The lone family that had returned to Syria’s devastated village of Qubeir wasn’t planning to stay long.
“We will abandon this place,” said a middle-aged man, who said he was one of the handful of survivors of a mass killing here last week that may have taken as many as 78 lives. He refused to say more and insisted that journalists not stay in the village long. “The army was here this morning,” he said.
There’s been no official finding of who was behind the killings at Qubeir. Survivors blame President Bashar Assad’s military and pro-Assad militias known as shabiha. But what happened here, and in other villages, especially near the central Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, underscores what’s becoming a widening sectarian conflict that pits Sunni Muslims against Alawite Muslims in a split eerily similar to the Sunni-Shiite bloodshed that wracked neighboring Iraq. Alawite Islam is related to Shiite Islam.
A week traveling with rebel forces turned up story after story of displaced villagers who feared they’d be victims because of their sect.
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In the wake of the massacre at Qubeir, all the Sunnis in the nearby village of Tuwaim, which has an Alawite majority, have fled, residents in the area reported. Similar violence has affected more than a half-dozen towns and villages north and west of Hama in the past three months, they said.
The violence they described often followed the same trajectory: Militiamen kill one family, prompting others to flee. But Alawites haven't always been the instigators of the violence.
“At the beginning of the revolution, Sunni villagers had checkpoints and they stopped and threatened people who spoke against the revolution,” said a man in a small village near Qubeir who described the plight of another village nearby called Aknazia. Aknazia, he said, had a Sunni majority and Alawite minority and had been subject to multiple waves of displacement. He declined to give his name, saying he feared retaliation.
“The Alawites fled about three months ago,” the man said. “Then the Alawites came back and brought the shabiha.”
In another town, about five miles from Qubeir, a rebel commander who asked that his name not be used said fighters routinely stopped Alawites at checkpoints. For many in the predominantly Sunni armed opposition, the words shabiha and Alawite have become interchangeable.
“All Alawites are armed,” the commander said. “We stop all Alawites.”
Asked how it was possible to identify who was Alawite, the commander said their places of birth, listed on Syrian identification cards, were the indicator.
The commander’s frankness offered a window into violence that’s extremely difficult to report. Journalists who enter the country illegally and travel with the rebels have no access to pro-government Syrians. Journalists who enter the country legally generally receive only short-term visas and are constricted in where they can go and whom they can talk to, making it hard to gauge the level of violence. The bulk of news reports are written from outside Syria, based almost entirely on information from groups aligned with the opposition.
One aspect that’s clear from within Syria, however, is that concern about sectarian violence is universal .Interviews in the area north and west of Hama during the past week found people unanimous in their belief that it was getting worse.
The office of Jamil Qassar Radoun, a rebel commander in the area, was abuzz with activity last Saturday. Among those who’d come to visit was Othman Jassim, a 49-year-old farmer who said that the Syrian military had taken over his village, Tamana al Ghab, and shabiha had driven residents out of their homes.
Jassim said he wanted the rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army, to protect the village.
“We are afraid because of Houla and Qubeir,” Jassim said, referring to another massacre two weeks ago in which more than 80 women and children were hacked and shot to death. The government and the rebels have traded accusations of responsibility for the killings, but United Nations observers have said that government forces and shabiha were the most likely perpetrators.
In the village of Ramleh, north of Hama, farmers have begun harvesting wheat while it’s still green, fearing threats to burn crops that they said came from militiamen in nearby villages. Most of Ramleh’s residents fled two weeks ago after the killing of a family, according to some of those who’d stayed behind. Not surprisingly, most of those were young men.
“I’m here to protect my house and my brother’s houses from looting,” said one man who declined to provide a name but identified himself as the mukhtar of the village, an Arabic term that designates a local leader.
The men in Ramleh, which lies on the west bank of the Orontes River, said they suspected that the government was trying to drive Sunnis to the western side of the river in preparation for creating an Alawite stronghold with the port of Latakia as its capital.
“They want this zone for just the Alawites,” the mukhtar said.
At Qubeir, fresh graves were obvious to visiting reporters. Members of the lone family found there were gathering what they could from the ruins of their house, which they said armored vehicles had shelled during last Thursday’s attack. They salvaged what they could from some of the other approximately 20 houses in the hamlet. Blood could be seen on walls of some of the houses, much of it ringing bullet holes, suggesting execution-style killings.
The middle-aged survivor, who was shaking as he spoke, said he and others had waited a day before burying bodies, hoping that U.N. monitors, who are in the country watching over a cease-fire that has never really taken effect, would arrive. The monitors, blocked by Syrian troops, didn’t arrive until two days after the attack.
The man pleaded with the journalists not to film his house and insisted that the visitors don Bedouin dress as they walked around the village. He urged caution when they came to the edge of the village that was closest to the predominantly Alawite villages from which he said the attackers had come.
"They could come back anytime," he said.