How a nearly unknown businessman named Khaled al Ahmad became Damascus’ secret liaison to the West and quietly dealt Syria’s grinding war to a close
by Rania Khalek
Part 6 - “The problem wasn’t the protests, it was sectarianism”
The important thing about Hammeh is how organic the reconciliation process was, with locals working hard to repair the area’s social fabric through local initiatives spearheaded by young people in Hammeh, such as the children’s festival organized between Hammeh and Jebel Wurud.
The first thing Temkeen did after the reconciliation went into effect was purchase a building in Hammeh, which they turned into a non-profit educational institution called Steps Education Center to help fill the gaps in schooling for kids who couldn’t attend classes during the fighting as well as job training for adults in software development, programing, website development, IT, electrical engineering and cooking. They also hope to use these educational initiatives to undo the damage from Islamist ideology spread by the armed groups.
What was most striking during my visit to Hammeh was the ratio of schools to mosques. I lost count of the number of mosques after I reached six. I asked Ebrahim how many schools were in Hammeh. He said five, but that includes just one high school. This was a noticeable pattern in areas of Syria that fell to the opposition—the mosques seemed to exceed the number of schools.
After 2000, when Bashar al Assad took over the presidency following his father’s death, he relaxed some of the country’s anti-religious laws and thousands of new mosques were built. A senior official with the ministry of public record estimated that 10,000 mosques were built under Bashar. This number does not include the Koran memorization schools the government sponsored during this time. Many of these mosques were funded by private donors from outside the country, mostly from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Ebrahim and his friends explained to me the role of the mosques in the protests that erupted in their town and later the role of foreigners.
When the uprising began, boys would pour out of the mosques after Friday prayers to protest after being riled up by their local sheikhs, said Ebrahim.
“There were never any problems in Hammeh that I can remember until 2011,” he said, explaining how the conflict in Hammeh evolved. “When the protests started here, a lot of young men went out and protested. They usually went after Friday prayer, the imams encouraged it. The problem wasn’t the protests, it was sectarianism. Hammeh is Sunni. There are neighborhoods around it that are Alawite and Shia.”
Ebrahim continued, “In 2011 it was just harmless protests. But in 2012 it became sectarian. Within 10 days heavy weapons were coming in. In 2012, we also found foreigners here, they started fighting the Syrian army. There was a Jordanian man living in Hammeh. He fought in Iraq, then came to Syria and settled here. The Jordanian man played a role in arming the protests. Then there was the first agreement in beginning of 2013 for a truce and it lasted two years. We all left during this time, living outside Hammeh. We didn’t try coming back because it was too dangerous.”
Ebrahim fled to Lebanon, got married and then returned to Hammeh in 2015. But the situation deteriorated again. This time he stayed and joined his friends in efforts to assist his community. He spoke out against sectarianism and volunteered with charities that delivered humanitarian aid.
His activism angered the Baraa Bin Malek brigade, one of the Islamist insurgent groups based in Hammeh. Ebrahim had posted a plea on Facebook to stop the violence and accept different religions, “so this brigade threatened me, they said I know your father, where you work.”
Ebrahim was forced to flee to his grandfather’s house outside of Hammeh but soon grew tired of hiding out. “After a month, I thought I have to come back because we have to stop this ideology from spreading. I thought maybe I can change someone’s mind if I talk to them.”
But the conditions on the ground made his work impossible.
“There were two brigades active in Hammeh throughout the conflict. In the last six months, before the reconciliation, they split into forty brigades because of infighting,” he recalled. “Each one had its own particular ideology and each one thought the other wasn’t religious enough.”
The rebel groups detained Ebrahim at the beginning of 2016 and interrogated him. “They accused me of dealing drugs and spreading an unacceptable ideology and being a kafir (infidel). I used to have long hair; they made me cut it. I stopped leaving the house and stopped all activities out of fear. My only contact was with my family,” he said.
“When they started the negotiations for reconciliation there was a military operation in Hammeh,” Ebrahim continued. “That’s when I was happy, people started to understand and say we don’t want this terrorist group here. The reason this agreement works here is because people started to protest against the rebel groups. They demanded the rebel groups leave. It was the same in Qudsaya. The armed groups realized the people don’t support them here, that’s why they said yes to the agreement. They left. After that we were safe, there’s no rebels anymore. At that time, we became active again and have been trying to convince everyone to accept other people, to be inclusive. We started out just four of us. Now there are 40 people in our organization.”
In 2010, the population of Hammeh, per the census, was 25,000. The population now is believed to be even higher given the number of people who have returned in addition to the internally displaced who have moved to Hammeh.
In 2016, the main street of Hammeh was empty. Today it is bustling with cars and families pouring in and out of local shops. Four of the stores on this street are owned by women. The boys point out that when the armed groups were in charge you couldn’t find a single woman running anything. In fact, women were rarely even seen in public. Nearby, the sound of children frolicking around a newly reopened public swimming pool filled the air. Not long ago, the pool served as a base for a band of insurgents.
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