Hometown of Hafez, Fortress of Loyalists

Vegetables and fruits are seen for sale in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 3 November 2012. (Photo: John Cantlie)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The modest road that leads to the mountain village of Qardaha does not give you the impression that you are about to enter the birthplace of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.

Signs of neglect are apparent on both sides of the road in this northwestern town, leading one to ask how this is possible when the village is a site of pilgrimage for government officials from all over the country.

All signs indicate that the Syrian uprising has not passed through here. For Qardaha’s residents, there is no other name for what is happening besides “conspiracy” and “collaboration with the enemy.”

Despite how remote the village may seem from the raging battles taking place around the country, it has paid a heavy price, losing hundreds of its sons, many of whom served in the army and security forces.

There are more than just the Assads among Qardaha’s prominent families. Others, like the Khayyers, have played an important political role over the years and are sometimes seen as the Assads’ adversaries on their home turf.

A recent altercation in a cafe between members of the two families was blown out of proportion in the media, making it appear as if the Khayyers of Qardaha are breaking with the regime.

Rumors quickly spread that the opposition has penetrated this loyalist fortress. This was reinforced later when the authorities arrested Abdul-Aziz Khayyer, a leading member of the opposition’s National Coordinating Committee (NCC).

Abdul-Aziz, however, has never lived in his nearby village of Qwayka, and talk of him does not tempt family members to betray any opposition tendencies. The Khayyer family is overwhelming loyal to the regime and prefers not to comment on Abdul-Aziz and his brothers, who are long-time oppositionists.

This is despite the fact that one of the prominent opponents of the regime during Hafez al-Assad’s reign was the poet Hassan al-Khayyer, who was arrested after slandering the Baath Party in one of his poems. He disappeared in the late 1970s and many believe he was executed in prison.

Abdul-Aziz’s uncle and the elder of the family, Mounir Khayyer, still lives in a spacious house in Qwayka. He was Syria’s ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s. In his view, what is happening today is a world war being conducted on Syrian soil. He predicts that the worst has passed and the crisis will end soon.

The man, in his 80s, sits in the garden following the latest new from a variety of sources. He comments about the cafe incident that put Qardaha in the headlines, describing it as “a personal dispute of the kind that could happen anywhere and anytime. The media made an issue of it, given the sensitive and symbolic nature of the area.”

Nothing of a military or security nature catches one’s eyes on the way to Qardaha, except for one checkpoint manned by the local popular committee. However, the are a number of heavily armed military bases near the village, protecting it from attacks from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades.

In the village square, just before you reach Qardaha’s bustling market, pictures of martyrs are posted everywhere. Most prominent is that of Ali Khazzam, an officer in the Republican Guard who is credited with taking Baba Amro, an opposition stronghold in Homs. He later died in fighting near Damascus.

There are also fresh pictures of Mustafa Jadid, who was recently killed near Idlib. His family are still waiting for the corpse to arrive as it is being being held by the FSA.

When asked about the number of villagers who have died in the fighting, one local says 500 as of May. Since then, they have stopped counting. This is a high price to pay for an area where the population does not exceed 160,000, with only 16,000 living in Qardaha.

The village market seems to be functioning normally despite the fact that the smuggled goods that Qardaha was famous for are largely absent. Poverty is apparent all around, dotted with well-to-do houses belonging to government officials.

Hafez’s exiled brother Rifaat’s house is in a state of disrepair after renovation work on it stopped many years ago. The most modest house however is former president Hafez’s original home. It is surrounded by a simple fence covered with plants.

A large aluminum structure sits in the garden, which was was used by the family to received condolences when Bassil, Bashar’s brother, died in a car accident. Only a single armed guard can be seen on the grounds, suggesting that the location is of no special significance.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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