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Along Sectarian Fault Lines, a ‘New Normal’ Emerges

QALAAT AL-MADIQ, HAMA PROVINCE / Just a few years ago, Syrian students in this Sunni town had to pledge allegiance to Baath party principles and express loyalty to Bashar al-Assad.

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

<span style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”>Now the graffiti on classroom walls here points to the transformation of Syrian culture and identity over two years of war.</span>

Qalaat al-Madiq is surrounded by Alawite villages and ringed by Syrian Army checkpoints. But the regime’s control stops there.

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At the local high school, slogans expressing love for death and martyrdom are wedged between calls for freedom and the names of various rebel groups operating in the region. Photographs celebrating top graduates from years past have been partially defaced, removing any sign of the posters of Bashar and his father Hafez al-Assad that students were forced to pose with over decades of the family’s rule.

<div> <p> “We can’t control this generation even if we wanted to,” says a teacher at the school. “These kids are living the revolution.” </p>

<p> Teachers try to stick to the curriculum, preparing students for national standardized tests that are still offered in the town, which sits at the foot of an 800-year-old castle overlooking the sectarian fault line of the Orontes River in Hama province. But many older students have abandoned their studies to link up with rebel groups, or have fled to safer areas near the Turkish border. </p>

<p> “We are trying to lead normal lives, but there’s a lot of death and poverty around us,” the teacher says. </p> </div>

Syrian soldiers stationed at the castle and further east routinely shell the Sunni town, damaging two classrooms at the elementary school and a mosque in April. (Both locations were empty at the time.)

<div> <p> At the time, Bassel, a fifth grade student, rushed to his school to inspect the damage. Still a typical kid, he says he was disappointed to find out that his classroom wasn’t hit. “It isn’t fair that I have to go to school when the other kids get to play.” Life continues as normally as possible in this town, increasingly punctuated by violence and deepening sectarian tensions. </p>

<p> Government employees report for duty at the water plant and grain silo, and technicians look after the electric grid. Many shops have reopened after government soldiers and militias from neighboring Alawite villages looted and burned the market in the fall. </p>

<p> Abdul Kareem owned a children’s clothing store on the town’s main street, but he lost his goods in the last government offensive and couldn’t afford to restock the business. Now he lives off his dwindling savings and rents out the space to a food vendor for a meager income. </p> </div>

“We know the people who looted the Qalaat. They are the same people we used to visit and drink [alcohol] with, and I never imaged they had so much hatred in their hearts,” he says. The pro-Assad militia members left their own graffiti in the town. Alongside  the familiar pro-Assad slogans, there is this message: “We ruled you and oppressed you, if you rule us don’t show us mercy.”

<div> <p> The town’s castle soars over the Ghab plain surrounding the Orontes River, a strategic perch that controls the entrance to Alawite land in the mountain range that separates  the Orontes from the Mediterranean Sea. Many residents trace their heritage to the castle. (It was inhabited by 300 families until 2012, when it was shelled and occupied by <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svldcFo2Scw” target=”_blank”>the Syrian military</a>.) </p>

<p> Abdul Kareem grew up inside the castle, and his father was still living there last year. His eldest son, a scrawny 17-year-old who was once a promising student, has dropped out of school and spends most of his time with the Farouq Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in Qalaat Al-Madiq. </p>

<p> “I’ve tutored him for years, and he should be on his way to medical school,” Abdul Kareem says. “I wish he didn’t have to lose his future.” </p>

<p> War has transformed this town. Abdul Kareem and other men in the town used to visit friends in the nearby Christian village of Al Suqaylabiyah for nights of drinking, but now even government employees are reluctant to venture there for fear of harassment from soldiers at checkpoints. </p>

<p> In response, Sunni Islamic identity has been resurgent, and people have become more pious. Many families send their children to the mosque for religious lessons, and much of the graffiti on the school walls carry Islamist and Sunni themes. </p>

<p> Hama, Homs and Latakia provinces are tinder boxes for potential sectarian conflict. They’re expected to be “ground zero” of a coming sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawites. Tensions are already running high. Few residents in Qalaat al-Madiq can imagine a return to the pre-conflict structure, with Alawites in control of the government and state-owned industries. </p> </div>

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Omar, a government employee who still collects a paycheck from his job at the town’s grain silo, says his work is a necessary function and that remaining on the payroll doesn’t mean he supports the Assad regime.

“I saw the shabiha looting and arresting people in the Qalaat from my window at work,” he says. “It’s impossible for me to trust Assad’s army or the Alawite shabiha in our areas again.” The grain silo is running low this year, a result of the collapse of Syria’s agriculture industry.

Omar doesn’t have much to do at work. His view of the historic castle and lush valley provides an idyllic escape, but it’s only a momentary relief. As with many other Sunni towns in Syria, residents here have opened new graveyards to bury their dead. Qalaat al-Madiq’s “martyr’s cemetery,” housed at the grain silo, is always expanding. A constant reminder of war, it spoils Omar’s view.

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