Syria town’s residents grow accustomed to violence


QUSAIR, Syria — The sky above the mosque is pastel blue, but in the distance is the sound of threatening thunder.

But it’s not stormy weather. It’s shelling, the same kind of shelling that already slammed into the Rahman mosque almost a dozen times, leaving the facade agape with holes that look like extra windows.

For more than two months, no one prayed in the mosque, fearing it would be struck again by government tanks positioned around this mostly opposition-run town near the border with Lebanon.

But as the shelling continues unabated and U.N. efforts to broker a meaningful cease-fire are paid no more than lip service, residents have returned to the mosque.

In the main prayer hall, men and boys have swept up the broken glass and crumbled concrete and wiped off a thick layer of dust that had entered through the shattered windows. One man dusted while carrying a handgun in his belt.

“This conflict is prolonged and prayer is mandatory,” said Abu Saeed, who heads a local religious council formed after street protests against President Bashar Assad began more than a year ago. “We had said we would wait till things calm down but they are remaining the same, so we don’t want to wait anymore. There is still fear, but whatever God wills will happen.”

Ordinary life has slipped away in this mostly Sunni Muslim town of more than 30,000. But in its place has emerged at least a semblance of daily routine, a sort of new normal as Syrians are accepting the fact that the conflict that has roiled the country for 15 months is likely to continue indefinitely, despite international diplomatic efforts to restore peace and an armed rebellion’s attempt to oust Assad.

Schools here did not open this year, and most men no longer go to work, either because they fear driving through army checkpoints or because they have enlisted in the Free Syrian Army. In the groves and orchards that surround Qusair, apples, apricots and blackberries ripen with no hands to harvest them.

Everyday conversations are punctuated by the sounds of shelling or sniper fire, followed by a lingering pause as residents wonder whether the rounds found their targets. Government snipers are stationed at the town’s hospital and City Hall, and the random shelling comes from the outskirts.

Combat in the streets is rare, but clashes erupt with some regularity on the edge of town. Residents say snipers appear to target people at random, and sometimes even shoot at garbage bins or birds, apparently out of boredom.

So, in some neighborhoods, crossing the street has become fraught with danger. Residents map out alternative routes to avoid roads they have traversed their entire lives.

Qusair, less than 20 miles from the battered city of Homs, rose up against Assad last year and as a result has been a frequent target of the government offensive against dissent. When rebels with the Farouq Brigade fled the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr in late February, many found their way here. Residents still come out in daily antigovernment protests, but it is often someone walking or driving along the main road out of town who becomes the next victim.

Even with the risk, though, some residents who had fled to the capital, Damascus, or Lebanon have begun to trickle back, saying they would rather die in their hometown than elsewhere.

“They have gotten used to it because the most important thing now is to remain defiant,” said Dr. Qassim Al-Zein, squinting sleepily through his glasses. “Because if the people don’t remain so, they have been broken and the uprising is done.”

Al-Zein, a specialist in internal medicine, heads a four-bed field hospital in Qusair and oversees surgeries performed by nurses.

Victims of the conflict from the town and surrounding villages are being treated, but most of the 150 or so patients a day are children suffering from illnesses like colds or stomach flu. Al-Zein and the nurses prescribe medicines that are smuggled into the country.

The National Hospital in Qusair has been taken over by the army and no other doctors are practicing in the town.

After the swiftness of the”Arab Spring”revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and evenLibya’snine-month armed uprising, Syrians harbored hope that theirs too would succeed quickly. Just a few months ago, some Syrians continued to maintain that Assad’s days were numbered even as the situation indicated otherwise.

Now those Syrians ask one another, “What do you think, is this conflict going to last a long time?”

People here have been surprised by the brutality of Assad and the international community’s unwillingness to get involved beyond sending observers and brokering failed peace plans.

“We’ve grown accustomed, you can say. We have submitted our fate to God and we are trying to live,” said Khawla, 26, a mother of two who asked to be identified by only her first name. “Despite the shelling, life is continuing. The people are creating hope for themselves.”

“There are many people who are trying to lead a normal life,” said her husband, Zakaria Harba. “But it is difficult.”

Outside, the morning sound is of metal grates lifting as shops open. Were it not for the gunfire in the distance, it might seem like an ordinary day.

“If everyone stops working, it will be a big problem for us because people need the basics,” said Harba, 31, who owns a shop that mostly sells Turkish coffee.

Coffee is a ritual here, of both daily life and hospitality, that even war cannot interrupt. For months his shelves were empty, but recently he was able to hire a Christian, for twice what it would normally cost, to make the perilous drive to the city of Hama to pick up a new supply.

The trip, Harba said, would be far more dangerous for him, a Sunni Muslim man, because a majority of the rebels are Sunnis. Christians have been largely on the sidelines of this conflict, although the Vatican recently expressed concern that they have been told to leave the town.

Harba’s shop used to be on the main market square. But when the plaza was shelled heavily more than a month ago, businesses that weren’t destroyed moved to nearby Omar ibn Khattab Street.

This street has become the commerce hub of Qusair, but shuttered storefronts still dominate. About 200 shops selling fruits and vegetables have been reduced to about two dozen, Harba said, and often half their shelves are bare. The same goes for the few pharmacies.

At a newly relocated pastry shop, the owner scrounges for basics like ground meat, flour and gas canisters.

“Each day we are just living for that day,” said the owner, who didn’t want to give his name for fear of reprisal. “Our projects, we have delayed everything. We are just working to eat.”

Inside, a refrigerator holds only a few bottles of domestic cola. Electricity and water are cut off regularly, but the owner, whose pot belly stretches the front of his shirt, still works throughout the day to fill orders for thyme, cheese and meat pastries. Oftentimes, they are for rebels who live communally nearby.

Across the street, at one of the few remaining cellphone shops, decorative phone cases and key chains sit untouched. Customers ask only to add minutes or buy chargers and batteries. Cellphones are a necessity for checking on the casualties of the latest attack.

“We were scared a lot in the beginning of the revolution; now we have gotten used to it,” said Zainab Harba, whose son owns the shop.

When the sound of shelling intensifies, the shop is shuttered. But on quiet days, it is reopened, if nothing more than to occupy time, Zainab Harba said.

“Now there’s just eating and shelling and massacring,” she said dryly.

But some major milestones of life cannot be denied.

Mohammad Khair Raeid plans to get married, even though he is one of hundreds of rebels who say they expect martyrdom any day. He was a soldier in the Syrian army for six months before he defected a year ago.

“It’s our right to get married, no?” said Raeid, 22, a lanky man with a prominent unibrow. “If we die at least we might leave something behind, a son that will raise my head in pride.”

He and his fiancee, 19, met three months ago when her family fled the battered city of Rastan. They expect to marry quickly and quietly when Raeid’s parents return from Lebanon, where they fled.

The conflict has left little opportunity for courting or large traditional wedding celebrations. As a dowry to his fiancee, on paper anyway, he will give his Kalashnikov rifle, as other rebels have done before him. It’s the only thing they own, he said.

“I might write my marriage contract and get killed a week later,” he said. “But should we have to die without getting married? We would die with heartbreak.”