A tale of two Syrian villages: Part two

Communities are divided, with Alawite and Sunni villages each blaming the other for rising sectarianism.

defections in syrian army
Former president Hafez al-Assad recruited mostly Alawites to senior positions, complain Sunni police officers [EPA]

This is the concluding chapter of a two part essay by Al Jazeera’s special correspondent Nir Rosen. Catch up with the first part here: A tale of two villages.

Locals in Masyaf claimed hundreds of Alawite families had been expelled from Sunni villages. In Bareen, I visited Miyada Idris in the house she was renting with her husband Juma Jbeili, five children and sister-in-law. The family had fled their home in Akrab’s Alawite enclave of Jbeili, a community of about 200 families. Their new home, an unpainted concrete block, had no furniture – save for some thin mattresses on the floor. There was no glass in the windows and no running water. The family left Akrab after feeling intimidated by what Miyada dubbed “sectarian slogans”.

“At first it was every Friday, then every day,” she said. “They burned state buildings and attacked some shops and they called for jihad. My husband’s name was written as a collaborator with the state because he called security to protect us. There were papers on the streets and walls with his name and others’ names written and it said they were collaborators – and [that] after the fall of the regime ‘their blood will be spilled’.”

They said they could not return to their life and farm home in Akrab. “We’re afraid they’ll kill us,” said Miyada. “We will transfer our children to school here.” Locals had cursed and threatened them, while the local bakery set aside bread rations for the revolutionaries, she said.

I also visited the family of Naji Jbeili. They too were Alawites from Akrab, who had fled after being threatened at gunpoint by Sunni men. They too had owned their home in Akrab. Now they rented a small unfurnished house for about $100 a month.

“Their hatred appeared,” said one of the men in the family. “It’s finished, we can never go back,” said another. They worried that armed men would prevent them from returning to reclaim their belongings. “We are waiting for the army to remove the armed men,” one told me. Mosques and town leaders were against the regime, said the family, blaming the people of Hula for coming to their village and stirring up problems.

The other side of the coin

I returned to Hula with two opposition activists, named Khaled and Odai, from Homs. They were both in the opposition coordinating committees. They had been jailed in the past and were now wanted by Syrian security. After receiving word that police might have closed the road to Hula, the pair asked a friend – whose brother was in jail for “opposition activities” – to drive one kilometre ahead of us to give warning of any security checkpoints.

“The security apparatus is like the old British empire … divide and conquer.”

– Khaled, opposition activist from Homs

They blamed the government for the sectarianism. “The security apparatus is like the old British empire,” said Khaled. “Divide and conquer.” They denied that sectarian slogans were chanted in demonstrations. “Alawites say we will throw them into the sea but nobody in the opposition ever said ‘Alawites to the coffin and Christians to Beirut’,” he said. Khaled, however, admitted that the opposition was almost entirely Sunni. “One out of 10,000 Alawites are in the opposition,” he said. “Maybe 200 in total, and they are all known by name.”

Khaled’s neighbour in Homs was a poor Alawite labourer, who earned about $12 a day. “But he is afraid of talking, and afraid of both sides,” Khaled said. “He says Alawites in the opposition are punished more than others.”

Like my Alawite driver had done previously, they planned their route based on the sects of the villages on the way. They wanted to avoid the Shia village of al Ghur. “We don’t want to go there,” said Khaled. “They won’t kill us for political reasons, they will kill us for religious reasons – so they will go to paradise.” Instead, they passed Sam’aleel, a Circasian Sunni village, and drove on through Burj, a Turkman Sunni village. Leaving Burj to enter Tel Daw and Hula, our path was partially blocked by large rocks, placed there by opposition activists, while the road itself was marked by the tracks of Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles. “These are smuggling roads,” Khaled explained to me, as we entered Hula. Once in Hula, my two companions relaxed. All the government spies had fled or been killed, they told me. “Here they are very harsh with spies,” Khaled said.

‘A people’s movement’

We drove through narrow, unpaved alleys and stopped in front of a house with motorcycles parked outside it. I was taken into a guest room full of bookshelves with religious books, where four men sat on mats. One was a policeman with a large beard; another was a thin, older, bespectacled school teacher and a third was a tall, young medical student. I asked why they were opposed to the regime. “It is corrupt, oppressive, and makes sectarian divisions,” said the school teacher. “We [have been] against this regime for a long time.” He cited many arrests made during the Muslim Brotherhood uprising between 1976 and 1982.

“What’s happening here in Syria and Hula is popular,” said the teacher. “It’s a people’s movement. There is no leader. We are against oppression, insults and [a] lack of dignity.” Like many opposition supporters, they felt a strong sense of injustice. “I don’t feel Syrian,” the teacher said. “Syria is for the Assad family … A security man without [even] an elementary school degree can insult me in front of my family,” he added.

“It’s a people’s movement. There is no leader. We are against oppression, insults and [a] lack of dignity.”

– School teacher in Hula

The men complained about the roads, electricity and phone lines in their villages. “If this was an Alawite village, we would get better services,” the teacher said. “Alawites get water and electricity for free.”

“As someone from Hula, I cannot reach a rank over colonel,” said the police officer, “Every year, only five or six people from here get to be officers. Most officers are taken from [among] Alawites. Hafez al-Assad started this. There are also [people being] discharged from the army for no reason. Some Sunni [Assad supporters] hurt us more than they [Alawites] do to prove that they are loyal to the regime.”

