

Both of them are now missing and probably dead: Abdelrahman joined the Islamic State, but later it turned against him, detaining him as well as Abdelkader.

Abu Hamza had defected from Assad’s Republican Guards and was trying to build a secular rebel group. He gazed boldly at my face from behind a cloud of smoke that yellowed his teeth. He always looked tired. I told him to quit smoking to improve his skin, creased beyond his age. I will never forget his sarcastic look.

“We will die anyway,” he said. “Bashar will kill us, whether I have good skin or not.”

He told me something else that I didn’t take seriously: “If the international community and the United States don’t help us, all the Syrians will become Al Qaeda.”

That was in 2013. Some ordinary people there — plumbers and carpenters — ended up joining extremist groups, issuing religious orders. Abu Hamza was later arrested by Jabhat al-Nusra, a Qaeda offshoot, and held for a year in solitary confinement, accused of spreading secularism.

I never finished asking the Syrians at the Liwan all my questions. I would take breaks at the city’s famous spicy shawarma stands and at shops selling silk scarves. I was sure we would meet again in some kind of changed Syria. Today, I regret not treating every conversation as the last.

The furniture at the Liwan is still the same, but there is a deadly silence. Syrians can barely cross the Turkish border anymore: Guards shoot at them; smugglers charge hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Sometimes I blame the Syrians for not telling me the secrets the fighters whispered about before I joined their tables. Sometimes I blame the hotel walls for not revealing them now, as if they had a loyalty pact with the Syrians.

Upstairs in the breakfast room, a covered courtyard like the ones in Damascus and Aleppo, I still hear the same ’80s tunes they played when the hotel was packed. The other day I heard a song I used to play in my old Fiat in 1991, driving the still-ruined streets of Beirut as it recovered from civil war. It’s by Roxette: “Must have been love, but it’s over now.”


Anne Barnard contributed reporting.

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