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ICC Note:
The story of Qusayr and the fate of its Christians demonstrate the complexity and the danger facing all Syrians in the midst of the ongoing civil war. Once a city where its Sunni and Christian communities peacefully lived side-by-side, the Christians have all been forced out by Sunni militants, it has become a dangerous place for all as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken the city. The future remains unclear as neither side has shown a way to provide security for all Syrians.
8/08/2013 Syria (The Spectator) – Ilyas was, he told me, the very last Christian to flee Qusayr. He had been one of just a handful in the town to join the revolution — an odd thing for a Christian to do because the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were and are mostly Sunnis, and the Christians mostly sided with Assad. Still, it didn’t save him. One day he heard banging on the door and saw men with Kalashnikovs standing there. There were familiar faces, some he had known for years. He said: ‘They told me: “You’re a Christian – you’re not welcome here.”’
Qusayr is a grim little town of 30,000-40,000, a few miles into Syria from the Lebanese border. It was once around three-quarters Sunni Muslim, one-quarter Christian, all living peacefully together. It took 18 months from the beginning of the uprising to the knock on Ilyas’s front door, and in that time what was happening in Qusayr mirrored and explained what was going wrong with the revolution across the country.
We happened to be in Qusayr on the day, in January last year, that marked the start of the trouble between Sunnis and Christians. ‘Some hothead is kidnapping Christians,’ said the young FSA commander, leaping up after getting a call on his radio. ‘We’ve got to go.’ His men stirred themselves from their positions sitting cross-legged around a kerosene stove and picked up weapons from a corner. We were taken to see a prisoner they viewed as the cause of the crisis.
Corporal Joseph Hanna was lying on a mattress in a makeshift cell, a dark red bloodstain showing through heavy bandages on his left thigh. He had been at home on leave from guard duty when FSA rebel fighters burst in, shooting him in the leg. ‘I’m just a corporal in the army,’ he said, weakly. His FSA jailer shouted: ‘Liar! You are Mukhabarat [secret police].’
Hanna’s real crime had been to set up a checkpoint in town, to guard the street where he and other Christians lived. This checkpoint inspired fear and resentment among Sunnis. There was firing from behind the checkpoint’s sandbags during the weekly Friday demonstration, it was said. The FSA had decided to put a stop to this.
But things did not go according to plan. After Hanna was seized, his brothers swiftly kidnapped six Sunnis. The families of the six responded by abducting perhaps as many as 30 Christian men. And it was in the middle of this that I first met Ilyas, who as the rebels’ token Christian became the mediator. Ilyas was desperate not to see a Sunni–Christian conflict ignite, which the Christians as a minority would surely lose. The whole town felt the same way and so a deal was hastily struck. Everyone would be released: the 30 Christians, the six Sunnis, Hanna himself, as long as he agreed to leave town. Qusayr exhaled, gratefully.
But that was not the end of Qusayr’s drama — it turned out to be just the beginning, as Ilyas explained when I met him in Lebanon last week. ‘After that, people in Qusayr started to change,’ he said. A couple of months after the tit-for-tat kidnappings, six men from Hanna’s extended family were killed. Next, Ilyas said, Christians with no connection to the police or army started to disappear, bodies dumped in the street a couple of hours later.

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