|In the largely Sunni city of Hula, protests against Bashar al-Assad's government have become common [Reuters]
A flowerpot made from a tank shell decorated the living room in General Aref Bayumi's home in the Syrian hilltop village of Bareen, while a picture of a young Hassan Nasrallah adorned the wall, alongside portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and his brothers, Basil and Maher.
"The law is what the mighty makes with his sword and it is his sword that forbids and permits," the general told me, quoting 20th century Syrian poet Badawi al-Jabal.
The poem was named: "The Unification of Three Regions" - referring to the areas surrounding the Tigris river of Iraq, Syria's Barada river and the Nile. Its creator, Badawi, held an angry belief that Arabs betrayed the region's unification by raising the white flag to Israel. Badawi stressed that only by the sword - and not through the law - could the Arabs regain their rights. He warned Arab leaders who abused their power that "the sword" would one day restore the rights of the weak.
General Bayumi fought Israel in 1973 and again in the 1982 in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. He was very proud of his role in putting down the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in Hama in 1982, a violent crackdown that ended with the deaths of at least 10,000 men, women and children. He resented that Rifaat, brother of then President Hafez al-Assad, took the credit for the operation. "Rifaat didn’t do anything in Hama," he said. "The west just blamed him [so as] to attack the president; it was the army."
Back then, Iraq, Jordan and other countries supported the Brotherhood. Bayumi believes there is also a conspiracy against the regime today. "On the same day, [assistant US secretary of state Jeffrey] Feltman, [Israeli president Shimon] Peres and [al-Qaeda's Ayman] al-Zawahiri said the same thing about Syria," he told me.
The current uprising is a mere repetition of the one he had helped suppress, he said - but he was frustrated by what he perceived as the state’s restrained response. "The state is responding slowly," he said. "As a former military man, I am against what [the] security forces are doing. I would finish it in a month. I could solve the whole country’s problems in one month, if the president only listened to me."
"There is no village here that doesn't have a martyr or two."
- General Aref Bayumi
Several members of the security forces from Bareen had been killed by armed opposition men, he said. In the neighbouring village of Biyadiyeh, I visited Ala Khalil Hamdan, an Alawite sergeant in the police serving in Hama. I found him with bandages on his ribs, forearm and head. He and other policemen had been captured by opposition activists. He claimed the Sunni policemen were released but he and another policeman were taken prisoner and traded for opposition prisoners held by state security forces.
"There is no village here that doesn’t have a martyr or two," General Bayumi told me, referring to slain members of the Syrian security forces. Bareen, a majority Alawite town in Hama governorate was near Hula, a majority Sunni town in the adjacent Homs district, and there had been clashes between the two towns. Hula had reportedly been taken over by opposition supporters. "I told them: 'Give me eleven soldiers [and] I’ll finish this whole thing in Hula' - but the new leadership is softer."
"They don’t want to negotiate," he said of the opposition. "Kill them." He made a gun out of his hand and executed an imaginary person.
The conspiracy grows
We were joined by a group comprising the general's son, a police officer in Latakia, an army major who insisted that Syria was not just the heart of the Middle East, but "the heart of the world" - and a retired air defence colonel, who claimed to have personally shot down Israeli Phantom jet fighters in 1973. After a few beers in a village restaurant, Bayumi senior spoke wistfully of his dream to be martyred in south Lebanon "fighting Zionist soldiers" - and then turned angrily to me, remembering I was American. "How will we benefit from giving you information?" he demanded. "Obama follows the orders of Netanyahu. Anybody who has any hope in America is ignorant." The retired colonel insisted that "they" were trying to provoke sectarianism by assassinating Alawites. "But Alawites are not responding as a sect," he said. "We are relying on the government, we know the size of the conspiracy, it’s the Brotherhood and takfiri [those who declare other Muslims to be 'infidels'] - with help from the Mossad, America and France."
The men could recite the names of many prominent Alawites assassinated during the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Hassan Khalil, the head of the department of labour and social affairs in Hama, Muhamad Fadil, head of the law faculty at Damascus University, Dr Adnan Ghanem, also of Damascus University. They vividly remembered the massacre of Alawite officer candidates in the Aleppo military academy. "There was a general hatred of Alawites among the Brotherhood and they were trying to mobilise the Sunni street," said the colonel.
The men were equally troubled by current incidents of violence, which they blamed on the people of Hula and the nearby village of Akrab. "Huli people are ignorant and uneducated and most work in the Gulf," said the colonel.
The men recited a list of recent incidents they claimed were perpetrated by their Sunni neighbours. Alawites from Bareen and other villages of Masyaf had been prevented from entering Hama to take their high school examinations, they told me - blaming it on sectarian demonstrators. Two security officers in a taxi were stabbed to death coming home from work in Hula. The assembled party claimed, the officers' corpses were dragged down the road by a tractor. Another security officer was stabbed to death coming home from Idlib, they told me. General Bayumi claimed that they had recently dismantled an improvised explosive device made of fertiliser.
