Grim determination in Assad Alawite heartland
- 24 September 2012
- From the section Middle East
All along the winding mountain road, the village waited.
Men and women dressed in black ambled slowly up the slopes. Motorcycles, decked with Syrian flags, were gently revving.
Another son of Addalia was coming home in a coffin.
Flt Lt Adeeb Ahmed, 26, is the 17th to die in this village alone in the 18 months of Syria's uprising. He was killed when his helicopter crashed.
In these western mountains along the Mediterranean coast, not a day goes by without a funeral. It's the ancestral homeland of President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite sect, and these men are foot soldiers in the war.
The piercing wail of the young pilot's wife signalled another burial was about to start.
"The light of my eyes is gone," Ola Zahir cried in spasms of grief that bent her double. Three relatives supported the 22-year-old widow.
Six months ago, she buried her soldier brother.
'Son of Syria'
But in these close-knit communities, funerals are not just family matters. The whole village turned out, honouring their latest fallen with all the rituals of the military, and these mountains.
Soldiers formed a guard of honour as the wooden coffin was hoisted on to the sturdiest shoulders. Men fired rifles in the air as women ululated.
Handfuls of rice and flowers were hurled as the cortege passed - a wedding tradition to celebrate, not mourn, another martyr.
Here, in one of the most peaceful parts of Syria, fallen troops can still be buried in dignity. Closer to frontlines, the many more Syrians who die from government fire often don't.
"Martyr after martyr, we only want Bashar," the village chanted as Adeeb Ahmed made his last journey up the long narrow steps of his modest two-storey home - the house veiled in plastic sheeting embossed with the president's photo.
As grief welled up among waiting women of the family, so did anger and resentment against a world they sometimes see as hostile.
"He is not her son, nor mine," Adeeb Ahmed's aunt told me, wagging an admonishing finger. "He is a son of Syria."
"This is the fragrance of Muhammad, our Prophet," shouted another relative, as she thrust a tray of rice covered by flowers and sweet basil toward me.
"We are good Muslims. Those who slaughter violate all religions."
She drew a finger across her throat in condemnation of alleged abuses by opposition fighters, repeating the government's accusation of foreign conspiracies against Syria.
These communities see themselves as a bulwark to defend a regime they see as the greatest protector of their country and their minority sect.
Alawites, "the followers of Ali", are a small, little-known religious community. An offshoot of Shia Islam, they are sometimes treated as heretics by Sunni Muslims.
In some of these communities, there has been some grumbling, in private, about the high personal price they're being made to pay for this war, but not in Addalia, not on this day.
"We don't want this war. It's cruel," said Aias Ahmed, a relative and former teacher of Flt Lt Ahmed.
"This war has been imposed on us. In spite of everything, we still want peace," he told me, a white flower in his hands in memory of his pupil.
"Peace is a part of our religion, of our beliefs. And this country is a country for everyone. We can make peace, we can shake hands."
He spoke of these villagers' lives "of grapes and grain".
Far from these undulating slopes, from where Mr Assad's father, Hafez, rose through army and Baath party ranks to become president in Damascus in 1971, Alawites now hold key positions in the government and the military.
When I asked why the president couldn't stop the war, another resident, Mohammad, replied: "The president can't stop the war. If you are carrying a rifle and coming towards me, how can I speak with you?"
Both sides are now armed in an uprising that has taken nearly 30,000 lives, most of them civilians killed in government onslaughts.
At the graveside, an army officer read a message from the president.
"We congratulate the family of the martyr. His town has given martyrs and will continue to give martyrs, God willing."
As the funeral drew to a close, a grieving grandmother sang a last lament - an outpouring of personal pain that lies at the heart of a brutal political conflict.
And then, an hour later in Addalia, another funeral started.