Christian village breathes easier as Syrian army advances By Sammy Ketz

13 May, 2013 — The Daily Star (Lebanon)

GHASSANIYEH, Syria: The advance of regime troops on the rebel stronghold of Qusair in central Syria has come as a relief for at least one village, mostly Christian, nestled on the shores of Lake Quttina.


For the first time in eight months, the villagers of Ghassaniyeh do not have to make the risky trip across the lake to bring in fresh food and supplies.


Some 13 kilometers northwest of the rebel-held town of Qusair, the current target of a regime offensive, a small road bordered by green fields of wheat dotted with white poppies leads to Ghassaniyeh.


The village is home to 8,000 Christians and a heterodox minority called the Murshidiyeen, who emerged in Syria at the beginning of the 20th century.


“For eight months, we were surrounded by the rebels, who were set up in the villages around us. They stopped us from using the road, so we only had the lake left,” said Ghassan Hamdan, the mukhtar of Ghassaniyeh.


Qusair and Ghassaniyeh are both part of Homs governorate, a religiously mixed province where Sunni areas rub shoulders with towns and villages inhabited by Alawites, Christians and other minorities.


Just two kilometers from Ghassaniyeh lies the remains of the village of Shomariyeh where, two days earlier, the regime army had routed rebel fighters.


Ruined houses, rubble and charred walls show the ferocity of the fighting that took place there.


“We had to cross the lake at night to look for mazout, petrol, margarine and other food products. It was an ordeal because armed men used to open fire if, by chance they caught sight of a boat,” said Ahmad al-Aalay, head of the municipality.


An Islamist group called Kataeb Ahl al-Athr posted a video online on Sept. 15, 2012, showing heavy-caliber weapons firing on a boat crossing the lake at night, calling the passengers “shabbiha,” or pro-regime militiamen.


Lake Quttina, which sits next to the village, is 12 kilometers from Homs, the provincial capital and Syria’s third city. Filled from the Orontes river, the lake stretches across 61 square kilometers.


“Because of the siege imposed by the rebels, I braved winds, waves and tornadoes to bring in the goods my village needed,” said Hasan Bashir al-Mahmoud, who owns a boat.


“One day, three men who were bringing bread drowned because of the bad weather,” added the young man, who used to stock up on supplies at the village of Debbine on the other side of the lake.


In this agricultural village where people make a living by growing potatoes and cabbage, it was the fishermen who came to the rescue.


“For the first month, they used to row in their old wooden boats, but then they bought motorboats to make transport easier,” Mahmoud said.


But in spite of the regime’s advances, the war in the area is still far from over, as there are another four rebel-held villages between Ghassaniyeh and Qusair.


“The army has to take them for the siege to be completely lifted, but there are another 4,000 rebels they need to push out of the area,” Hamdan said.


He insisted that the Syrian army had “liberated” the area, but grew irritated when asked about the role played by Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah in the fighting.


“Hezbollah is further to the west, near to the Lebanese border and not here,” he said.


In the past month, regime forces have plowed significant resources into their push on Qusair, a strategic area on the road linking the capital Damascus to the coast, passing through Homs province.


Sitting on cushions on the ground at the entrance to Ghassaniyeh sipping tea, George, a building worker in his 30s, savored the moment.


George had been working in the city of Tripoli in the north of neighboring Lebanon, and this was his first visit home in eight months.


“When my family told me two days ago that the road was open, I dropped everything and came straight here,” George added

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