"There are armed groups in Hama - day and night - on motorcycles."
When the retired colonel spoke about Sunnis, he called them simply "the other side", to avoid naming their sect. It was the same euphemism I had heard in Iraq. We were joined by a friend of the general, named Abu Rabia. The colonel was shocked to learn that Abu Rabia, whose nine-year-old son was wearing a Bashar al-Assad t-shirt, was actually Sunni. Like many men on both sides of the Syrian political divide, he had gruesome videos on his mobile phone that he insisted on showing me, including one of a security officer having his throat slit in the southern town of Daraa. Abu Rabia insisted that demonstrators in Hula were paid, and others there were paid more to carry weapons or kill people. "Everything is with a salary," he said.
Abu Rabia and Bayumi had protected Sunni neighbours who were attacked by irate Alawite thugs and helped them get home safely. "We are not like you," Bayumi had lectured the Sunni. Abu Rabia now walked around with a pistol tucked into his trousers - hidden under his shirt - in case local Alawites turned on him. A local doctor had been assassinated, with fellow Alawites from Bareen claiming he had been killed by the Sunni. But the opposition claimed he was an opposition activist killed by regime supporters.
The men dismissed the Sunni of Hula as being of Turkman origin, blaming this for their opposition to the regime. During the days of the Brotherhood, 30 years earlier, they claimed that there had also been clashes between Sunni and Alawite villages. They claimed that a common slogan from demonstrations and graffiti in Hula and Akrab was: "The Alawite to the sword, his wife for pleasure and his child for the guest’s pleasure." I had seen no evidence of this slogan - but it was widely talked about among those I met.
On my first visit to the village of Bareen, I was taken by Abu Ahmad, an Alawite taxi driver from Homs. He had borrowed a friend’s car after his taxi was damaged by stone-throwing protesters at a roadblock in the pro-opposition Khaldiyeh neighbourhood. They had called for a strike, which he was evidently breaking. "If the regime falls, you can work," he told me they said. "If it doesn’t fall, you can't work." The road to Bareen passed through Hula, itself comprising three villages: Tel Daw, Kafar Lahab and Tel Dahab. "There are armed groups in Hula," Alawites in Homs had warned me. "Day and night on motorcycles."
Hula is "a little hot", the driver said, and he wanted to circumvent it. A trucker we stopped for directions told us which Alawite villages to go through. "Don’t be scared," he added. "Those villages are safe, there’s nothing there." Yet a man we stopped in one village was very suspicious of us - demanding our IDs, asking where we were going and why. We passed many young men on motorcycles wearing t-shirts bearing pictures of Bashar al-Assad. In the village of Uj, adjacent to Hula, many shops were closed. "They are scared," said Abu Ahmad. "In Hula, they chop you up piece by piece." Two days previously, a bus carrying security forces from Masyaf to Homs was hit by a roadside bomb in Akrab, a Sunni village near Hula. I could still see the blast marks on the rocks by the road. Locals told me that, one month before my visit, a sergeant in the security service was killed by a sniper in the same place. Alawites complained that Sunni groups from Hula had set up checkpoints blockading their villages. Alawites had also set up checkpoints in front of their villages, however, blocking the roads and standing with shotguns and rifles.
"Down with Bashar the pig"
- Graffiti on a wall in Hula, Syria
Although my Alawite driver was scared to death of even passing through Hula, Abu Rabia persuaded him that he could take us there safely. We drove past new homes being constructed. "People are taking advantage of the chaos to build without government permission," he told me. Abu Rabia took us to meet his business associates in Tel Dahab. They insisted they wanted to protect the state, but that they had demanded the removal of the previous governor. Another man from Kifr Lahab said: "We want the state to stay peaceful and we are against sectarianism."
Most of the shops in Hula's villages were closed. The Baath party headquarters, along with other government buildings, were burned and broken. Graffiti on the walls called for the downfall of the regime and the removal of Bashar al-Assad. "Down with Bashar the pig," somebody had written on a wall, next to "God, freedom and Syria" - a rejoinder to the pro-regime "God, Syria and Bashar" scrawled in other towns. The police station was burned and its windows broken. An arch in its entrance, featuring pictures of the ruling Assads had been vandalised and the portraits removed. Even on schools, all symbols of the Baath regime had been removed. It reminded me of my time in Iraq. The towns were dirtier and more neglected than the neighbouring Alawite villages.
Off of the main road, every 20 metres or so, were large piles of hand-size stones, placed in advance of demonstrations - should they be needed for a confrontation with state security forces. Despite Alawites warning me that the towns were full of bearded Sunni extremists who would chop me up, I saw no sign of any armed men or militia. On the way home to Homs that night, however, outside Marimeen, Kafr Kamra and other villages, I did see many Alawite men standing in the dark beside their motorcycles, carrying rifles and shotguns.
The concluding chapter of Nir Rosen's A Tale of Two Villages, wherein our special correspondent visits the opposition stronghold of Hula, will be published by Al Jazeera later this week.
Follow Nir on Twitter: @nirrosen