On the highway to Palmyra, across the desert from Homs, a Russian armoured convoy shimmered in the heat. The landscape is a grey, gritty, hostile sand that stretches all the way to Isis-land, not like the soft yellow dunes of the Gulf, but the Russian soldiers seemed unperturbed. One stood on the roadway, as tall as a Serb, automatic rifle on his right arm, US-style shades over his eyes, grinning at us beside his armoured personnel carrier.
It’s strange how a Westerner reacts to the Russian army these days. Weren’t these the sons of the guys who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 – another “limited intervention” I recall at the time – and were these not the very same soldiers who are now in the Crimea? Yet we are ambivalent, we lonely Westerners in this dangerous desert. Out in this oven sand-field, with Isis and their motor-bike attackers only a few miles on each side of the highway, I must admit it’s a tad reassuring to see Putin’s lads on the road.
They are a mine-clearing unit and the Russians with their white European faces, watching us with self-confidence from their trucks, have been clearing the streets of Palmyra. “No mines,” it says in Russian on every street corner in big red paint. The Russian base in Palmyra, a stone’s throw from those tortured ruins of Xenobia, is safe from Isis’s network of explosives and underground booby-traps. For now.
But Palmyra is a mournful place. A few civilians have returned, but dust blows the garbage down haunted streets. I find the mosque, outside of which a dozen men were lined up and ritually beheaded in streams of blood after Isis captured the city. A picture of this atrocity, twice cropped to keep the ghouls at bay, appeared in The Independent. Not a trace now, of course, of suffering or horror, just a flyblown intersection, a twisted metal sign and the baking heat. In the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, we notice a rope tied round the top of a Corinthian column with a small loop underneath to hold a noose – Isis’s handiwork, too obscure and high for Palmyra’s liberators to cut it down.