An edited version of this piece was published by the National.
Our car turns through the crowded alleyways of single-storey breezeblock houses, foggy with coal smoke in the icy December morning. This is the poorest quarter of Reyhanli, a Turkish town just across the Syrian border, and it’s crammed with Syrian refugees.
The woman whose story I’ve come to hear puts on a niqab when the camera comes out. And she prefers to be nameless, because she fears for her two married daughters still living in regime-controlled territory.
She lives in an empty, unheated house. Her son sits with us, and her small daughter shivers under a blanket. The woman is in early middle age but looks older. Her face is long, worn, and haggard, her voice pain-strained and sharp.
Her husband, born in 1972, worked with the military security for seventeen years but retired early when he needed an operation on a vertebral disc. After that he opened a roast chicken place in his Homs neighbourhood, Bayada. The family lived what his wife describes as a working-class life “of an acceptable standard”. They had six children. Bayada comprised both Sunni and Alawi families, “and the relationship between us was very good, even if the state favoured Alawis. We drank maté together. There was no problem.”
The revolution broke out less than a year after her husband’s retirement, and the newly-pressured military security began asking him to return to work. He refused. “How could he work for them? At that time Bab Dreib was being shelled. In our area there were house searches and random arrests of young men. They even took women, those who attended demonstrations and those who shouted ‘God is Greater!’ from their windows at night.”
Her husband supported the revolution and was part of a local network which helped the revolutionaries, finding shelter for those on the run and collecting food, medical supplies and money. His wife believes an Alawi neighbour informed on him. On the other hand, it was an Alawi friend who warned him that his name was on the wanted list at regime checkpoints.
After that he stayed in his own neighbourhood. But one night at around nine the security arrived in five or six cars, and announced their arrival by drenching the street in tear gas. They broke down the family’s front door and directed a stream of insults at their ex-colleague, the kindest of which was ‘dog’. “Dog, why didn’t you return to work when you were told?” They beat him savagely in front of his children, then dragged him away.
Some days later they delivered his corpse. There was a bullet in the head, a bullet in the thigh, three bullets in the chest. Chunks of flesh had been carved out of the body, which was also covered with burns. It seems the latter injuries were inflicted while he was still alive.
When the bombardment of Bayada became too intense, his widow left for Wa’er, another suburb of Homs. But there too the family was tormented “by artillery, mortars, missiles” and home invasions by “the female shabeeha”. When I asked her what this meant, she clarified: “They’re Alawi women who work for security. They come into people’s houses and take money if they find more than a little. They steal mobile phones. They kick and punch. And what have we done to deserve this. Is it because we’re Muslims? Because we say there is no god but God? Is that why we lost our youth and our homes?”
The widow referred constantly, bitterly, to “the Alawia”, and who could contradict her? The pro-Assad shabeeha militias in Damascus and Aleppo comprise thugs from all sectarian backgrounds, but in Lattakia, Hama and Homs they are almost exclusively Alawi. The regime’s decades-long persecution of Alawi dissenters and clerics has left the community bereft of leadership and therefore a hostage to the regime. In this sense (and because so many Alawi men are dying in defense of the dictatorship) the Alawis are Assad’s victims too. And of course a minority of Alawis have supported the revolution, openly or in clandestine fashion. But these are unimportant details to many of those on the receiving end of the regime’s war and ethnic cleansing machine. For many, even those who bore no sectarian grudges three years ago, their lives have been ruined by an Alawi regime backed by Shia Iran.
Its hard to rank crimes of the enormity of child torture and mass rape, but perhaps the regime’s exploitation of sectarian hatreds is its greatest crime, because it’s the one that will keep on killing years from now. It’s also its greatest strategic victory – the fact that a significant section of the opposition is now influenced by a Sunni backlash frightens Syrian minorities into loyalty and ensures that the West will never support the revolution. (US Ambassador Ryan C Crocker has already described the opposition as “something worse” than Assad).
So it felt like the death of Syria in that cold room in Reyhanli, the closing of the possibility of a cosmopolitan, democratic future. Seen through the prism of that moment, the whole sojourn at the border – where I worked in a refugee school, visited an orphanage, and spoke to the bombed, beaten and tortured – felt like attending a funeral. (I also met Syrian journalists, activists and organisers who gave me a great deal of hope – but that’s another story.)
Two months before I met the family, a missile hit their temporary home in Wa’er. The widow (whose arm is still in plaster) bribed a soldier so she wouldn’t be stopped at checkpoints, and travelled with three of her children to Turkey. In her refuge, she showed me her teenage son’s arm and shoulder, tattooed with one extended burn scar.
The widow’s eight-year-old daughter shivered out of shot, hearing the tale recounted for the hundredth time. There’s nothing special about this experience, and she knows it. Everyone has a story.