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Talal had set his cellular phone to silent, so he didn't hear the 18 attempts to rouse him in the early hours of Aug. 4. The 43-year-old Syrian father of four woke at a quarter to 6, just as his brother's wife was calling.
"She told me that the armed men had entered my village and killed my wife and children and everyone in it," he said. "That was how the information first reached me."
Talal is an Alawite, a member of the same minority sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Most Syrians, about 70 percent, are Sunni Muslims. Some two and a half years ago, before the Syrian uprising kicked off in March 2011, it was generally considered rude to ask a Syrian his or her sect. But the once peaceful protest movement that morphed into a civil war and has claimed at least 100,000 lives has taken an increasingly sectarian tone. Now sectarian affiliation carries a presumed political position, although in reality it's not that simple. There are Alawites and members of other minority groups, including Christians, who are opposed to Assad; and there are Sunnis who support the regime even though most rebels are Sunni.
Talal still lives in the working-class Alawite neighborhood of Mazze 86 in Damascus, but after several car bombs in the area, he sent his family away from the capital. They took refuge in his sleepy village of Blouta, in the northwestern countryside of the province of Latakia, the Alawite heartland. Being the family's breadwinner, he stayed behind to work in his cosmetics and perfume store, believing his family would be safer in the village even though it was near the rebel-controlled Sunni villages of Salma and Doreen.
But on Aug. 4, Sunni rebels positioned in Salma and Doreen captured Blouta and 10 other Alawite villages before dawn. Some 105 Alawite women and children were taken hostage in the raids. Although regime forces won back the villages 15 days later, the captives remain in the custody of Katibat il Muhajiroon, or the Battalion of Emigrants, a hard-line group of foreign fighters led by a Libyan, Abu Jaafar il Libi.
"At first I thought it couldn't be true," said Talal, speaking from the Lebanese capital, Beirut. He called his wife's cellular phone. Somebody picked up but didn't speak.
"I could hear screams and cries and shouts of 'Allahu akbar' (God is great)," and then the line went dead, said Talal. He called and sent text messages requesting information about his family. All went unanswered.
He headed toward his village, arriving around 1 p.m., although he could get no closer than 2 miles away. The Syrian army was shelling his hometown, backed by air support from MiG fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
"I saw a lot of smoke, so much smoke I couldn't see the houses in the villages," Talal said. He remembered something his wife had told him: if there was trouble -- and she had time -- she had said she would hide their children in an attic-like storage space above the kitchen.
"I told the officer, 'Please, sir, don't let the planes hit my house, there's a 99.99 percent chance my children are still in it,'” Talal said. “I don't know if he listened."
Ray of hope
It wasn't until five or six days later that Talal learned his children were still alive, when his eldest child, a 13-year-old daughter, called him. He still isn't sure about his wife. His daughter told him she was fine and that her mother, two sisters and brother were with her. But then one of her captors took the phone and said Talal's wife was dead. Talal knows his children are alive because he saw his three youngest on a video uploaded to YouTube on Aug. 12. The three-minute, 11-second clip shows the Alawite prisoners sitting along the perimeter of a roofed outdoor area. Talal did not see his eldest daughter or his wife among them.
He says he has received four telephone calls from one of the men holding his family. He doesn't know the man's name but said he speaks with a Syrian accent. The man requested 4 million Syrian pounds (about $35,400) to release the children, and asked Talal to tell the head of the regime's military-security division in the provincial capital, Latakia city, that the kidnappers wanted to negotiate a prisoner swap.
Talal tried to get an audience with the official but failed. Instead he saw his deputy. That wasn't good enough for the kidnappers. Talal, along with several other men whose families were among the captives, pleaded for help from a number of officials in Latakia, including the governor, the local head of the ruling Baath Party and the provincial mufti, as well as the information minister and the minister of awqaf (Islamic religious endowments). They came back empty-handed.
"They don't feel with us," Talal said.
