Homs, quando l’amore non basta

Il maggiore Emhammed (The Daily Telegraph, dicembre 2011)Era un “matrimonio felice”, arricchito dalla presenza di due figli, quello tra un maggiore sunnita (foto a sinistra) dell’esercito siriano e una donna alawita di Homs. Abitavano in uno dei due quartieri alawiti della terza città siriana, a maggioranza sunnita e da mesi epicentro della rivolta e della repressione.

Col montare delle violenze da parte delle forze di sicurezza e con l’aumento di casi di soldati uccisi perché non eseguivano l’ordine di sparare sui civili, il maggiore – come racconta lui stesso al The Daily Telegraph britannico – ha deciso di disertare e di fuggire da Homs. La moglie, fedele lealista, non ha creduto al marito ma ha preferito continuare seguire le notizie della tv di Stato siriana.

Una separazione drammatica ma inevitabile. Paradigmatica di una spaccatura di un intero Paese? Qui di seguito l’intervista completa del maggiore disertore condotta nella regione libanese dell’Akkar, al confine con la regione siriana di Homs. Al di là della sua vicenda personale, l’ex soldato dell’esercito regolare racconta episodi atroci della repressione.

As Major Haitham Emhammed prepared to return to Syria from his hiding place in Lebanon and fight for the overthrow of President Bashar al Assad’s regime, his wife called him repeatedly on his mobile phone.

Mrs Emhammed, who is still inside Syria, wasn’t calling to urge him to fight for freedom, or even to beg him to be careful. His wife, a member of the Alawite ethnic group that make up Mr Assad’s hard-core of support, was calling her Sunni Muslim husband to lambast the rebel movement he has joined, and bemoan the fact that he had left his family.

“She calls me every two hours to tell me how awful it is that the protesters – the ‘terrorists’, are killing the Alawite soldiers,” said Major Emhammed.

An army defector aged 42, he has been married to a wife of the minority Alawite sect for 15 years. He fell in love with her instantly when he saw her on a bus, and wooed her at some risk to his safety – they had to marry in secret after members of her family were outraged when she fell for a Sunni.

But true love conquered all, they had two children – a son, now 14, and a daughter, now 11.

For years they lived happily in an Alawite neighbourhood of Homs. Then in March, as the Arab Spring swept across the region, the Syrian uprising began in their own town, which has since suffered more than any other in the country.

As it took hold, their religious differences started to matter, and then began to tear their marriage apart.

Now he fears that he may never see his family again, at least not as a loving husband and father.

“My wife, she loves the army and she loves Bashar al Assad. She watches the state television and becomes saddened by the soldiers and state security men being killed every day,” he said, at a small house in Akkar, near the Syrian border, one of a string of small towns that have become a refuge and gathering point for men like himself.

His wife – whose first name Major Emhammed declined to give for her own protection – believed what state television told her, as did her family and community. The major, although a privileged man because of his marriage and an officer in the army, saw a different reality each day in the streets.

“Every time I returned home I explained what was happening at the checkpoints. I said it was a sin that the Shabeha [regime thugs] killed protesters. But she doesn’t understand what the Shabeha are. She wouldn’t agree with me, she would become confused and say she is just against killing.”

As the violent crackdown escalated, the major was faced with a brutal choice; follow orders to fire on civilians, or be killed. So he escaped, defecting to join the Free Syrian Army, an armed insurgency seeking to wage war on the regime. But his wife, still convinced that the rebels were terrorists, would not follow him.

“I tried to bring my wife and two children with me to Lebanon. I said to my wife; ‘I am so sorry, I can’t live like this. Please come with me. But she would not come. ‘We are safer here,’ she told me. “

What began nine months ago as peaceful mass protests against President Bashar al Assad’s regime, has now in Homs become a bloody battle of sectarian attacks and reprisals.

“If this continues, in two months time the whole country will be in a sectarian war,” he said.

Homs in recent weeks has been rife with stories of sectarian killings, with people from both sects kidnapped and killed in incidents frighteningly reminiscent of the darkest days in neighbouring Iraq, their corpses dumped on the doorsteps of their neighbours in their district. Activists blame such violence on the regime.

“Regime Shabeha are trying to incite sectarian hatred,” said Abo Rami, an activist speaking to The Sunday Telegraph from Homs after one such incident. “They kill Sunnis and blame it on the Alawites. Then they stage reprisals.”

Major Emhammed, who fled across the border a week ago by a dangerous route through minefields, evading security forces, described a grim and terrifying city already in the throes of sectarian civil war.

“In my neighbourhood people think I am Alawite because of my marriage to my wife. As I collected food for the soldiers in a nearby restaurant, the restaurant owner asked me where my military checkpoint was stationed that day. I named a Sunni district. ‘Good. For God’s sake rape their women and kill them all,’ he replied,” he said.

Travelling between Sunni and Alawite districts in Homs has become nearly impossible. “Alawite families living in Sunni neighbourhoods have fled because they fear for their lives. Now if you want to go from one district to the next you will have to ask 100 taxi drivers. Alawite drivers won’t go into Sunni neighbourhoods and the other way around.”

He quickly became sickened by the regime violence. “I watched two people I knew aim their guns at protesters in the crowd and kill them,” said Emhammed.

“This order was given by an Alawite officer. Each officer has two Shabeha with him to watch the soldiers and report back to the officer. If someone didn’t want to follow the orders, they would wait until they left to go inside the city and they would shoot him from behind,” he added.

He described the horrific incident that convinced him the time had come to leave. “There was a woman crossing the road coming towards the checkpoint, wearing a hijab. They didn’t ask her where she was going, they just shot her.”

Most Alawite women do not wear the conservative full head covering, so the soldiers may have assumed she was either Sunni or Shia – either way, a possible protester.

As if that were not enough, Shabeha on the checkpoint then pounded the dead woman’s neck with his gun until they separated the head, which they put into a plastic bag, he said.

“There were protests going on and she had already crossed two checkpoints. But all she had been doing was shopping with her son. Later an officer asked what happened, the Shabeha said there was a car coming toward them, and they had shot at suspected terrorists. But I saw that it was just a woman on foot, wearing the hijab.”

Now his hope is that large-scale defections will bring down the regime. Every day more ex-soldiers risk the journey across the border into Lebanon to join the Free Syrian Army, and he is convinced that 80 per cent of the 3,000 division of the military he was in want to defect, but aren’t yet able to do so.

On Friday more than forty more protesters were killed in new violence in Syria – with some of the worst violence, as so often, in Homs. One resident reported that “the earth was shaking” with explosions and gunfire erupting early in the morning.

“Armoured personnel carriers drove through the streets and opened fire randomly with heavy machine guns,” he said.

Two boys, ages 10 and 12, were hit by stray bullets near government checkpoints in Homs, according to activists. At least two other young teenagers were killed elsewhere, the activists said. The UN estimates that at least 4,000 people have died in the attempt by the Assad regime to suppress the protests.

Activists in the besieged city of Homs, communicating by the internet, said they had been warned of a new army offensive on Monday unless they stayed in their homes.

“We’ve been told we have 48 hours to stop protesting, but they are not going to stop us and we are not going to listen,” said an activist called Walid.

As Major Emhammed spoke, in a darkened room thick with cigarette smoke, three new recruits arrived, still breathless but elated that they had escaped from Syria – but all of them armed and willing to go back in an opposition army.

Major Emhammed is determined to continue the struggle, get hold of weapons, and fight – even though he knows that continuing down this path could mean civil war for the whole country.

And that in turn may mean losing his family for ever. “I feel that I have lost them, and I fear for them, and for this I cry every day,” he said.