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'He Knew That Death Was Coming': Survivors Mourn After A Massacre By Syrian Rebels

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Joshua Hersh
Joshua Hersh

OBEEN, Syria -- The rebel fighters arrived in the early hours of the night, moving swiftly and aggressively from village to village across the mountainous terrain 15 miles from the border with Turkey.

Issam Darwish, a 33-year-old farmer, was asleep in his small, ramshackle home when he heard the cries of warning from neighbors. Jumping out of bed, he roused his family, including his 90-year-old grandfather, and hastily shepherded them out onto the road, where some jumped into available pickup trucks and others ran away through the wooded valleys below.

But Darwish’s grandfather refused to leave.

“We tried so hard to make him get into the truck,” Darwish recalled recently, as he sat on a thin carpet on the floor of his drafty living room. “He said he liked his land, and if he was going to die, he wanted to die here. He knew that death was coming.”

Two weeks later, after the Syrian Army retook the villages in this remote corner of Latakia province -- a district whose residents largely belong to the same Alawite Shia sect as Syria’s president, Bashar Assad -- Darwish returned to look for his grandfather. He found his body buried in a shallow grave near the house, with a bullet-riddled photograph of Assad draped over it.

The rebel onslaught that left Darwish’s grandfather dead took place Aug. 4, 2013, and resulted in the killings of some 200 others, all of them Alawite civilians. Hundreds more are said to have been kidnapped. Last fall, Human Rights Watch investigated the claims of a massacre, visiting the charred homes and mass graves in Latakia province, and described the attacks as “war crimes.”

Six months after the attacks, when The Huffington Post was brought by government officials for a similar visit, the towns were still reeling. But more than that, the residents who had returned -- and others whom HuffPost met in a temporary shelter near Latakia city, an hour’s drive away -- said they feel a sense of grievance that the world’s outrage over civilian killings in Syria had overlooked them.

obeen post massacre
An farmer in Obeen, Syria, stands near a home that was burned when rebel fighters attacked in August 2013.

“You have to tell the world the truth!” an elderly lady in Obeen cried out when she saw foreign reporters in the area. “We were sleeping safely. We are poor, simple people -- we are innocent -- and they came in the night and took our children.”

No one who follows the news out of Syria in the past three years remains unaware of the brutality and ferociousness with which this war has been waged. When the United Nations announced in early January that it would no longer keep track of deaths from the war (because of the difficulty in verifying information), its tally stood at 100,000 -- a number many other monitoring groups consider low.

But reporting on the killing of Alawites and other pro-government civilians by rebel forces is nevertheless an uncommon experience. With so much of the conflict covered from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan -- places where the stories of victims predominantly reflect the brutality inflicted by government-affiliated forces -- a tour of Syria’s internal strongholds offers a refresher course in the suffering that has befallen citizens on all sides.

A breakdown of deaths on each side is hard to come by, although most accounts indicate that regime forces have caused the majority of civilian deaths in the war. But large numbers have been harmed on all sides; last summer, one monitoring group estimated that as many as 40,000 of those killed have been Alawites, including civilians and members of the security forces.

Even if the raw numbers of dead don’t balance out neatly, the feelings of fear, misery and anger among survivors and family members on the government side are just as deep -- as is their gratitude for the army that saved them. The emotions are all the same. The two sides could hardly be further apart.

***

The tiny hamlet of Sleibeh al-Hamboushieh is just a 10-minute drive from Obeen, along a winding road that dips into a narrow valley and then rises again toward the northeast and the border with Turkey. From the top of the hill, near the center of town, the southernmost advance of a band of rebel brigades -- including the same militants who swept through these villages in August -- can be spotted in the next valley over.

From this vantage point, the war feels very active. Every 20 minutes or so, the boom and whoosh of an outgoing projectile ricochets off stone houses and eardrums, followed several seconds later by the far-off thud of impact. This noise is interspersed with an even more unsettling sound -- the more distant boom of rebels returning fire.

“Someone is killed just about every day in this area,” the commander of the Syrian Army unit responsible for guarding this patch of the country explains, as he points in the direction of Salma, a city that once housed about 10,000 people and is now fully under rebel control. It’s just three miles away.

