In Syria, "father of martyrs" speaks of revenge
AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) - After losing three sons and two grandsons, 70-year-old Abdelhalim Haj Omar has no doubt about the fate he wants for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I hope Bashar, God willing, doesn't die until they slaughter his whole family in front of him and they bring him here so that all of Syria can get their revenge from him," he says in the Syrian town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey.
"He destroyed the country and killed its people," he adds, speaking in his carpentry workshop where stacks of wood are piled up next to finished wooden door frames.
Omar is not alone in his rage. Some 40,000 Syrians have died in the conflict which began in March 2011 as a mostly peaceful uprising and has since turned into brutal civil war, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim fighters against Assad's Alawite forces.
Nearly every family has lost at least one relative, creating a deep well of anger which will make it all the harder to reconcile Syria's warring communities when the conflict eventually comes to an end.
But Omar's family has been hit particularly badly, earning him the title of "father of martyrs".
Omar's first son, Ahmed, 45, was killed by a sniper bullet during a protest earlier this year. Two months later his next son, Omar, 25, was shot by security forces.
"They broke his jaw, his eye was dislodged … they killed him and left him at the gate of the cemetery," said Omar, dressed in a beige sweater and white-and-grey skullcap.
HEAD HELD HIGH
The next son, Mahmoud, was a fighter in the Free Syria Army and was killed during an operation. His grandson, Mohamed, was killed by a PKK soldier and the last grandson, Abdlhamid, another fighter, died during fighting at Menagh airport in the Aleppo countryside, five days ago.
Omar's wife, Um Ahmed, was shot three times in the leg by government security forces who accused her of sheltering fighters from the Free Syria Army.
Syrian state authorities refer to insurgents involved in the uprising against Assad as "terrorists".
"You allowed the terrorists in, you were protecting them and feeding them for four days," Um Ahmed, dressed in a black headscarf and gown, said the security forces told her, a charge she denied.
The grandson, Abdelhamid, in his early 20s, had been married for just six weeks before he died.
His 17-year-old wife, still wearing her gold ring and diamond eternity ring, sat in a secluded room, mourning her husband.
"He was a very sweet talker and so gentle," she said, speaking in the couple's newly decorated bedroom of white wood furniture and pink carpeting.
"He would say ‘we won't leave until victory is ours'," she said, black circles under her eyes.
At a cemetery at the edge of Azaz, Omar, dressed in a thick, black coat to shield himself from the biting cold, stooped among graves dug in an empty field, and paused next to each family member killed to say a few prayers.
Every few graves, marked with bricks and pink and yellow plastic flowers and vines, Omar stopped and pointed to indicate which family member had been buried there.
Despite his grief, Omar remained defiant.
"If I had a hundred sons, I'd present them to the revolution. My head is held high," said Omar, his face lined with emotion.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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