Counter-point

THE TOUMEHS WERE THE ONLY CHRIS­TIAN FAM­ILY WHO RE­MAINED IN THEIR HOME IN AL-WAER, A HOMS SUB­URB, THROUGH­OUT ITS OC­CU­PA­TION BY DAESH AFTER THE GRAND­FA­THER, NOW 91, RE­FUSED TO LEAVE

The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - Michael Jansen

Syr­i­ans living in cities, towns and vil­lages oc­cu­pied by Daesh had many ways of deal­ing with the cult and its rad­i­cal al­lies. Tens of thou­sands ran away when Daesh ar­rived, but oth­ers stayed on and sur­vived. Farm­ers from Raqqa in­ter­viewed by The Gulf To­day in 2015 held on be­cause they feared los­ing their homes and lands to Daesh com­man­ders and fight­ers who took over aban­doned prop­erty. Farm­ers and busi­ness­men paid “taxes” in dol­lars to Daesh. Many kept a low pro­file and hid their sons and daugh­ters to pre­vent them from be­ing re­cruited by Daesh as sol­diers, slaves or brides.

The Homs mid­dle class dor­mi­tory sub­urb of al-waer was never ruled by Daesh but was dom­i­nated by a col­lec­tion of largely rad­i­cal fun­da­men­tal­ist in­sur­gent fac­tions, in­clud­ing alqaeda’s Jab­hat al-nusra. Most fight­ers en­tered the area in May 2014 fol­low­ing the evac­u­a­tion from Homs’ Old City under an agree­ment ne­go­ti­ated by Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Min­is­ter Ali Haidar, Homs’ Gov­er­nor Talal al-barazi, and Mus­lim and Chris­tian cler­ics. Im­ple­men­ta­tion was over­seen by the UN. For­eign fight­ers smug­gled them­selves into the town­ship through tun­nels un­til the army sealed them.

The fight­ers, who gained re­cruits from al-waer, of­ten clashed with each other and con­stantly per­se­cuted civil­ians who re­mained. The Syr­ian army sur­rounded al­waer and im­posed a par­tial siege. The siege was par­tial since civil ser­vants could go to their work and stu­dents to their schools and uni­ver­si­ties. They were per­mit­ted to bring home fruit and veg­eta­bles and other goods. Food and med­i­cal sup­plies en­tered al-waer through a check­point at one en­trance to the sub­urb. Con­sign­ments were searched by the army for weapons and am­mu­ni­tion be­fore be­ing loaded onto pick­ups and vans to be trans­ported into al-waer.

Mer­chants were, how­ever, forced to pay “pro­tec­tion money” by armed men, rais­ing prices so es­sen­tials be­came im­pos­si­ble for many res­i­dents. The UN man­aged on sev­eral oc­ca­sions to de­liver hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies — in­clud­ing ur­gently needed med­i­ca­tions and flu­ids needed for kid­ney dial­y­sis.

Agree­ments were re­peat­edly made for armed men and their fam­i­lies to leave but some — usu­ally for­eign­ers — al­ways

re­fused, mak­ing al-waer res­i­dents hostages to a dwin­dling num­ber of fight­ers. In March this year, the last group of fight­ers agreed to de­part and were trans­ported out of al-waer in con­voys to the north­west­ern prov­ince of Idlib, held by al-qaeda, and a Turk­ish-con­trolled pocket north of Aleppo.

Res­i­dents of the town­ship cel­e­brated their departure. No one was more de­lighted than the Toumehs, the sole Chris­tian fam­ily to stay put for three long years of pri­va­tion and threats. Over tea and scones, wheel­chair bound pa­tri­arch “Tommy” Toumeh, now 91, and his grand­daugh­ter Lama told their story to The Gulf To­day.

The fam­ily was at home when fight­ers from the in­sur­gent Free Syr­ian Army and Nusra en­tered the sub­urb. They were fol­lowed by Tu­nisians, Chechens and Saudis who came through the tun­nels, bring­ing their sec­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy. One day while Lama was walk­ing the Toumeh’s large, friendly dog Rambo, a young man from a neigh­bour­ing fam­ily told her Chris­tians were not wel­come and have to leave. Al­though his par­ents apol­o­gised when ap­prised of the in­ci­dent, armed men later ar­rived at the house where the Toumehs had dwelled for half a cen­tury, and or­dered them to leave within three days.

Mr Toumeh replied, “I will not leave. You can kill me if you like.” Lama, an English teacher, and her fa­ther, who trains jour­nal­ists at the univer­sity, went to live in a Chris­tian vil­lage east of Homs. Mr Toumeh stayed on with his wife and two daugh­ters. Mus­lim and Chris­tian neigh­bours ral­lied round, guarded the Toumehs and brought food so they would not have to leave home of­ten. At times they baked bread and were grate­ful for the gift of “a sin­gle tomato,” said Lama.

The Toumehs were the only Chris­tian fam­ily to stay in al- Waer al­though there were about 20 in­di­vid­ual Chris­tians who did not leave. Be­fore the war there had been 300 Chris­tian fam­i­lies and two churches in the sub­urb. Around 22,000 peo­ple re­mained in al-waer al­though the UN es­ti­mated the pop­u­la­tion to be 70,000, per­haps in­ten­tion­ally with the aim of de­liv­er­ing sup­plies for that num­ber as de­liv­er­ies were dif­fi­cult to ar­range and few and far be­tween. UN and hu­man­i­tar­ian agen­cies also mas­sively over­stated the num­ber of peo­ple living under in­sur­gent con­trol in east­ern Aleppo.

The Toumeh fam­ily was di­vided un­til this past April when the last group of fight­ers left. Mr Toumeh’s wife, 84, died shortly after they de­parted.

Born in 1925 in Homs, Mr Toumeh was ed­u­cated by Je­suits. “My first for­eign lan­guage was French, my sec­ond English,” he stated. He fought in the 1940s against Syria’s French oc­cu­piers and was on hand to cheer in­de­pen­dence in April 1946 when the last French soldier left the coun­try. “From 1945 un­til 1982 I worked for the Iraq Pe­tro­leum Com­pany.”

He was sent to Not­ting­ham in Eng­land and Belfast in North­ern Ire­land in 1956 for train­ing in en­gi­neer­ing and se­cu­rity. “I was em­ployed on the pipe­line car­ry­ing oil from Kirkuk in Iraq to the port of Tripoli In Le­banon.” He was posted at the pump­ing sta­tion known as “T3” near the ru­ins of an­cient Palmyra.

On the wall in the sit­ting room there are Mr Toumeh’s oil paint­ings of two young girls in a coun­try­side, copies of works of a mi­nor 19th cen­tury French master whose name he has for­got­ten. He be­gan paint­ing in school and has con­tin­ued through­out his long life. He is op­ti­mistic about Syria’s fu­ture: At present “the glass is half full.”

To­day al-waer has 45,000 res­i­dents, more than dou­ble the num­ber who re­mained dur­ing the siege; be­fore the war the sub­urb had a pop­u­la­tion of 150,000.

Dur­ing Syria’s pre-war boom days, the old town of al-waer, with its fam­ily homes and small shops, was en­gulfed by multi-sto­ried blocks of flats for new­com­ers seek­ing work in Homs’ man­u­fac­tur­ing and ser­vice sec­tors, trans­form­ing al-waer from a quiet town in the coun­try­side into a bustling sub­urb of Homs, Syria’s third largest city.

Tommy Toumeh

The fam­ily: two daugh­ters, Tommy, Lama and Rambo.

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