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Observations of a Homsi living in Tartous
by Aboud Dandachi
Written for Syria Comment, January 20, 2014
*Aboud Dandachi is a Syrian activist from Homs, currently living in Istanbul. He is the author of the blog “From Homs to Istanbul” at www.adandachi.com/istanbul (The Dandashi family is a well known Sunni family.)
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, the port city of Tartous has been regarded as a bastion of loyalist support, a regime stronghold, and a city whose populace are loyal to Bashar Assad.
In fact, only two of the above statements are true.
I moved to Tartous in late March 2012, after being displaced first from my home in Homs, and then from my village of Telkelakh. Like all displaced persons since the beginning of time, I thought my troubles would be a temporary and I’d be able to return home once the situation improved. I hoped.
But as it turned out, I spent eighteen months in Tartous, living my life in an area no bigger than ten square kilometers. During those months, Tartous was like a small passenger boat; crowded, but offering safety from the storm raging in the middle of an infinite sea of tidal waves of anxiety and war.
The situation was surreal. By March 2013, the anniversary of my move to Tartous, half the populace consisted of displaced people who had relatives actively at war with relatives of the other half. I myself came from a village well known for its opposition to the regime; three cousins of mine and numerous distant relatives had taken up arms against the state, whose own rank and file consisted of the relatives of the taxi drivers, shop keepers, hotel staff and restaurant workers of the city I looked to for refuge. It was absurd.
And yet, in eighteen months in Tartous, I never once heard a single word of abuse or experienced any act of aggression. Tartus before the war was equal parts Christian, Alawite, and Sunni. My being a Sunni from Homs was never held against me.
On the contrary, anytime the topic of Homs came up with a native of Tartous, the conversation would invariably lead to reminiscing about Homs’ previous status as “Um el fakir”, as Homs was called, the Mother of the Poor; memories of shopping for Eid cloth in a city where Eid shopping was much cheaper than the coast or Damascus; where one could get one’s car fixed for half the price a workshop would charge in Tartous; a city where rents and the very cost of houses were ridiculously cheap by the standards of any major cities. To a native of Tartous, pre-conflict Homs used to offer a cheap alternative to the much higher cost of living of the coastal areas.
And almost every such conversation would end in someone voicing eternal damnation on the souls of the Saudis, Turks, Chechens, Pakistanis, Libyans, Jordanians etc etc who had supposedly infiltrated Homsi society and turned it into a “well of terrorism”, and a place where the most barbaric acts of inhumanity were regularly practiced on those who had not sold their souls to Zionism-Wahabism-CIAism and were still loyal to…well, what a good Syrian should be loyal to exactly depended on the person you were speaking with.
It’s inevitable that when a people’s lives have been disrupted and affected by events, people will spend a great deal of time discussing and debating those events. In Tartous, the most honest opinions could always be gleaned from discussions that took place late at night; in the hotel lobbies when only the staff and a few night owls were left awake; at the restaurants or sidewalk cafes closing up for the night and the only ones left were the staff drinking one last cup of coffee before heading home, or in the Internet cafes, sparsely filled with customers taking advantage of the ultra cheap midnight rates to Skype with relatives in Europe or Canada.
The president. The regime. The state. To a Homsi whose city had suffered the worst of the conflict up to that point, all three were one and the same, inseparable. The revolution was about getting rid of the president, to cause the downfall of the regime, and create a new state. What the nature of the new state would be was something the myriad groups that made up the opposition never did get around to agreeing on.
The president, the regime and the state. To a Tartousian, these were three very distinct and separate entities, a fact that took me a very long time to understand. Being a “loyalist” meant different things to different people. In eighteen months, very few people had a kind word to say about the president Bashar Assad. Explicit criticism of his person was never voiced openly, of course, but there were plenty of criticisms of the “strategy” of the war, of its “handling”, and many wistful nostalgic yearnings for the “wisdom and experience” of Hafiz Assad. I lost count of the number of times I heard it said that Hafiz would never have allowed things to reach the point they did. One didn’t have to scratch much beneath the surface to detect a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the younger Assad’s abilities as a war leader.
Which was not to say that having no faith in Bashar’s abilities to handle the conflict, meant that a person was part of the opposition. Among the people of Tartous, there was a clear and very well defined distinction between the president, the regime and the state. I met no one who expressed much love for the president. The vast majority however, felt that the regime was a necessity, and would have gladly been happy to see the current regime headed by a new president.