At the edge of town sits a small, two-story house. “Here, everyone died except for one person,” the commander says. Four members of a single family, killed in the Aug. 4 attacks. (Human Rights Watch visited a mass grave said to hold more than two dozen bodies from this village.) At a second-floor window, a man’s face appears, peering silently down on the visitors walking below.

Inside the home’s small courtyard, trash is strewn everywhere. There are filthy piles of clothes, bags of rotting food, empty boxes of medicine, the bent fragments of spent artillery. At the entrance to the house itself, a half-dozen empty water bottles with Turkish branding lie conspicuously on the ground. A Syrian government official picks up what looks to be another piece of trash and brings it to show the visitors: It’s an empty container of dates, marked “Made in Doha.”

It’s surely no accident that this house has been left in its battered state, preserved as if it were a museum of evidence intended for outside eyes. The Syrian government’s version of events over the past three years is that it has been fighting a life-or-death battle for the survival of the nation against a band of Islamic terrorists funded by foreign nations like Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. This narrative skips over the wide swath of opposition who never supported violent extremism or agreed with the imposition of Islamic law.

But in these towns, at least, the evidence seems to match the prevailing rhetoric. Across the area, similar scenes play out: entire towns emptied out, homes burned to a blackened char, their walls covered with threatening, religiously fueled graffiti.

In a few cases, where the families have returned and an effort has been made to clean up, all that remain are the faded scars of the invading occupants: “Allahu Akbar” -- "God is great" -- faintly visible in black spray paint in a living room or the outline of a plane flying into the World Trade Center on a bedroom wall.

Inside the house in Hamboushieh, someone has spray painted a threat to kill every Alawite, in bright, reflective silver. In a small shower room near the kitchen, there is an even more gruesome taunt, directed to the Syrian president: “Oh, Bashar, you will be bathed in blood.”

***

At a relief center for refugees from the massacre, near Latakia city.

A resident from Obeen: “They just wanted to kill people, to destroy everything.They came from all over the world to kill us. They came from Germany and Jordan and Pakistan. We could tell from the clothes they were wearing.”

A man from Abu Makkeh: “They kidnapped my children -- all of my children. Look at my phone. This is my daughter. They killed her.”

Another refugee: “Our army protects us. We heard these people come saying, 'Allahu Akbar' -- they are using the name of God to murder us.”

A woman from Kharata: “We ask ourselves, 'Why does the media say there are no terrorists in Syria. Why? Why won’t they admit it?'”

A 74-year-old farmer from Obeen: “If we had weapons, we would use them to fight the terrorists ourselves.”

***

In the weeks after Human Rights Watch published its report on the massacres here, the two main bodies of the Syrian opposition -- the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the Supreme Military Council -- issued statements condemning the events. In a separate statement, Ahrar al Sham, one of the militant groups named in the report, denied that any civilians had been killed -- the only one of the three groups to do so.

The harsh acts of radical and extremist fighters have hurt the reputation of the opposition both here and abroad, and since late last year, more moderate rebel groups have led campaigns to oust them from the territory. There have been small, if significant, successes, but victory against the jihadis has been far from complete.

In the meantime, the message delivered by the rebel brigades who swarmed through the Latakia countryside last summer continues to reverberate across government-held parts of the country -- especially among the Alawites, a close-knit and insular community. When HuffPost visited an Alawite neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus recently, 200 miles away, residents there spoke of massacres by militants as if they had happened to them.

And in the areas that were attacked, there is a sense that, were it not for the army's continued vigilance, the massacres might happen again any day. Journalists who have visited rebel Salma since last summer’s invasion report that they saw fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and other hardline jihadist groups as well as foreign fighters from as far away as Chechnya. Government and rebel forces square off against one another daily, taking potshots and exchanging rounds of mortars. Since August, the front line itself has barely budged, but the brutality of the war has hardly abated.

In his living room in Obeen, Issam Darwish says he can still hear the gruff voice of the man who answered the phone at his house, when he called a few days after last summer's attacks.

“I said, 'Who is this?'" Darwish recalls. "And he said, ‘I am Abu Jamal, from Tunisia.’ I said, ‘What are you doing in my home?’ He said, 'No, now this is my home. We've killed everyone here, and when we find you, we will kill you too.’”

Darwish pauses for a moment, collecting his thoughts.

“The call ended when he said, ‘We will use the bodies of the dead people here to make ourselves a barbecue.’ And then he hung up.”

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