BEIRUT: Student versus student, campus awash with arms and security agents, snipers on rooftops – Al-Baath University in Homs has become a dangerous new front in the Syrian conflict, split along sectarian lines.
“There are many arrests and raids, especially against Sunni students excelling at their studies,” said an engineering student who gave her name only as Amira.
“The atmosphere is tragic ... it is not easy to study when people are being killed everywhere,” she said.
“Emotionally, it is a feeling of daily humiliation because of inspections by our peers of the ‘loyal sect,’” she said, referring to the minority Alawite community to which President Bashar Assad belongs.
The complex sectarian makeup of the campus reflects that of the central city itself.
Sunnis consider themselves the true natives of Homs and never took kindly to the mass influx of Alawites in the late 1960s when a military coup brought Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, to power.
Another student, Abu Baha, 23, said the sectarian fault lines began to surface soon after a revolt against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, quickly morphing into a civil war in which according to the U.N. more than 60,000 people have died.
“With the beginning of the revolution, the university devolved into a fifth column of the security forces,” Abu Baha said.
The engineering student described plainclothes security agents patrolling the campus while the army was deployed on rooftops to bombard neighboring Baba Amr district in a fierce assault last year.
A disturbing phenomenon, Abu Baha added, was the arming of pro-regime students: “The student union became real shabbiha [pro-regime militiamen], each one given a weapon and free reign to insult or arrest fellow students for uttering a single word about freedom.”
Activists accuse the authorities of deliberately fomenting sectarian strife, pointing to a day in July 2011 when some 30 people from various confessions were killed in a bloodbath the regime blamed on the opposition.
All the students quoted in this article, interviewed online in coordination with an Al-Baath student in Beirut, said they had lost friendships during the conflict ravaging Homs, where opposition areas remain under army blockade.
Divisions became “more pronounced after repeated arbitrary arrests, usually because of reports by pro-regime students, most of them Alawite,” said engineering student Abu Mohammad.
“My relations with Alawite students were completely finished after I realized what they were doing.”
“On the days of massacres you find opposition students are upset while pro-regime students are ecstatic with victory,” Amira said grimly.
Professors too are embroiled in the conflict, whether in interrogating students or working to conceal their own personal views.
“Most are afraid to speak about the situation, but in my faculty there is an Alawite professor who spends 70 percent of his lectures provoking opposition students. No one dares challenge him because we would not graduate,” said Abu Baha.
One Al-Baath University professor, himself displaced from Homs, said he went into early retirement due to the prevailing stressful atmosphere and fear of being kidnapped or killed during his daily commute.
“Many students have dropped out. The only ones left are pro-government. The rest are called ‘those from traitorous areas,’” he said during an interview in Beirut, refusing to be identified for fear of his safety.
Abu Mohammed naively thought the academic sphere was a safe zone to discuss the uprising when it first erupted.
“In December 2011 I was arrested on several charges, including collaborating with an armed group to kill the dean of the architecture faculty, because of a heated debate with a loyalist Alawite student.”
He was expelled from university and said he was imprisoned for one month without evidence. “Only then did I become truly conscious about the injustice in my country.”
But despite the difficulties, some students, among them Abu Qusay, remain hopeful about the future.
“Employment opportunities were always limited due to nepotism and most young Syrians had been planning to work abroad after graduation, but after the success of the revolution I expect job opportunities to be equal between all Syrians,” he said.
“I am optimistic about a bright future for me in my country.”