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Michael Jansen: Resilient in the face of terror
November 24, 2017
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Syrians living in cities, towns and villages occupied by Daesh had many ways of dealing with the cult and its radical allies. Tens of thousands ran away when Daesh arrived, but others stayed on and survived. Farmers from Raqqa interviewed by The Gulf Today in 2015 held on because they feared losing their homes and lands to Daesh commanders and fighters who took over abandoned property. Farmers and businessmen paid “taxes” in dollars to Daesh. Many kept a low profile and hid their sons and daughters to prevent them from being recruited by Daesh as soldiers, slaves or brides.

The Homs middle class dormitory suburb of al-Waer was never ruled by Daesh but was dominated by a collection of largely radical fundamentalist insurgent factions, including al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. Most fighters entered the area in May 2014 following the evacuation from Homs’ Old City under an agreement negotiated by Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, Homs’ Governor Talal al-Barazi, and Muslim and Christian clerics. Implementation was overseen by the UN. Foreign fighters smuggled themselves into the township through tunnels until the army sealed them.

 The fighters, who gained recruits from al-Waer, often clashed with each other and constantly persecuted civilians who remained. The Syrian army surrounded al-Waer and imposed a partial siege. The siege was partial since civil servants could go to their work and students to their schools and universities. They were permitted to bring home fruit and vegetables and other goods. Food and medical supplies entered al-Waer through a checkpoint at one entrance to the suburb. Consignments were searched by the army for weapons and ammunition before being loaded onto pickups and vans to be transported into al-Waer.

Merchants were, however, forced to pay “protection money” by armed men, raising prices so essentials became impossible for many residents. The UN managed on several occasions to deliver humanitarian supplies — including urgently needed medications and fluids needed for kidney dialysis. 

Agreements were repeatedly made for armed men and their families to leave but some — usually foreigners — always refused, making al-Waer residents hostages to a dwindling number of fighters. In March this year, the last group of fighters agreed to depart and were transported out of al-Waer in convoys to the north-western province of Idlib, held by al-Qaeda, and a Turkish-controlled pocket north of Aleppo.

 Residents of the township celebrated their departure. No one was more delighted than the Toumehs, the sole Christian family to stay put for three long years of privation and threats. Over tea and scones, wheelchair bound patriarch “Tommy” Toumeh, now 91, and his granddaughter Lama told their story to The Gulf Today.

The family was at home when fighters from the insurgent Free Syrian Army and Nusra entered the suburb. They were followed by Tunisians, Chechens and Saudis who came through the tunnels, bringing their sectarian ideology. One day while Lama was walking the Toumeh’s large, friendly dog Rambo, a young man from a neighbouring family told her Christians were not welcome and have to leave. Although his parents apologised when apprised of the incident, armed men later arrived at the house where the Toumehs had dwelled for half a century, and ordered them to leave within three days.

Mr Toumeh replied, “I will not leave. You can kill me if you like.” Lama, an English teacher, and her father, who trains journalists at the university, went to live in a Christian village east of Homs. Mr Toumeh stayed on with his wife and two daughters. Muslim and Christian neighbours rallied round, guarded the Toumehs and brought food so they would not have to leave home often. At times they baked bread and were grateful for the gift of “a single tomato,” said Lama.

The Toumehs were the only Christian family to stay in al-Waer although there were about 20 individual Christians who did not leave. Before the war there had been 300 Christian families and two churches in the suburb. Around 22,000 people remained in al-Waer although the UN estimated the population to be 70,000, perhaps intentionally with the aim of delivering supplies for that number as deliveries were difficult to arrange and few and far between. UN and humanitarian agencies also massively overstated the number of people living under insurgent control in eastern Aleppo.  

The Toumeh family was divided until this past April when the last group of fighters left. Mr Toumeh’s wife, 84, died shortly after they departed.

Born in 1925 in Homs, Mr Toumeh was educated by Jesuits. “My first foreign language was French, my second English,” he stated. He fought in the 1940s against Syria’s French occupiers and was on hand to cheer independence in April 1946 when the last French soldier left the country. “From 1945 until 1982 I worked for the Iraq Petroleum Company.”

He was sent to Nottingham in England and Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1956 for training in engineering and security. “I was employed on the pipeline carrying oil from Kirkuk in Iraq to the port of Tripoli In Lebanon.” He was posted at the pumping station known as “T3” near the ruins of ancient Palmyra.

On the wall in the sitting room there are Mr Toumeh’s oil paintings of two young girls in a countryside, copies of works of a minor 19th century French master whose name he has forgotten. He began painting in school and has continued throughout his long life. He is optimistic about Syria’s future: At present “the glass is half full.”

Today al-Waer has 45,000 residents, more than double the number who remained during the siege; before the war the suburb had a population of 150,000. During Syria’s pre-war boom days, the old town of al-Waer, with its family homes and small shops, was engulfed by multi-storied blocks of flats for newcomers seeking work in Homs’ manufacturing and service sectors, transforming al-Waer from a quiet town in the countryside into a bustling suburb of Homs, Syria’s third largest city.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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