He refuses, however, to deal with the Syrian political opposition represented by the National Coalition.
"It's impossible," he said, "because we have a preconceived idea that these members of the opposition, whoever they are, are killers and a partner in the deaths or kidnappings of our children. Without exception."
Talal has, however, made one exception -- and it's the reason he and four other men whose families are among the captives were in Beirut for several days this week.
The group has pinned its hopes on a young Syrian Alawite civil activist, Inana, and her Sunni colleagues. She doesn't like being identified by her sect.
"I'm Syrian," she says. She has reached out to international human rights organizations and legal and women's rights groups in the hope that they can help. Still, Inana, too, doesn't expect much help from Syrians representing the regime or the opposition.
"There is an attempt to cover this up, by both sides," she said. The captives and their families "have fallen between two fires."
On Aug. 21, two days after the Syrian army reclaimed the villages, the national news agency and state TV reported mass graves in two of the 11 villages but didn't specify the number of dead beyond stating that there were "dozens" of bodies of men, women and children.
Inana says the figure was much higher, at least 129 based on information she has gathered from activists in the area. She provided grisly photos of the dead, but in all except one the victims are men, and most are in military uniform. The only group photo, as it were, is of seven or eight men in military uniform, piled in a heap in the back of a truck.
Talal also has photos, snapped on his mobile phone on Aug. 21, when he headed back to the village. There are images of Syrian army soldiers, some in fluorescent orange vests, removing several dead bodies, including those of two of his brothers and his father.
But why would the Syrian regime want to cover up a story that fits its narrative of armed terrorists murdering Alawite civilians?
"The regime isn't admitting this so that the Alawites don't revolt against it," Inana said. "These areas are neglected, they have long been neglected by the government. The regime could have done something in these villages before. They were on a front, they were endangered, how did it not protect them?"
I am certain that Syrians can live together again.
Talal and Abdel-Hady, another Syrian whose extended family is among the captives, said many people lashed out at the governor of Latakia and the local head of the Baath Party when the men paid their condolences at funerals for some of the dead.
There are growing rumblings of discontent within Syria's Alawite community, the three said, but the Syrian opposition has not made it easy to join it. They also don't think an Alawite state, should it be formed, would protect them -- and many think it is an unlikely proposition and would not be a viable entity. But neither has the opposition shown itself to them as a viable alternative.
"The opposition has not presented a nationalist speech, to include all of the different elements of Syrian society," said Abdel-Hady, a gray-haired lecturer of Arabic literature at Latakia city's Tishreen University. "From the beginning, it was all 'the Alawites, the Alawites, the Alawites.' They want to place the crimes of the regime on the shoulders of our sect."
There's a widespread belief in the Syrian opposition that most Alawites continue to back the regime and, in doing so, have tied their fate to Assad's. Abdel-Hady said that isn't fair.
"Who is going to defect from the regime and join an opposition that stands under the black Islamic banner? It's impossible," he said, insisting that "95 percent" of the opposition's platform was Islamist in character.
The activist Inana, for her part, said she joined antigovernment protests in the early days of the revolution, but withdrew a few months later.
"I walked with the people, we chanted, 'One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.' Then it changed,” she said. “It became sectarian. I heard chants like 'The Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut' (it rhymes in Arabic).
"We want the regime to leave, but will its removal guarantee us our safety? I have my doubts."
Talal is more optimistic.
"I am certain that Syrians can live together again," he said.
But right now, the main thing he wants is to live together again with his own family. His last correspondence was one week ago, on Thursday, with his middle daughter. Her aunt also spoke to the child and asked her about her mother. The young girl asked her captor whether to tell the aunt her mother was dead.
"Yes, tell her," came the answer.
Talal still doesn't believe it. He spoke to the man holding his children.
"I told him, 'Just send me a photo so I can be sure she's dead,'” Talal said. “He said, 'Do you think your wife is the only one who died?'"