Distrust of the other

“There were no problems with Alawites before,” said the teacher. “But there was always this feeling inside you that this man is looking down on you, even if you try to distance it from yourself, that he has perks and full rights and you don’t. We are tenth-level citizens and they are above.”

“Alawites get preferential treatment in university,” said the medical student, insisting that Alawites received the answers to high school examinations.

“[Alawites] believe that if the regime leaves, they will die.”

– Khaled, opposition activist from Homs

They conceded that most Alawites supported the regime. “They think if the regime goes, they will go,” the teacher said. Khaled added: “They believe that if the regime leaves, they will die.”

They were upset about the ban of the niqab, or full veil, on women in public schools – while the medical student complained that the books of the medieval Islamic scholar and Salafi source, Ibn Taimiya, were banned.

“We feel as though we are living under occupation,” the teacher said. Security officers had been placed on the rooftops of schools, frightening teachers and students. They said that, once, when townspeople had tried to broadcast a speech by the incendiary exiled Sheikh Adnan al-Arur in the main square, security officials shut off their electricity.

“It’s our right to revolt,” one of the men said. But the teacher admitted that they could not fight the state with arms.

Two days before I met them, the army raided the town, wounding three men, shooting at livestock and at houses, they told me. They said a soldier from Hula, named Radeeb Hamadi, had been recently stopped by security at a checkpoint in Kiswa. After the security officers saw he was from Hula, they stabbed him to death, the men alleged.

Protests begin

The first demonstration in Hula took place on March 25. Four days later, the medical student was arrested for demonstrating in Homs. He said he was hung from his arms and beaten, as well as given electric shocks; they called him “gay” and stepped on his face. There was sewage water on the floor of his cell.

Wael Qaseem, Hula’s first opposition “martyr” was killed on April 8 while protesting. They claimed Wael’s killer was a security officer from Tareen named Wissam al-Waeri. “On the day of Wael’s funeral, people said: ‘We won’t be quiet about it’ – and protested,” said the teacher. “Then the shabiha [“thugs”] came with the army and shot at people, killing one man and injuring 10 others, while seven were arrested.”

“April 22 was the massacre … The youngest martyrs was 15 – I washed his body myself”

– Opposition activist in Hula

“April 22 was the massacre,” they said. Thousands of protesters from different areas gathered together. “It was peaceful,” said the teacher. “We said ‘freedom’ only, not ‘the downfall of the regime’.” The police did not oppose the demonstration, they said, and they withdrew to allow for security officers with Alawite accents to open fire on the protesters. Locals responded with rocks – and some gunfire. Eventually, the security forces ran out of ammunition, my companion told me. Reinforcements evacuated the security officers, relocating them to the water department office outside the town, as protesters burned down their headquarters. Following those clashes, protesters began calling for the downfall of the regime. Six protesters were killed that day. “The youngest martyr was 15,” one of the men told me. “I washed his body myself.” Dozens of others were wounded.

Torture allegations and desertion

Abu Suleiman, the bearded policeman, was serving in Homs on April 22, during the first large demonstration there. He told me he called his family in Hula that day and heard shooting in the background. He shouted in rage and Alawite policemen reported him, he said. Political security officers then raided the police station, pointed their guns at him and beat him. He was taken to have his head stitched at the military hospital, which was full of armed civilians, he said. In Military Security detention, he was tortured with burning metal. He showed me the scars all over his body. He said he was beaten with clubs and chairs. His back was injured from being beaten with a rifle. They threatened his mother and daughters. Abu Suleiman told me he was tortured for 27 days and he spent a total of 45 days in different prisons. He was accused of spreading sectarianism, insulting the state and inciting demonstrations. He was allowed to return to his job but he deserted, he told me.

The medical student was also jailed, accused of spreading chaos, fighting security, destruction, sectarianism – as well as “harming national unity and the state”. His alleged torturers called him a traitor and a collaborator with Israel and said he called Christians “infidels”.

The fourth man with us had also deserted his Hama police force service and was staying in Hula.

I climbed on the teacher’s motorcycle as he gave me a tour of the neighbouring villages – with Abu Suleiman leading us on his motorcycle to keep an eye out for trouble. As we rode through towns, little boys waved to us and gave us the “V for victory” sign with fingers. Most houses we drove past had large bullet holes in their windows or in the walls near the windows. Many streets were blocked off with large stones and mounds of gravel or logs. Young men had set up checkpoints to protect the town, they told me. On one large concrete barrier, protesters spray-painted a sign pointing south to the Golan, mocking security forces for fighting Syrians rather than liberating land occupied by Israel. The few paved roads were scarred by burnt tyres, while the fields around us were dry. Abu Suleiman pointed to his house, a simple building made of plain breezeblocks. As we headed to the outskirts of town, a truck coming towards us honked its horn. He warned us that a new military security checkpoint had just been put up and we should turn around.

We continued driving, passing a bulldozer riddled with bullets, probably formerly tasked with preventing opposition activists from constructing roadblocks. The cemetery was a simple plot of land with breezeblocks both marking the graves and acting as tombstones. We rode on, past the “Mosque of the Martyrs”, until recently named the “Mosque of the Martyr Basil al-Assad”, after the brother of the president who died in a car crash. They renamed the roundabout next to it “Freedom Roundabout”.

Before we parted, I asked them how they thought they could succeed. “By continuing,” the teacher said. “We will continue, under the slogan: ‘Death but no humiliation’.”

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @nirrosen

Source: Al Jazeera