5th October 2012
In a country torn apart by war, every man fears he will lose his home, or already has.
“In the east we have a connection to our land,” says 32-year-old Romoz, a Christian from the ancient town of Maaloula, speaking in Lebanon. “The most important thing is our home. Our goal is to keep our home.”
The unabated conflict in Syria has taken a tremendous toll on the country and its people. Bombs and brigands have destroyed lives and livelihoods. Syria is fiercely divided, but everyone agrees that much of the country is being destroyed.
“There is no disagreement anywhere that the situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse, that it is a threat to the region and a threat to peace and security in the world,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the latest international envoy trying to broker peace, at the UN headquarters in New York on Monday.
A solution to the turmoil seems far away and stability appears as a distant memory for Syrians. They are still fleeing to neighbouring countries, like Lebanon.
“When we arrived here, we thanked God that we’re fine,” said Khaled, 40, who lost his home in the Bab Amr district of Homs and now lives in a refugee settlement outside the Lebanese city of Zahle. “We try to make the children forget about what’s happening [in Syria]. Life is very hard, and the summer was ok, but the winter is a big problem.”
Khaled and a group of mostly women and children are renting a plot of ground beside farms in the Bekaa Valley. They pay about $700 per month for the right to put up shacks made from flimsy wood and wrapped in plastic tarp. At other camps in the area, Syrians pay nothing for the land, but also live in the shadow of large electrical towers.
Not all Syrians in Lebanon are refugees who have lost their homes or activists who have similarly fled from the regime. Lebanon also hosts many families and workers, people who have travelled between the two countries and who continue to do so.
Abu Elias is a doorman from Qusayr, a city in the Homs countryside surrounded by dozens of rural villages. Pounded by bombs for months, the region has become one of the bases of resistance against the regime. Whole villages have emptied of their women and children, but Abu Elias insists this is the work of foreign terrorists, using similar language to that found on Syrian state television.
“We need to ‘clean’ the areas of terrorists,” he said. “If they come to my home, of course I will kill them, but really it’s the military that should do it.”
Like many Syrian Christians, Abu Elias remains against the uprising, if not for ideological reasons then for the protection of his home and family. His elderly mother still lives in their village and receives food from the government’s army. He’s not exactly in favour of Bashar Al-Assad, but he’s clearly against the revolutionaries. He supports the “National Opposition” group lead by Michel Kilo, which has preferred negotiations with the regime to overthrowing it by force.
“I definitely want change, but I don’t want to see the whole country destroyed and all the buildings destroyed,” Abu Elias said. “Of course we want to be able to form a political party, to have something other than the Baath Party, but we don’t want it through weapons. My own neighbours are in the military.”
Sitting in his residence at the gates of a community centre in Zahle, Abu Elias is joined by Romoz, a wealthy Christian who runs a charity and has taken a vow of celibacy. Only days after Roman Catholic Pope Benedict visited Lebanon, he pointed to the pontiff’s entreat for Christians to remain in the Middle East, as their numbers have shrunk over several decades.
“I saw Iraq after the American military entered,” he said. “And where are the Iraqi Christians? They went to Syria and other places. America has no right to be telling us how to run our country. Clean your house first then talk about the dirt in my house.”
Many Christians have been against the uprising because they are afraid of what will come. Now that mujahideen have joined the ranks of the opposition, the Syrian government’s claim that foreign fighters comprise the revolutionaries has partially come true. This only reinforces the fears of Christians who worry their future is at risk.
While Romoz and Abu Elias said they represent the view of most Syrian Christians, they are arguably speaking from a better position than some others. Christian refugees in Lebanon declined to be interviewed out of fear, and even Romoz and Abu Elias refused to use their real names, have their pictures taken or their voices recorded.
Many other refugees — who are typically Sunni — are not as afraid to speak up, and only sometimes ask to conceal their identities.
“My brother died — everyone died — so who’s going to be afraid for himself?” asked Bassem Wazir, who lost his home in Homs and fled with his son to Lebanon four months ago.
Bassem and Abu Elias represent the true dividing line among Syrians: those who accept the Baath Party to remain in politics, and those who refuse it. Both sides don’t want the Baath Party to have a monopoly on Syrian politics, but unlike Abu Elias, Bassem will not accept that the party stays. After losing almost everything he had, he’s willing to give up all that’s left.
“The regime is killing us all, of course I want it to fall,” Bassem said. “Even if all of us become martyrs, we don’t accept that the regime stays. If he wants it or not, [Bashar Al-Assad] will leave, even if we have to lose all our children.”