In war-torn Syria, secrets and double lives

IDLIB, Syria Wed Nov 14, 2012 10:03pm IST

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IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) - Every morning, Amjad goes through two army checkpoints to attend a school run by the Syrian government. Every night, he sits by his father's side to plot attacks to bring that government down.

Amjad doesn't see the strangeness of his predicament - reciting chants of loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad in the army-controlled city where his school is, and going home to a village where everyone knows his father's rebel unit just blew up an Assad tank convoy.

To the scrawny 16-year-old, living a double life has become the norm, as it has for many as the country's 19-month-old uprising descends into civil war.

"Sometimes at the checkpoints when they see where I come from they ask me about certain rebels from my village, to test me, but I haven't messed up yet. Or they make me say if I'm pro or anti, so I say I'm pro-Assad," says Amjad.

His school is one of the few still functioning in the war-torn northern Idlib province, and he asked that his village not be named for fear of exposing his identity.

"It's humiliating, but my dad insists I finish my studies, he doesn't want my future destroyed because of the revolution."

When Syria's revolt began as a peaceful protest movement, many participants said it was a moment when hidden views were shared honestly for the first time. They described it as a time that brought fellow Syrians together.

But Assad's crackdown has transformed their movement into a bloody armed revolt and the conflict, in which more than 32,000 people have died, is tearing the country apart, dividing friends and families and spinning a web of secrets between neighbors.

In the rebel-held northern town of Atareb, where daily air raids have reduced half the buildings to rubble, a woman stands on her doorstep singing blessings to the fighters who pass by. No one in the town but her family knows her son is a devoted Assad soldier.

"My son believes he's doing the right thing. I love him so I accept that," says the wrinkled, greying woman, as she and her children pick shrapnel out of the kitchen - remnants of rockets fired indiscriminately by the army her son is fighting for.

The woman, who asked not to be named, hasn't seen her oldest son in a year, and she hardly speaks to her neighbors now. Her family keeps to itself for fear that too many questions may expose their secret. It is agonizing and lonely, she says, but she fears being driven from home if the truth was discovered.

"Everyone in the town thinks my son is working abroad, and I keep it that way. In a situation like this, people feel it's 'with us or against us'. I personally am with no one, I am against the whole thing. It's killing our children."

HIDING FROM THE NEIGHBOURS

With the lines of loyalties drawn, the cost of those classifications can be deadly for men like Ahmed, a Shi'ite Muslim fighting with the Sunni-led rebels. Syria's conflict has increasingly been infused with sectarian overtones.

Assad is a member of Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and has been supported by Shi'ite power Iran. Syria's majority Sunni population has been the driving force of the uprising, and rebels get most of their support from Iran's Sunni Arab rivals in the Gulf.

"My family are opposition sympathizers but we're from a Shi'ite town that supports Assad. If the neighbors knew I had defected to the rebels, my family would be targeted," says the pale 20-year-old fighter, who walks with a slight limp.

Ahmed has not even spoken to his family since he fled, hoping the lack of contact will protect them. "They don't even know I've been wounded twice fighting here on the border."

Both times he was hurt, a comrade lent him his identity card, in case pro-Assad spies were lurking at the hospital in Turkey where he was being treated. Ahmed fears even calling his family could put them in danger.

"I don't know if they're all alive or not. But this is a normal part of war, I think. We don't know each other anymore."

Beyond the fear of spies and betrayal, there are plenty of mundane reasons to cover up one's identity in Syria these days.

The battle lines may be set between Assad's forces and the rebels, but most Syrians still navigate daily between areas controlled by each side in order to hang on to their jobs and homes, or simply to get to the local marketplace.

For Abu Obeid, a rebel fighting in the northern city of Aleppo, the choice to keep a secret life is pure economics.

Once a school teacher at a government-run elementary school, he now spends his days behind sandbags in a dark alleyway of Aleppo's ancient Old City, trading fire with Assad's snipers.

But every month, he goes to the education ministry to pick up his salary. His school, like most in the area, has been closed since Aleppo, Syria's largest city, became one of the main battlegrounds of the conflict three months ago. Clashes erupt day and night and shelling and explosions are constant.

Despite the closures, the state has continued paying salaries to those it does not suspect of joining the opposition.

"I am keeping my work as a rebel secret because I need the money for my wife and children," he says, winking. "You don't get paid to be a rebel."

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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