BEYANON, Syria — Anyone who tries to slip out of the Shiite villages of Zahraa and Nubl is risking his life. Sunni rebel snipers stand ready to gun down anyone who dares. Roads are blocked with barricades and checkpoints.
For more than three months, Syria's rebels have imposed a smothering siege on the villages, home to around 35,000 people, maintaining they are a den of pro-regime gunmen responsible for killing and kidnapping Sunnis from nearby towns.
The bitterness and reprisals between neighbors illustrate how the civil war has torn apart the longtime coexistence among ethnic and religious groups in Syria. And it points to the perils of 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, mostly regime loyalists, in this overwhelmingly Sunni region in the northern countryside of Aleppo province. The siege has its roots in months of tensions since the Sunni-led revolt against President Bashar 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 their siege, seeking revenge.
Perhaps more than anyone, Bashar al-Hajji feels the impact of the rift. A native of Beyanon, a Sunni village of 5,000 across the main north-south highway from Zahraa and Nubl, he's the only Sunni in town who's married to a Shiite. 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 home to 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 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, nodding toward his house.
Al-Hajji limps from a gunshot wound he suffered in February, when a gang of Shiites 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 taken after his release, his face bruised and a deep cut across his cheek.
He pointed to a neighborhood of Zahraa in the distance and said it had been home to pro-regime snipers and machine gun nests that shot at "everything that moves" in Beyanon.
Now dirt mounds — and in some cases slabs of limestone — block the roads leading into Zahraa and Nubl. Rebels have set up checkpoints, and snipers are positioned in empty buildings. Zahraa has its own snipers, on a hill overlooking the road, and they open fire on anyone they see trying to get into the village, fearful of rebel attacks. The barricades were the closest The Associated Press was able to get to the two villages.
Al-Hajji's wife's brother was wounded in a recent firefight with Sunnis, he said, but her family said nothing of his injury. They are also evasive when she asks them about conditions in the two villages.
Al-Hajji's 62-year-old father, Abdou al-Hajji, adopts a conciliatory tone when speaking about the divides. He notes how Sunnis "embraced" Shiites who fled Lebanon during Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006.
"We have long lived in peace alongside the Shiites," the elder al-Hajji said. "We shared joy in weddings and grief in funerals."