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In A Ravaged Syrian Village, Planning For The Future

Oct 17, 2012
Originally published on October 18, 2012 8:00 pm

The rebels of the Free Syrian Army recently retook the small farming village of Khirbet al-Joz, just across the border from Turkey. Soon after, Syrian men who had been in Turkish refugee camps returned to the village to see what had happened to their homes.

Activists from a group called the Syrian Emergency Task Force also visited Khirbet al-Joz and filmed video of villagers as they toured the charred ruins.

One man points to a hole in the wall: "Look, this is where the rocket entered. These are Bashar's reforms," he says, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A Devastated Village

Syrian-American activist Mouaz Moustafa says it appears as if pro-Assad soldiers set fire to every house they could before leaving and burned much of the farmland around the village for good measure.

"The greatest heartbreak that I saw was when each one of the farmers ... would say, 'Look, these were my olives, look what they've done,' " Moustafa says.

But, he adds, "I think I was more sad than they were. They had hope, and they were so excited that their village was back, and they said, 'We're going to rebuild, we're going to fix everything,' and to have civilian leadership."

In an interview recorded by the activists, one rebel commander, Hazem Kintar, said he had to restrain some of his fighters, who wanted to retaliate against the Syrian soldiers they had captured.

Kintar said one of the rebels asked for three prisoners from the minority Alawite community, so he could blow them up at a military checkpoint.

"What kind of religious guy would want to do that?" Kintar asked. "We're treating our prisoners decently."

Moustafa, the activist, says when he heard that the nearly 300 prisoners had been divided into Sunni Muslims in one room and Alawites, Christians and Shiite Muslims in another, he was worried.

"But when they took me to the room with the Alawites and the Shiites and the Christians, they had taken special care of them. They had blankets, they were warm," Moustafa says. "The commander was saying, 'Look, we have to live with these people afterward, and we're not here to pass judgment on anyone.' "

A Plan For Rebuilding

The scenes described by the activists could not be independently verified, although photos and videos appear to back up parts of their story. Moustafa believes Khirbet al-Joz is unlikely to be stormed again by Assad's forces, because it's just too close to the Turkish border.

But the fact that there was fighting raging there just days ago suggests that this is a hope more than a certainty. For now, Moustafa says he is racing to secure money to keep the village afloat.

"Khirbet al-Joz seemed a perfect place to show what post-Assad Syria could be. They did not want a religious scholar to rule them, they wanted a civilian council to rule them," Moustafa says.

"And so it seemed, because of its small population, that maybe through private donations of American citizens — doctors or wealthy businessmen and so on — that we could actually make this a perfect example ... of what could be done," he says.

Eventually, Moustafa says, he hopes to string together a number of villages run by civilian councils. Activists say the Turkish government has provided some food for Khirbet al-Joz, but at the moment this experiment in carving out a secular, democratic piece of Syria on a burned-out northern hillside is hanging by a thread.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The conflict in Syria has been going on for 19 months and still, supporters of the opposition have little idea what a Syria after President Bashar al-Assad might look like. there are signs of Islamist militant influence among rebels and reports of violence against prisoners held by rebels. But in one village in northern Syria, activists are racing to nurture the seeds of a secular and democratic local government.

NPR's Peter Kenyon learned more on a recent trip to Turkey's border with Syria.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When Khirbet al-Joz, a small farming village just across the border from Turkey, was retaken last week by the rebel Free Syrian Army, men from the village returned from Turkish refugee camps to see their homes. There wasn't much to see.

Activists from a group called the Syrian Emergency Task Force also visited Khirbet al-Joz and filmed this video of villagers touring the charred ruins of their homes. One man points to a hole in the wall and says, look, this is where the rocket entered - these are Bashar's reforms.

Syrian-American activist Mouz Moustafa says pro-Assad soldiers apparently set fire to every house they could before leaving, and burned much of the farmland around the village for good measure.

MOUZ MOUSTAFA: So the greatest heartbreak that I saw, you know, was when each one of the famers or the people would say, look, these were my olives, look what they've done. But we saw people that, you know, I think I was more sad than they were. They had hope and they were so excited that their village was back and they said we're going to rebuild, we're going to fix everything, and to have civilian leadership.

KENYON: The activist recorded an interview with rebel commander Hazem Kintar, who said he'd had to restrain some of his fighters who wanted to retaliate against the Syrian soldiers they'd captured.

HAZEM KINTAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: There was a guy who came up and asked for three Alawite prisoners, says the commander, so he could blow them up at a military checkpoint. Now, what kind of religious guy would want to do that? We're treating our prisoners decently.

Moustafa says when he heard that the nearly 300 prisoners had been divided into Sunnis in one room and Alawites, Christians, and Shiites in another, he was worried.

MOUSTAFA: But when they took me to the room with the Alawites and the Shiites and the Christians there, they had taken special care of them. They had blankets, they were warm. The commander was saying, look, we have to live with these people afterwards, and we're not here to pass judgment on anyone.

KENYON: The scenes described by the activists could not be independently verified, although photos and videos appear to back up parts of their story. Moustafa believes Khirbet al-Joz is unlikely to be stormed again by Assad's forces because it's just too close to the Turkish border. But the fact that there was fighting raging there just days ago suggests that this is a hope more than a certainty. For now, Moustafa says he's racing to secure money to keep the village afloat.

MOUSTAFA: Khirbet al-Joz seemed the perfect place to show what post-Assad Syria could be. They did not want a religious scholar to rule them. They wanted a civilian council to rule them. And so, it seemed, because of its small population, that maybe through private donations of American citizens - doctors or wealthy businessmen and so on - that we could actually make this a perfect example, an example of what could be done.

KENYON: Moustafa says eventually he hopes to string together a number of villages all run by civilian councils. Activists say the Turkish government has provided some food for Khirbet al-Joz, but at the moment, this experiment in carving out a secular, democratic piece of Syria on a burned-out northern hillside is hanging by a thread.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.