And every person in Tartous felt that they were part of a struggle to preserve the very state and its institutions. Tartousians did not want to live in a failed state, and if the state collapsed, the average person in Tartous felt like they had nowhere else to run to. While I myself never experienced any discrimination or hostility as a displaced person from Homs, I heard nothing but scorn and contempt whenever the topic of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who had fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or (especially) Turkey came up. In Tartous, a person who seemingly abandoned the country to live in a refugee camp was regarded as being beneath contempt.
In a way, it wasn’t hard to understand why this should be so. The people of Tartous had their backs to the sea, in almost a literal sense. If the war reached the city, there would be no place for them to flee to. Many Sunnis from other parts of Syria had fled to the Gulf and other countries. Alawites, Christians and those Sunnis who had remained loyal to the regime could count on no such welcome. For the most part Tartousians didn’t have the luxury of contemplating a life as refugees in other countries, it was a convenience that would not be afforded to them.
Well, displaced people who found themselves in Tartous did infact contemplate very much life as refugees in other countries. By the summer of 2013, the number of Sunni and Christian refugees in Tartous overwhelmingly outnumbered the local Alawites in the city. Every Christian displaced family I knew was biding time until relatives abroad could arrange for them to get visas. Canada and Sweden were particularly favored as destinations. One Christian female doctor from Aleppo had made no less than eleven visa requests to the USA, Canada and European countries.
Evert day saw a massive crush of applicants at the Immigration and Passports department, which is a small three story building, designed to handle many fewer applicants then the hordes now trying to leave the country. At the beginning of the uprising and as late as March 2012, a person could walk into the Tartous passport department in the morning, and leave in the afternoon with new passports for himself and his family of six kids, a widowed sister, and her six kids.
When I went to renew my passport,the place was a hell hole. My name was put on a waiting list and I was given an appointment five weeks away. On the appointed day, if your name wasn’t on the appointment list, there was no way you were stepping inside the building, no matter how desperate your sob story, who you had tried to bribe, or how urgently you needed to leave the country. It was the only way to bring order to an insanity created by the fear that at any day, the state’s institutions might collapse, and those without passports would become refugees without travel documents for the rest of their lives. Even after submitting all the required paperwork, it would take another month for a new passport booklet to be issued, such was the shortage in new passports.
In August 2013, a new fast track system was implemented. Pay 16,000 liras, and you could get your passport two days later. People cynically referred to it as Assad’s idea of a “reform”.
For Tartousians, the preservation of the state and its institutions were essential to their own survival; the preservation of the president, not so much. Indeed, spend enough time in Tartous, and one would get the unmistakable impression that the president himself was increasingly seen more as a liability; what the people of Tartous wanted was a more capable leader to lead the same regime and ensure the preservation of the same state.
As the number of displaced people fleeing to the city increased, the cost of living screamed up, leaving most with no way of coping. Apartments whose rent had been 5,000 liras a month were going for five times that, putting them out of reach of the ordinary Tartousian. Daily, the city experienced traffic jams that rivaled those of the major metropolises. In the eighteen months I was in Tartous, the price of food, taxi fares and cloth more than tripled.
You could also see the demographics of the city change before your very eyes. It would be no exaggeration to say that females outnumbered males to a ratio as high as twenty to one. At any time, one’s favorite shawerma vendor, shopkeeper, vegetable seller or barber might suddenly close shop, having been called up to “perform his national duty”, and serve in the reserves for an undefined period of time. “Talbeno”, they requested him, was a phrase that was dreaded in Homs. It meant the security forces were after a specific person. The same phrase in Tartous meant that a person was being called up into the reserves, to be sent to God knows what front line.
And yet throughout all this, there was never a backlash against the newly arrived displaced persons. A woman could walk in the streets in a niqab without a second thought, in contrast to the stories that were coming out of some of the areas of Syria that hardline Islamist groups had taken over.
Within the ten square kilometer “bubble” that made up the safe areas, life went on as normal. The regime’s security forces didn’t have a single checkpoint set up within the city itself. The only time weapons were fired inside the city was during military funerals, or right after one of Assad’s (mercifully infrequent) speeches or interviews. And the day that the Egyptian army deposed Mohamed Morsi. That party lasted well into the night.
Which is not to say that security in Tartous was lax. Some days, the queue of cars waiting to pass through the checkpoints on the city’s outskirts would stretch for miles. If you were on the run from the regime, Tartous was not the place to hide in. Twice I heard of individuals from my home village being arrested in Tartous (they were later released when it turned out they shared similar names with individuals on the regime’s shit list). My favorite mobile phone shop owner was hauled in by the State Security branch to explain where he got the money for his opulent lifestyle (amazingly, there was never any shortage of the latest iPads and smartphones in Tartous).
