Sectarian Tension Builds in Northern Syria
A damaged wall at Bayanoun's school from government shelling.
Standing outside the secondary school of Bayanoun, a town in northwest Syria on a sunny Monday morning, headmaster Mahmud Bayanuni ushers a couple of latecomers into the school building. Other pupils can be seen preparing for the day’s lessons from the street through a large hole in the side of the school building—the result of government shelling that ripped through the concrete structure in January.
“Last year I used to drive to Nubl every day to collect four teachers and then return them to their homes in the evening,” says Bayanuni. “Now it is impossible. It is too dangerous, and the teachers are too scared.” The cities of Nubl and al-Zahraa are less than three miles from Bayanoun. Both are majority Shia and are bastions of pro-Assad supporters in an area otherwise controlled by the opposition Free Syrian Army, who took control of most of the Aleppo province in July 2012. Government helicopters visit the isolated towns three times a day, bringing in troops and food supplies. Rumors are rife in Bayanoun, a majority Sunni town, that Hezbollah operatives, aligned with the Assad regime, have also been flown in to train local civilian militias called shabiha. Those claims have been flatly denied. But that hasn’t quelled local tension between Sunnis and Shia. Further upsetting the already war-torn landscape, a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings is driving a wedge between once peaceable communities.
Residents of Bayanoun and Hayyan are quick to point out that under the Baath regime, Sunnis were often overlooked in favor of Alawites and Shia for appointments to government and military positions. However, they say that civilian-level sectarian tensions between the villages were absent.
The civil war has changed things. Syria is a diverse country. Sunni Muslims are 74 percent of the country’s population, Alawites and Shia are 13 percent, and Christians are ten percent, according to the US State Department. The potential for religious strife, particularly between Sunnis on the one hand and Shia and Alawite communities (to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs) loyal to the regime on the other, threatens the future plurality of the country and muddles the struggle to overthrow Assad’s regime. The people I talked to recalled a time when divisions existed but weren’t an overt hazard of everyday life.
“They were like our brothers,” says Abdul Rahman Ali, 62, standing outside the remains of his home in Hayyan—a victim of government shelling that claimed the lives of three others in October 2012. Ali formerly worked in military intelligence for the Baath regime in the 70s and early 80s and was dismissed from his post after expressing opposition to the Hama massacre of 1982, when government troops brutally quelled a revolt by the Sunni-dominated Muslim Brotherhood that killed at least 10,000 people.
“We worked the fields together, we traded together. There were no problems between us,” continues Ali displaying his former Baath Party ID.
Adbul Rahman Ali shows his former Baath ID, in Hayyan.
The sentiment is echoed by Abu Jood, 36, a former electrician and member of the jihadist militia Jabhat Al-Nusra.
“I studied in Nubl for four years. Now I cannot even speak to my former friends who live there,” says Jood, positioned on the periphery of the village of Mayer, less than a mile from Nubl. “The Shia swear their allegiance to the Iranian regime and correspondingly the Baath party here.”
“I don’t want to fight them, but they follow the propaganda of the Assad regime.”
Spokespeople for the government have frequently appeared in the media warning that its downfall would result in the country being overrun by Sunni extremists. Something Bashar Hajj knows too well.
Hajj, 28, a former mechanic and native of Bayanoun is married to a Shia woman from Nubl. A member of the Nasr brigade of the Free Syrian Army, Hajj fondly recollects meeting his future wife while in high school.
“I studied at a secondary school in Nubl. We were classmates,” recalls Hajj. “We were married for five years. We were happy.”
“When the war broke out, I joined the FSA. She supported my decision, but her father worked with the regime and her brother was killed fighting for the army. He tried to convince my wife that I was a terrorist.” continues Hajj.
On the January 1, Hajj’s wife went to visit her family in Nubl. She has not returned.
“For the first week, I spoke with her on the phone. I asked her to come back, but she said her family wouldn’t let her. Then her mobile line went dead. I haven’t heard from her since,” says Hajj, his hands clasped together looking skyward.
“I still love her. She is my wife. God willing, I will see her again.”
Hajj’s story is just one example. Sitting in the salon of his family home in the Qoreitem district of Hayyan, Mustapha Outroo, 19, a student in the final year of secondary school when the civil war broke out, holds a picture of his older brother Mahmud.
Mustapha Outroo holding picture of slain brother Mahmud, in Hayyan.
In October 2012, Mahmud was kidnapped and brutally murdered along with three others, when his car was intercepted by shabiha from Nubl on a return journey from Idlib where he had been purchasing ammunition for the Free Syrian Army. His mutilated body was dumped on the outskirts of the village of Mayer, approximately a kilometer from Nubl.
Sitting beside Mustapha, Mahmud Ramadan, 23, recalls his close friend.
“I knew him since primary school. He was such a likable guy. Always smiling and cracking jokes. The devil wouldn’t think to do the things they (the shabiha) did to him.”
At great personal risk, some continue to try to bridge gaps between the communities. Speaking via mobile connection from Nubl, Husayn (who wanted me to change his name to protect his identity) works in tandem with Hayyan resident Ahmad Sraj Ali, 28, a former air-force-intelligence employee who defected from the armed forces in June 2012.
“The majority of the people here want to live in peace. However, there are no work opportunities and people work with the military to make money,” says Husayn. “People fear for their lives, they believe the regime propaganda, and many have been threatened by the FSA and the local shabiha.”
Husayn himself has become accustomed to threats from the shabiha.
“They push and threaten me, send messages to my mobile phone. They graffiti messages on the wall of my house saying ‘Your end is coming.’ I just want to live in peace.”
The graffiti tagged on the wall reads "No to Sectarianism," backstreet, Bayanoun.
Back at his house, Mustapha Outroo does not pinpoint sectarianism as the cause of tension between the Sunni and Shia communities. He intimates that he does not seek to avenge the slaughter of his older brother but would rather justice be pursued through legal procedures in a court of law.
“The Shabiha who did this to my brother do not have any religion,” says Mustapha. “They do not love God. All they care for is money and violence.”
Others are not quite so sure. Standing outside her home in the Qoreitem neighborhood of Hyan, Fatima Mohammad, 75, is surrounded by a scene of abject destruction. In late December, government shelling destroyed 22 houses in the neighborhood, claiming the lives of six people, including three children. Taking in the scene around her, she shakes her head.
“Those who are neutral will be left alone. Those who stand with the regime will be killed.”
(Photos by Martin Armstrong and Giacomo Cuscuna)
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