February 22, 2012 / 5:30 PM / 5 years ago

As Syrians flee Homs, sectarian faultlines deepen

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jerjenaz, near Idlib, February 17, 2012. The sign reads, "Enemies of humanity your dark night will go and the new dawn of freedom will rise".Handout

BEIRUT (Reuters) - It started a few months ago with neighbors' suspicious looks, then came the threats. Their car was smashed and their front door was painted over with sectarian slurs.

That was when the landlord said it was time for Khaled's Sunni Muslim family to leave the mainly Alawite district of Karam al-Louz in Homs, a city where communal ties have been ripped apart after 11 months of revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"When we fled we were treated like criminals," said Khaled, whose impoverished family of seven had lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, until last month. "Homs is a victim of Syria's revolution."

Even before government forces began an artillery onslaught on Homs' Sunni Muslim areas nearly three weeks ago to try to crush the opposition, the city had been splintering along sectarian lines. Some fear this could foreshadow civil war.

Bombardment, killings and kidnappings have fuelled anger and fear among majority Sunni Muslims and minority Alawites, pushing residents to flee to refuge among their own sects.

Aid workers say they have no idea how many Syrians in turmoil-hit areas like Homs have been internally displaced. Residents of Homs, a city of one million, estimate the number is in the thousands.

Those who can afford it leave for the capital Damascus. But most are like Khaled and his brothers who scrape together an income as house painters and cab drivers. They flee to nearby villages or neighborhoods of their sect.

"From now on we'll never try to live in an area outside of 'our' neighborhoods," Khaled, 30, said by telephone from Homs. "As they saying goes: Those who live outside their religion will live with their troubles instead."

Like all residents interviewed, Khaled asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons.

HIDDEN TENSIONS EXPOSED

People in Homs used to ignore or at least keep quiet about sectarian differences, but the revolt against four decades of secular rule by the Alawite Assad family has been driven by Sunni Muslims, bringing long-concealed tensions to the surface.

Many Sunnis, Syria's majority population, are suspicious of Alawites. The Assads often gave the most powerful posts to members of their sect, giving it a disproportionate influence relative to the 10 percent of the population they represent. Alawites fear they will inevitably become the target of Sunni anger, whatever position they take.

Abu Ahmed, a 33-year-old Alawite, shares Sunni Khaled's fears of living away from his own sect. He fled Homs for the port city of Tartous, where Alawites are a majority.

"I think a third of Alawites from Homs are now here in Tartous," he said. "There are thousands of Alawites in Tartous and neighboring villages."

A father of two with a Sunni wife, Abu Ahmed was a rich businessman who lived in Inshaat -- a wealthy, mostly Sunni neighborhood of Homs. He shut down his restaurant and marble factory due to the unrest, and left a few months ago when he got threats by email and notes slipped under his door.

"Homs is not for you," one email said. "Better to leave than see your son with a bullet in his head."

"After what happened I will sacrifice for any Alawite, to offer them any help even if I don't know them personally," he said. "Why? Because I see how the Sunnis treat us.

"My relationship with my wife is good, but for the sake of my kids it would have been better if I'd married an Alawite."

Residents say neighborhoods lying on the border between Sunnis and Alawite areas are almost ghost towns.

Christians are also fleeing Homs, which has been at the heart of the uprising and hard hit by a security force crackdown. At least a third of more than 5,000 people killed in Syria have died in the city and its surrounding province.

Heavy bombardment this month has killed hundreds, activists say, and smoke often billows from the battered skyline.

SNIPERS ON THE ROOF

Even families living among their own sect are trying to escape Homs.

Abed, 26, fled to Damascus with his parents and four siblings about a month ago. The shelling and fighting was worsening as state forces tightened their encirclement of the family's neighborhood of Bab Sebaa, a rebel hotspot.

"It was so bad we started sleeping in the hallways because we were so scared we might be shot through the windows in our rooms -- that is how our neighbor died," he said. "We could see snipers pacing the roof across the street and it terrified us."

Then, security forces began to raid the family's home regularly. Abed said they would threaten his parents and check their computers to see if anyone had looked up words on the Internet like 'Bashar', 'martyr' or 'revolution.'

Abed's father, a used car salesman, had enough money saved up to move the family away.

"I think half of the people in nearby Sunni neighborhoods left," he said," he said. "All we could take were our clothes and we were the lucky ones...People with nothing have to stay at home and stay quiet."

In Tartous, Abu Ahmed thinks of his old home but fears it may be years before he can return.

"The situation in Homs is going to last a long time. We won't see the end to this quickly."

Since he left, neighbors called to tell him his house was ransacked. His cousin, kidnapped a few months earlier, is still missing.

"An injustice has been done to us just because we are the same religion as this regime," he said, sighing.

"My family lived in Inshaat for 150 years. My father and grandfather were born there," he said. "But I don't dare go back ...This has been painful for me. I am a son of Homs.

Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Rosalind Russell

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