In Sweida, young men take up arms

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY ZEINA KARAM As­so­ci­ated Press

SWEIDA, SYRIA — Maysoun Saab’s eyes filled with tears as she re­called find­ing her par­ents bleed­ing to death on the ground out­side their home, min­utes af­ter they were shot by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants on a killing spree across once tran­quil vil­lages they in­fil­trated in a south­east­ern cor­ner of Syria.

Within an hour, she had lost her mother, fa­ther, brother and 34 other mem­bers of her ex­tended fam­ily. Over­all, more than 200 peo­ple were killed and 30 hostages ab­ducted in the co­or­di­nated July 25 at­tacks across Sweida prov­ince.

It was one of the big­gest sin­gle mas­sacres of the Syr­ian civil war and the worst blood­shed to hit the prov­ince since the con­flict be­gan in 2011, un­der­scor­ing the per­sis­tent threat posed by the Is­lamic State group, which has been largely van­quished but re­tains pock­ets of ter­ri­tory in south­ern and east­ern Syria.

More than two months af­ter the at­tack, ten­sions over the miss­ing hostages — all women and chil­dren — are boil­ing over in Sweida, a moun­tain­ous area which is a cen­ter for the Druze re­li­gious mi­nor­ity. Anger is build­ing up, and young men are tak­ing up arms. This week, the mil­i­tants shot dead one of the women, 25-year-old Thar­wat Abu Am­mar, trig­ger­ing protests and a sit-in out­side the Sweida gov­er­norate build­ing by rel­a­tives en­raged at the lack of progress in ne­go­ti­a­tions to free them.

It’s a stark change for a usu­ally peace­ful prov­ince that has man­aged to stay largely on the side­lines of the seven-year Syr­ian war, and where most vil­lagers work graz­ing live­stock over the sur­round­ing hills.

“We still haven’t re­ally ab­sorbed what hap­pened to us. It’s like a dream or a night­mare that you don’t wake up from,” said Saab, a slen­der woman with a long braid show­ing un­der­neath a loose white scarf cov­er­ing her hair.

Dur­ing a rare visit to the Sweida coun­try­side by an As­so­ci­ated Press team, armed young men and teens, some as young as 14, pa­trolled the streets. Some wore mil­i­tary uni­forms, oth­ers the tra­di­tional black baggy pants and white caps worn by Druze vil­lagers. They said the Syr­ian army had pro­vided them with weapons to form civil­ian pa­trols to de­fend their towns and vil­lages.

Res­i­dents re­called a sum­mer day of pure ter­ror that be­gan with gun­fire and cries of “Al­lahu Ak­bar!” that rang out at 4 a.m. Mil­i­tants who had slipped into the vil­lages un­der the cover of dark­ness knocked on doors, some­times call­ing out res­i­dents’ names to trick them into open­ing. Those who did were gunned down. Oth­ers were shot in their beds. Women and chil­dren were dragged scream­ing from their homes.

Word of the at­tack spread in the vil­lages of Sh­biki, Shreihi and Rami as neigh­bors called one an­other to warn of the mil­i­tant ram­page. A se­ries of sui­cide bomb­ings un­folded si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the nearby pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Sweida.

In Shreihi, a small agri­cul­tural vil­lage of ce­ment houses, Saab and her hus­band were asleep in one room, their chil­dren, 16-year-old Ba­yar and 13-year-old Habib, in an­other when she heard the first burst of gun­fire. From her win­dow, she saw the sil­hou­ette of her neigh­bor, Lotfi Saab, and his wife in their house. Then she saw armed men push open the door, point a ri­fle at them and shoot. Saab screamed, her voice re­ver­ber­at­ing through the open win­dow. The mil­i­tants threw a grenade in her di­rec­tion.

[AP PHOTO]

In this Thurs­day photo, young Druze armed men, who carry weapons to de­fend their vil­lage from Is­lamic State at­tack, pa­trol the vil­lage of Rami in the south­ern prov­ince of Sweida, Syria.

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