Ghassaniyah: A Syrian Village Under Siege

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Syrian dock workers transport packages of carrots from one side of Syria's Lake Qattinah to the other. (Photo: Haytham Al-Moussawi)

By: Hassan Illeik

Published Friday, March 1, 2013

The Syrian village of Ghassaniyah lies close to the western shore of Lake Qattinah, a few miles southwest of Homs. For decades, its population has been a mix of Syrians and Lebanese.

Geography and sectarianism have conspired to place it under siege by al-Nusra Front and the Farouq Brigade. Hundreds of locals – memories of the massacre in neighboring Haidariyah still fresh – have volunteered to defend it alongside the Syrian army.

The residents of Ghassaniyah have had no overland access for months. They use wooden fishing boats to get in and out of the village via the lake. Recently, they have built new aluminum boats to better ferry people and goods across the water to the village of Dibbeen, where a makeshift “port” was built.

Porters at the jetty unload crates of carrots and turnips from Ghassaniyah’s fields to be trucked to either the coast or Damascus. The boats sail back laden with returning villagers and various supplies, including those for the village’s defense.

The wind can be fierce on the lake, and since the boats are built by hand, some of them leak or get flooded by waves. A few days ago, two boats sank, and three passengers drowned. The lake can be as dangerous as Syria’s roads. Anything that moves on the water at night is a target for the Syrian army.

Battles and Loyalties Divide the Valley

For the people of this region, the world has been split in two by the Syrian conflict.

East of the Orontes River, between the town of Qusayr and the southern outskirts of Homs, armed opposition groups have taken over, even though the Syrian army still controls the main Homs-Damascus highway and a few villages in the area, including Ghassaniyah.

West of the river, the Syrian state still holds sway, though there are some opposition-held enclaves. The Syrian army’s retaking of the Baba Amr district of Homs was a curse for these villages. Armed opposition groups began eyeing them as a possible corridor to the Wadi Khaled district of northwestern Lebanon.

Whenever the Syrian army advances near Homs, the armed groups turn their attention to the Orontes Valley villages. A few weeks ago it ousted al-Nusra Front and the Farouq Brigade fighters from Jouber and Sultaniya. They attacked the villages of Hammam and Aqrabiyah, but were repelled by the local Popular Committees backed by Hezbollah and the Syrian army and suffered heavy casualties.

There is another reason for attacking these villages. Their inhabitants are Lebanese, most of them are Shia, and Hezbollah has a presence in them. The Syrian opposition can thus claim that Hezbollah is fighting against it. It attacks the villages, and if the locals resist, then it’s attributed to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s presence in the area, just as in Lebanese villages, is apparent. No Hezbollah fighters are visible, only those of the Popular Committees. But there are weather-faded portraits of Hassan Nasrallah and of Resistance martyrs of South Lebanon. Other more recent posters depict those who fell more recently in defense of the villages.

Similarly, every village in the area has its share of Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) supporters. It is an extension of Lebanon’s Hermel-Qasr district in almost every way.

The only difference between the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the Orontes Valley is the greenery. The Lebanese side is largely barren, while the Syrian side is lush. This is because farmers across the border, whether Lebanese or Syrian, are provided with fertilizer by the Syrian state, which also buys their produce. That may explain why manure is worth smuggling in from Syria, an activity that never ceases, even with battles raging.

Over the border, no voice rises above that of the war. Armed men in the Orontes Valley say that in addition to the foreign fighters, they know some of the people who have been attacking them. “We gave refuge to some of their families at the start of the crisis, and we haven’t forgotten that they gave refuge to our kin in the July 2006 war,” said one.

A young girl, whose family was expelled from their village by armed neighbors, now shares a small house with ten others. She said that she wants to be a fighter when she grows up. Who can dissuade her? The slow-paced rural life of the Orontes villages is punctuated by gun battles and forced expulsions.

Only Lake Qattinah sustains Ghassaniyah. At the Dibbeen “port,” on a headland near the village mosque, there is a look of exhaustion on the faces of passengers not yet accustomed to wartime life. But they cheerfully offer visitors gifts of locally grown carrots, reminding them: This is our land, and we will always remain here.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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