In Sweida, young men take up arms
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.
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.