War rips apart families, neighbors in Syria

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By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — BEIRUT — It's at night that worries over her children hit the matriarch of the Khayyat family hardest, tormenting her as she tries to sleep.

Four of her sons have joined the tens of thousands of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. The fifth is a sergeant in Assad's army, a draftee. Worsening her troubles, her own brother no longer speaks to her because of her sons in the rebellion.

"This is what it has come to in Syria," said the 60-year-old Sunni Muslim woman as she sat in the family home on the outskirts of Damascus. "This is my son, and the other is my son, but each is fighting on a different side in this war. It burns my heart." Because of fears of reprisals against any of her children, she spoke on condition she not be identified except by the name of her large, extended family.

More than any of the other uprisings that toppled longtime dictators in the Arab world, the civil war in Syria has sharply polarized the country — ripping apart families and neighbors and bringing a bloody end to decades of coexistence.

The war has riven Syria along sectarian lines. The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the revolt. The minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism, backs the regime of Assad, who is himself an Alawite and has stacked his leadership with members of the community. Other minorities like Christians largely support Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that Assad's fall would bring a more Islamist rule over them.

But behind the broad outlines, even families within the same community have been wrenched apart.

Some are torn by ideology: In a family, some remain fiercely loyal to Assad, alienating those who became regime opponents. Despite years of discrimination under the Assad family rule, even some Sunni Muslims back him, whether out of fear of the alternative or belief in the regime narrative boasting of Syria as an oasis of secularism and stability in a turbulent region.

Others families are divided by circumstances: Young army conscripts find themselves fighting for a regime they fear defecting from even as their brothers join the rebels.

The violence, which activists say has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011, has unleashed animosity and sectarian hatreds that many say they didn't even know existed. Tit-for-tat killings between sects have swelled, as has segregation as Sunnis and Alawites flee each other. On social media web sites, venomous accusations and insults fly between regime opponents and Assad loyalists, who they often deride as "Minhibakjis" — Arabic for "we love you." A third group of Syrians is opposed to both camps.

"Syrian society has been deeply fragmented along multiple lines which may take generations to repair," said Randa Kassis, a Syrian anthropologist opposed to Assad's regime. "Anyone of a different opinion is immediately being cast as an agent or a stooge."

"It will take a lot of work to instill a culture of tolerance and acceptance, of give and take among people," said the Paris-based Kassis, who founded the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, an organization working for a secular and united civil society in Syria.

In that atmosphere, a difference of opinion within a family can swell into a bitter split.

Mohammed, a former sergeant from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising began, said he defected early on because he could not bring himself to open fire on protesters. He said he "felt like his heart was on the other side."

But his father and his brother, who serves in the air force security department in Daraa, remain hardcore regime supporters, convinced that those protesting are foreign-backed terrorists. Mohammed spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name for fear his brother would be harmed for the connection to an uprising supporter.

"The first few months were hell," he said. "My father forbade any talk at home of the revolution. When I told him I intended to defect, he grabbed me and said: 'If you want to defect, go do it somewhere else and don't bring shame to this family.'"

Mohammed said he joined friends in the central province of Homs and has been fighting there since.

"I think my brother is a coward. But I don't blame him, each person's tolerance level is different," he said.

An opposition activist in Damascus said his family's divisions are a generational struggle. He said his family has long opposed the regime but are of a generation that shunned activism, knowing it would bring harsh retaliation.

So "when I quit my job as a magazine editor to dedicate my time to the revolution, they went crazy," he said in an interview through Skype.

"Sometimes they shut me off for days, they don't talk to me, then they ease up," he said.

The rebel sons of the Khayyat family matriarch seemed unsure whether their brother was serving in Assad's military willingly or out of fear if he defected. The brother was drafted six months before the uprising began and is serving in the eastern Deir el-Zour province. Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected over the past 20 months, many now fighting alongside the rebels.

At the Khayyat family home in Kisweh, south of Damascus, the matriarch's eldest son walks in slowly, dragging his foot because of a injury during recent fighting. He was the first of the brothers to join the Free Syrian Army rebels, after he became convinced armed resistance was needed against Assad's brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.

He hasn't seen his army brother for months. He and other members of the family spoke on condition their first names not be used for fear of reprisals.

"I know there may come a day when my brother and I might stand face to face against each other, but this is a war between right and wrong," he said.

Another brother with the rebels is convinced their military sibling is staying unwillingly. The last time he spoke with him was last month during the Eid al-Adha holiday.

"He couldn't say anything beyond 'how are you'. He knows he is under surveillance," said the brother, who was fired from his job as teacher at a private school for taking part in an anti-government protest. "If he defects, they would not forgive him, he would be killed."

"The struggle is no longer just between the regime and the opposition. It is now at the workplace, in every family and in every home," he said.

Their father, who was imprisoned several times during the uprising, is now in hiding, a wanted man. Their mother starts to cry as she tells of how her own brother has not spoken to her in a year and a half because of her rebel sons.

"But I stick up to my sons because they are fighting for what they believe in," she said. "As a mother, I don't differentiate between my sons."

"All I want is to have them all gathered around the same meal at home again."

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An AP contributor in Damascus contributed to this report.

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