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Middle East

Syria Alawites live in calm beside Sunni neighbours

KDIN, Syria: Women walking around their heads uncovered and men sporting trimmed moustaches instead of the thick signature beards of Islamist fighters are clear signs that the village of Kdin in northwest Syria is Alawite territory.

The hamlet in Latakia province, which lies at the foothills of the vast Jabal Akrad (Kurd mountain), lives in peace seemingly far from the bloody conflict engulfing the rest of the country.

Kdin is surrounded by Sunni Muslim Arab populations, with Jabal Akrad have been completely taken over by the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

On a late sunny summer day residents gather figs and apples from their orchards. Children run in play from one house to another as their mothers look on, sitting on shaded terraces. Girls in tight clothing saunter, mobile phones in hand.

There is no sign of rebels in the village.

"Sometimes we pass through the village but we have no reason to stop," says Abu Badih, a rebel commander from the neighbouring and conservative Sunni-dominated town of Salma.

The contrast between Kdin and Salma, five kilometres (3 miles) from each other, is striking.

In Kdin, families busy themselves with activity, farmers carry out their work. In Salma, shells rain daily on half-deserted streets, into which practically only gunmen on mopeds venture.

Ties between the two villages are sound, say Sunni Muslims in the region.

Farmers are bound by commercial transactions, and Sunni Muslims are often seen in the village exchanging greetings with acquaintances.

But despite the apparent normality of life in Kdin, people keep to themselves and are suspicious when visitors show up.

Mistrust is palpable, exacerbated by the deadly conflict which has become more sectarian in nature as the months go by pass and pit Sunni Muslims rebels against the ruling Alawite minority.

Village elders in Kdin make it clear that journalists are not welcome.

"What are you doing here?" they ask of the outsider while leaning against a tractor.

The tranquil existence with the Sunni neighbours comes at a price -- discretion and absolute neutrality are essential.

Most Alawite villages in the region, located on hills that slope down towards the port of Latakia, have naturally chosen to side by the regime and welcomed the army out of sheer fear of a rebel advance.

"We aren't for Bashar or for the rebels. None of this is our problem. We want one thing only, to live in peace," says a man whose swelling belly looks as if it will cause his trousers to rip.

"There are no shabiha (pro-regime militiamen) here, no rebels either, just families who only want calm," he adds, putting an abrupt end to any further discussion before offering the visitor some figs.

For rebels who refuse to accept that the conflict is sectarian in nature, Kdin serves as a positive example.

"Alawites live in peace in the area. Our fighters have advanced through at least five of their villages without touching a hair on anyone's head," a local doctor who supports the armed opposition says.

The rebel commander Abu Badih agrees: "We dont target the Alawites but the regime's accomplices who live among all of the country's sectarian communities."

The doctor regrets that "many Alawites have fallen into the trap laid by the government, which says this is a sectarian war."

 

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