Rob Celliers, Associated Press
BEYANON, Syria — Anyone who dares try to slip out of the Shiite villages of Zahraa and Nubl is risking their life. Sunni rebel snipers outside are ready to gun them down. Roads out are blocked with barricades and checkpoints. Twice a day government helicopters bring residents supplies in a crucial lifeline.
For more than three months, Syria's rebels have imposed a smothering siege on the villages, home to around 35,000 people, which they say are a den of pro-regime gunmen who have shelled, killed and kidnapped Sunnis from nearby villages.
The scene of bitterness and reprisals between neighbors in the northern Syrian countryside illustrates how the civil war has torn apart the longtime coexistence among ethnic and religious groups under the rule of the secular Baath party of President Bashar Assad and his father before him. It points to the perils of the sectarian divisions that lie ahead for the nation of 21 million as the war worsens.
Zahraa and Nubl make up a small pocket of Shiites, largely Assad loyalists, in the overwhelmingly Sunni region of the north in Aleppo province. The siege has its roots in months of tensions between the two sides since the Sunni-led revolt against Assad began in March 2011. Sunnis in the area say pro-regime gunmen known as Shabiha operated from the two villages, attacking nearby towns as they rose up against Assad. The violence fueled a cycle of tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings and tore apart the social fabric between the sects.
Then in July, rebels overwhelmed most of Aleppo province, driving out government forces and taking control of the region's towns and villages. The tables were turned: Many Assad loyalists fled to Zahraa and Nubl for refuge, and the rebels clamped down with their siege, seeking revenge.
Perhaps more than anyone, Bashar al-Hajji feels the impact of the rift. He's a native of Beyanon, a Sunni village of 5,000 that lies across the main north-south highway from Zahraa and Nubl. He's the only Sunni in town who's married to a Shiite, and his wife of five years is from Zahraa.
"I am caught between the two sides," said al-Hajji, a 28-year-old mechanic who is not just Sunni but follows the sect's most conservative school, Salafism.
His wife's family shuns him and is persistently telling her to leave him and come back to them in Zahraa.
"They know that I am a Salafi, and they think it is permitted for me to kill Shiites," said al-Hajji, sitting in the inner yard of the family's home in Beyanon. "Well, if this is the case, I don't have to go far to kill one," he said smiling while looking at the house.
Al-Hajji limps from a gunshot wound he sustained in February, when a four-member Shiite gang from Zahraa beat and kidnapped him.
"Only when my family and others kidnapped about 20 of their own and threatened to kill them was I released," he said. He showed a photograph of himself taken after his release, with his face bruised and a deep cut across his cheek.
He pointed to a neighborhood of Zahraa in the distance and said that it had been home to pro-regime snipers and machine gun nests that shot at "everything that moves" in Beyanon.
"They killed and wounded so many of us, we had to block the road," he said.
His friend, Khaled Mohammed Saraj, a 29-year-old carpenter, was kidnapped by Shiites in July while driving near Zahraa at 6 a.m.
"They kept me in an underground room for six days," recounted the father of two. He said three others were also being held there, and that their captors did not abuse them. They were eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
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