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Syria's peaceful pockets - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Saleh Khaliم and his family, the last Alawites in Darkush (AAA)

Saleh Khali and his family, the last Alawites in Darkush. (Asharq Al-Awsat photo)

Latakia, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tucked between the bucolic green hills of Latakia province, the neat rows of white tents are almost invisible from the single-track, tree-lined road. This settlement looks and feels so different to the messy sprawls of Atmeh and Zaatari, the media’s emblems of Syria’s humanitarian tragedy. But it is a refugee camp nonetheless, and one which points to the spiraling sectarian dynamic of Syria’s civil war.

In a tent at the mouth of the settlement, a young man called Adam drinks tea and explains how the camp came to be here. “My mother heard that there were some people sleeping underneath the trees here,” he says, “so she came to see what was happening. They told her that they had come from Idlib to escape the shelling.”

Adam’s mother arranged for tents and food to be brought for the refugees, and day after day more people came from Idlib. But two months ago, refugees began arriving at the camp from Latakia city too. “It was a shock,” says Adam. “And it is a sign of how this revolution has become sectarian.”

The people living in this camp—almost a thousand, with more arriving each day—are now almost exclusively Sunni Muslims from Latakia. They have not been pushed out from their homes by shelling or clashes in the streets like the residents of Aleppo or Deir Ezzor. The city remains under the control of government troops, and is so far peaceful and unscathed by the war. What has driven these people to leave their homes is a fear of reprisal, and what may happen in the near future. “Most of the people here have seen family members arrested by the regime,” Adam says. “They are too scared to stay in Latakia any more, and they fear that more massacres of Sunnis in Alawite areas—like what happened in Banyas—may be coming.”

Two hours away in a village near Darkoush, Saleh Khalil sits in the dappled sunlight of his garden and describes how he is witnessing the same process in reverse. “There used to be a lot of Alawite families in this area,” he says. “But now we are the only one left.”

He is unsure where his old neighbors have gone. Their phones do not work anymore, but he thinks they have gone to Latakia city, filling the empty spaces that the Sunnis of the city have left behind. Like the refugees in the mountains, they are scared of the future, and of what the implications of the massacre in Banyas may be. But the fear for these Alawites is of revenge attacks by their Sunni neighbors and former friends, and of the growing whirlpool of hatred that each new atrocity adds impetus to.

“I will not leave my home,” Saleh says. “If I die, I will die here on my land.” But there are people here who would prefer him to leave. Two weeks ago, Saleh—sixty-three years old, with poor eyesight and bent over double with age—was arrested by Islamist rebel fighters. They detained him and the other men in his family and accused them of working as regime Shabiha. “Some Alawites in this area did work for the regime,” he says. “But we support the revolution. They will find no evidence against us.”

Having been arrested by one rebel brigade, Saleh and his family are now under the protection of another. “We didn’t know these fighters before,” he says as he gestures towards the armed men sitting around him. “But when they heard what had happened, they started visiting us every day to make sure that we’re okay.” Saleh and his family don’t leave their house any more; they rely on the rebels and their Sunni neighbors to bring them food from the town.

In the nearby village of Qunaya, Erkhan Khalil and his family are also in a minority of one. “We moved here when the fighting started,” he says. “This is a Christian village, and we’re the only Sunni family here. But our neighbors here are our friends, and we feel safe. It’s impossible to cause problems between the Christians and Sunnis in this area.”

Erkhan and his family lived in Jisr Al-Shughur, a multicultural city just a few kilometers away from his present home. But the city is still under the control of the government, and for two years he has not been able to go back to his house. “We had to leave when we heard that we were wanted by the security forces,” he says. “I used to have a quarry in the mountains, but I have not been able to go to work there since we left.”

Erkhan’s wife Faryda cries as she describes what happened at their home before the family decided to leave. “Members of the Shabiha came and took everything,” she says. “They even took the children’s dolls. And we know who they were: they were our friend’s cousins.”

Yet Erkhan and Faryda are determined that they will not be drawn into a cycle of revenge. “There will be problems between Sunnis and Alawites,” says Erkhan. “There will be revenge attacks for the things that the Alawites are doing. But we have Alawite friends and they still call and ask about our situation.”

The family are determined that they will resist the ideology of the Islamist brigades that have gained such power in Aleppo and Al-Raqqa. Faryda does not wear hijab, although she is a devout Muslim. “I believe that religion comes from the heart,” she says. “And I will not listen to anyone who tries to force me to wear it.” The extremists have so far found little support in these tolerant, multicultural villages.

In nearby Al-Yahoubya, Christian elder Riyad Mysterikka and his Sunni friend pass a set of prayer beads between them as they speak about what is happening in their village. “There were one and a half thousand people in Al-Yahoubya, and now there are two hundred and fifty,” Riyad says. “The regime put ideas in our heads, that the rebels will kill us because we are not Sunni. So when the regime army left, a lot of Christians left with them.” But Riyad and his family stayed, and he insists that nothing will make them leave. “I stay because I know the reality of what’s going on,” he says. “The regime didn’t make things fair for people.”

Syria’s Christians have largely stayed out of the fighting. “We will not join the brigades,” Riyad says, “because weapons are not part of our ideology.” But they have been drawn into the conflict regardless. Many churches in this area have been shelled, while the oldest Armenian church in Syria, the Holy Ana, was used for months as a base by the regime’s troops. “The priest there invited them in,” Riyad says. “They turned it from a holy place into a military position.”

Such desecration, he says, is proof that the regime is failing to protect the country’s minorities. “It is a big lie that Assad protected us,” he says. “The only thing that can protect us is the friendships between our communities.” To illustrate his point, he speaks about his grandfather, who in 1918 went to the Sunni village of Al-Malend to defend the Muslims there against a wave of looting and robbing. “We have lived together for centuries in Syria, Muslims, Christians and Alawites, and we will continue to do so.”

In Qunaya, Erkhan and Faryda say that they will return to their home in multicultural Jisr Al-Shughur as soon as the regime are pushed out of the city. “I will be the first to go back,” says Faryda, “and everything will get back to normal so quickly.” And in his garden in Darkoush, Saleh too rejects the idea that this is becoming a sectarian war. “The shells don’t discriminate,” he says. “This is a war against everyone, not just one group. They can’t make us fight amongst each other like this.”

As if to illustrate his point he points to his granddaughter, a little girl with curly hair and wide dark eyes. “She was born on the day that the rebels liberated Darkoush,” he says. “So we called her Salaam. It means peace.”

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist who has worked on a number of high-profile investigations for Channel 4 and the BBC. Her recent work has seen her gain access to inner city gangs, sex workers and the British far right. She has traveled to Kosovo, Syria and Brazil to report on human rights issues. She lives in London.

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