Latakia province, Syria – The war has moved closer to Abu Ahmed’s orange grove: Tending his fields, the 65-year-old farmer regularly hears sounds of shelling as the Syrian army fights opposition groups in nearby villages.
At a checkpoint near his old almond tree, government soldiers vigilantly search cars driving on the winding mountain road, fearful of rebel intrusion. If and when the opposition fighters come, Abu Ahmed swears he won’t flee his home.
“We have to stay and defend our farms, even if we have nothing to defend it with,” he said, pointing to bullet holes on the walls of his house. “I am ready to get a gun from the government and fight the armed groups.”
Checkpoints have sprung up every few kilometres on the roads cutting through the green mountain villages of Latakia, the ancestral home of Syria’s ruling Assad clan and the heartland of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, to which they belong. Most are decorated with Syrian flags, posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and slogans of imminent victory. One proclaims: “We are the soldiers of Assad. Even death fears us.”
This was once a peaceful corner of Syria, shielded from the conflict which has left other parts of the country in ruins and killed more than 160,000 people. But these days, unrest is back.
In late March, rebel groups launched an offensive, taking control of a number of villages. For the first time in the uprising against Assad’s rule, which started with peaceful demonstrations that were brutally cracked down on, opposition fighters captured a piece of the Mediterranean coast.
Rebel groups made a similar push into Latakia last August, but were quickly expelled from many villages in a counter-offensive. But Abu Ahmed fled his home thrice last year, leaving his fields and livestock behind in the morning, before returning at night to find bullet holes on his house and his cow shed damaged by a rocket.
“I was working in the fields when they came,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he believed they were foreign fighters, not Syrian nationals, judging by their clothes and appearance. “They shot at us through the trees.”
One early morning in August, at the start of the previous offensive, Abu Ahmed saw people running through his fields, some barefoot and dressed only in night shirts, fleeing a massacre in a nearby village. Fearing what may come, he joined them.
Welcomed in many other parts of the country, opposition fighters are generally feared in Latakia. News of the government dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo, or tightening the siege on Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus and other opposition-held neighbourhoods, does not reach the area, or is not believed. Many see rebels as troublemakers or foreign “terrorists” – the government’s oft-repeated labels for the opposition.
“Here in Latakia, no one welcomes them. They come by force,” said Maytham Ahmed, media director in Latakia’s office of the Syrian Ministry of Information.
Zarouhi Mangikian, 52, is one of approximately 3,000 people who recently fled Syria’s predominantly Armenian-Christian town of Kassab, near the Turkish border.
When rebels attacked in the early morning of March 21, most of the town’s residents left immediately. But Mangikian’s 90-year-old mother stayed behind, refusing to leave her home with memories of previous Armenian displacements fresh in her mind. When Mangikian called home after reaching safety in the city of Latakia, 60km south, a man answered the phone.
“He said they had kidnapped my mother. If we handed over three young men from Kassab, she would be released. I was scared and hung up,” Mangikian said. When she called again, no one answered. She says she no longer knows where her mother is.
Around 150 of Kassab’s residents have taken shelter in the Armenian Church in Latakia. Mattresses are rolled out on the floor. A stern-looking Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president and Bashar’s father, looks down from one wall, while a serious photo of Bashar hangs from another.
“We were used to hearing the sounds of gun-fire and rockets, but it was from a distance. Now it was very close. I was asleep and the sound woke me up. First I couldn’t believe what happened, because I didn’t expect it,” 20-year old Rafi Kilaghbian said. “We will stay here until we can go back to Kassab. Our only hope now is with our army.”
Shortly after rebels captured Kassab, government loyalists spread rumours of a massacre against the town’s Christian residents. Brutal images of alleged atrocities circulated in social media with the hashtag #SaveKessab. But the rumours of a large-scale massacre were unfounded and many of the photos were falsified.
Renewed violence in Latakia has triggered memories of deadly violence that broke out in the area in August 2013.
There was no warning. We heard the sound of gun-fire and we understood that we were attacked. We left at once, and fled through the forest.
At least 190 civilians were killed, including 57 women, at least 18 children and 14 elderly, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation. Some were executed with their hands and feet tied and others decapitated. More than 200 people, mainly women and children, were kidnapped and were still missing by the time HRW published its report a few months later.
That morning, Abu Haider, a 65-year-old farmer from Aramo village, ran for his life. “There was no warning. We heard the sound of gunfire and we understood that we were attacked. We left at once, and fled through the forest,” he recalled.
His wife and seven of his children made it to safety in a neighbouring village, but his 15-year-old son Haider was shot and killed while he fled. His body was left on the ground for five days, as Abu Haider deemed it too unsafe to collect it.
When government soldiers pushed the rebels out, Abu Haider returned home and found his house burnt and plundered. “They stole everything. They even took my wife’s clothes,” he said.
The Free Syrian Army and the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces condemned the killings, which HRW mainly blamed on extremist groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and the mainly non-Syrian Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said last month that atrocities by the Syrian government “far outweigh” crimes by opposition fighters and that the government is “mostly responsible” for the human rights offences in the war, which is now in its fourth year. “You cannot compare the two,” Pillay said.
But for many in Latakia, last year’s massacre fuels fears of what may happen when rebels advance again. It also rallies people squarely behind Assad. “I don’t know when this will end, but we are certain that God will bring victory to our President Bashar al-Assad,” said Alawite Azidin Menaa, 75, sitting in the shade of a road-side restaurant on the outskirts of Latakia.
Near Abu Ahmed’s old almond tree, soldiers from Assad’s ancestral home village of Qerdaha man a checkpoint. One of them is Abu Jaber – who insists on being quoted anonymously because he is not authorised to speak to the media. He says he pushed rebels out of nearby villages last year and is prepared to do the same this year.
“Last year we found people buried in the sand. It was impossible to say how many they were, because some of them were just body parts,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the massacre on August 4 last year.
He says he is certain it won’t happen again. “We are not afraid,” he said. “We are stronger now.”