I myself was interviewed three times by mukhabarat from the State Security branch during my stay in Tartous. It was standard practice, even before the conflict, for checks to be made on anyone staying long term at hotels. The interviews were conducted in the lobby of whichever hotel I’d happen to be staying at, and were friendly and polite. I was asked a bunch of questions about my family relations, the answers to which I had no doubt whatsoever the agents already knew.
Indeed, during the first interview, the person interviewing me seemed more concerned that I was running away from some vendetta in Homs. “Did someone threaten you back in Homs? Are you running away from some gang?”
No, I was running away from a military occupation. My home neighborhood of Inshaat was being choked by frequent raids and random arrests being conducted every few weeks. In Homs, if I wasn’t home by 4 pm, my relatives would start collecting ransom money in the expectation that I’d been kidnapped by the shabihas. In Tartous, I’d hear the same shabihas complain at night over coffee about late salaries, long assignments with little leave, and a desire to see the regime “get serious about finishing off the terrorists”.
The shabihas got their wish on August 21st 2013. I woke up to frantic Whatsapp messages from relatives in the Gulf with news of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack.
In a moment, the very atmosphere in Tartous changed. There had always been an undercurrent of tension in the city, as if people somehow knew in their bones that the calm they were enjoying couldn’t possibly last indefinitely. Overnight, Tartous had turned from a safe haven, to ground zero in any NATO attack on the country. I started seeing in my fellow Tartous residents, the same sickening fear and sense of impending doom I’d feel back in Homs, whenever I heard rumors of military buildups.
That Saturday, the 25th of August, was the most nerve racking day I’d experienced since coming to Tartous. People in Tartous were convinced that a NATO attack was all but inevitable, and that a long overdue reckoning was at hand. The chemical weapon attack on Ghouta was just the excuse the “conspiracy” needed to finally finish off what had been started by the “armed groups”. That night, the lobby of the hotel I was staying at turned into something resembling a refugee camp, with families vacating their rooms on the upper floors and instead choosing to spend the night downstairs.
The next day, more than half the hotel staff didn’t show up for work, and the normally bustling commercial street in which the hotel was located was eerily quiet. Most of the hotel’s occupants were Christian families from Aleppo, who had been biding their time until relatives in Europe and North America could arrange visas for them. A lot of these same families decided, screw it, it would be much safer to wait in Beirut.
On August 29th, I was sitting in the lobby when I heard gunfire out on the cornice, with exuberant chants of “We are shabihas, we are shabihas!” OK, a demonstration to demonstrate the city’s defiance and “steadfastness”, I thought to myself.
Actually, it turned out to be a celebration. The British parliament had just voted to reject any involvement in any military action in Syria. Just as suddenly as the atmosphere in Tartous had changed to a city on the edge of a catastrophe on August 21st, the emotional pendulum swung the other way round; the long feared specter of foreign military intervention, the consequences of which Tartous would have borne the brunt of, in one night had had a stake driven through its heart, and buried in a six foot grave.
Tartousians were euphoric, as only someone who has survived a close brush with death can be. The regime had spat in the eyes of the “NATO dogs”, and gotten away with defying the “great powers”.
As the following days and week saw Barack Obama desperately try to squirm his way out of his “red line” commitments to make Assad pay for any chemical attack, many an unflattering remarks were heard in the hotel lobby and cafeterias regarding Obama’s manhood, or lack thereof. The man who was once feared as the embodiment of everything tormenting Syria, in the space of one week become an object of derision and scorn; a bumbling clown who was flailing at the deep end of a swimming pool.
For me, it was a clear indication living in Syria had become untenable. Anyone who remained in Syria could only look forward to increased brutality by a regime that had discovered it had absolutely no consequences to fear. There was now nothing to stop Assad from butchering the population wholesale, and the countries neighboring Syria were not going to keep their borders open indefinitely. In early September, I left Tartous and crossed into Lebanon.
I left behind a city that had sheltered me during eighteen months when the rest of the country was experiencing hell, a city whose populace realized that they were stuck between Assad’s extremists and Al-Qaeda’s, with no way to save the country. A city whose populace did not want to live under the Islamists who have come to dominate the opposition, but who were desperate to preserve the state as it was, lest they become, like so many Palestinians and Iraqis in the region, themselves stateless.
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