The uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime, and the subsequent killings and reprisals, has fractured the village of Azzara along sectarian lines, turning peaceful neighbours into sworn enemies.
Sunni Turkmen living in the hills of Azzara, in central Homs province, and Alawite residents of the village below, had seemingly coexisted since Ottoman times. Today, a wall of fear separates the two sects.
While Sunnis have appealed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to save them from the Syrian regime, Alawites have appealed to Syrian President Assad to protect them from “terrorists” they claim are infiltrating from Lebanon.
“We are Turkmen and Erdogan must protect us. Otherwise we will be massacred by Bashar,” said former lieutenant Basil Ain, who deserted on March 26 after witnessing the shelling of Baba Amr, a rebel district of Homs taken by the army a month earlier.
Both communities expressed their fears and suffering to UN observers who visited the area on Friday.
The UN observers were greeted by residents displaying shell casings and mortars, while reporting that 12 residents had been killed and 150 wounded in the violence.
Showing photos of their loved ones, they tried to grab hold of the UN officers, hoping for news on the fate of 50 residents arrested by the army or kidnapped by unknown persons.
Azzara is controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), comprising deserters who continue to wear their former uniforms.
“It's not a matter of revolution or liberty. It is a religious and sectarian war prompted by a regime that wants to kill all Sunnis in Syria and establish a 'Rafida' state,” says a bearded former lieutenant-colonel, using a derogatory term for Shiites.
A young man, dressed in black with Al-Qaeda insignia on his shirt, agrees but declines to say anything further.
In Syria, the Turkmen number about 300 000, according to Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.
The majority of Sunnis support the protest movement against the regime of Assad, who belongs to the ruling Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In this area, the opposition flies Syria's post-independence flag of 1946. Residents chant, “The people want the fall of the regime” and “God Save the Free Syrian Army.”
Two kilometres down the hill, Syria's current flag is brandished by people shouting “God, Syria, Bashar”, as they hold the president's photograph aloft.
“Anti-regime residents killed several officers on the road. They stop passing trucks and steal their goods. They kidnap our relatives, asking for ransom,” says Mustafa Abdel Karim Mahmoud, a 23-year-old Alawite student at Al-Baath University in Homs.
“At night, they cross the river, set fire to shops, shoot at us, and then flee when the army arrives. They say we are gangs of Assad. Yes, we are all soldiers of Assad,” he says.
“Before we lived like brothers. It was the arrival of foreign (infiltrators from Lebanon) who made this mess”, he adds.
“For eight months I've been unable to return to my home in Tall Kalakh,” another resident says, referring to opposition-held town encircled by the army. “They want to force me to be against the regime.”
For the governor of Homs province, Ghassan Abdl-Al, “those who are behind the crisis have tried to stoke sectarianism to tear apart Syrian society.”
“We are sure that in each sect, the majority refuses the escalation and wants to live in peace,” he said. – Sapa-AFP