Syrian city of Tartus affected by refugee influx

The city of Tartus, a regime stronghold on the Syrian coast, has witnessed rising animosities between the native residents and those displaced from war-torn regions.

al-monitor Civilians carry their belongings as they walk toward a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs, Feb. 10, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Yazan Homsy.

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tartus, syrian refugees, syrian crisis, syria, lebanon, homs

Feb 16, 2014

It was the first time since the start of the revolution that I had taken the road connecting Tripoli to the Syrian coast, far from the Qalamoun road — where battles are waged — and from the suspension bridge connecting the central part of Syria to its coast. 

I did not see an upright picture or statue of the “father leader” [the late President Hafez al-Assad] in any of the various areas along the way until I suddenly came upon a statue of him, raising his hand to greet passersby as if everything was all right.

A single scene accelerated my heartbeat and made me choke: the thickening and overlapping Eucalyptus trees hiding the sunlight, similar to those along the road connecting Homs to Tartus. Today, nothing links them; buildings are destroyed, tanks are burned and vehicles are loaded with corpses to be exchanged.

A stranger from Homs

There is nothing remarkable at the Lebanese Arida border crossing, except for the sea, which is concealed by the building that houses the Syrian border police, 50 meters [164 feet] away. Once you stand in this wintry building, the scene changes. An employee gloomily welcomes you. He turns the pages of your passport, as if he is looking for a reason to charge you with a crime he is sure you've committed. Astonished, he asks, “What brought you here?”

It is an accusation: You hail from a rebelling province. The eyes of the employee become round and his cheeks blush. You feel as if he will shout aloud, “I’ve found her!” He asks questions: “What are you doing here? Who are you visiting? Why did you come to Tartus?” He grabs the papers and nervously enters a secret room. He spends nearly 18 minutes there, then comes back, ignoring all those who are present. He orders you to stand aside so he can continue his work. He deliberately intends to provoke travelers’ nerves, which he is used to breaking. It is as if he is saying, “You are not welcome here.” On this particular piece of your land, you are a stranger, and he can do whatever he wants. He represents the law; he is above the law. 

After half an hour, he gives your friend — the stranger — back his papers and murmurs, “If only you did not have them on you." You leave quickly, your friend's hand on your shoulder, sharing a disappointing smile.

The driver points at a billboard erected on the outskirts of Tartus, immediately beyond the border. He says, “They say we are sectarian. Check out this image. Is there anything better?” It is a picture of Hafez al-Assad and his successor, Bashar. To the right of the image we see Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and in the middle Ahmad Hassoun (Syria's grand mufti). The billboard says: “The two Assads are under the protection of the two Hassans." We say with one voice, “Obviously.” Then we laugh, probably to regain our composure. 

Belonging … to the sect

At the southern entrance to Tartus, passing through the villages of the Akkar plain, the photos of the region’s martyrs fill my mind. The martyrs are young men in the prime of life; I do not recall having seen a picture of someone even in his 30s. I think of them, of their families, of the spurious [reasons] for which they die, of those around them, and of their deaths. … There are many photos on most of the roads, reflecting an open pain — an exaggerated expression of "sadness" and magnified losses. I remember the picture of my female friend and how she looked after 15 days of detention. It was a very short period compared with other prisoners, but it was enough to extinguish her splendor forever. I think of another friend who was injured during a demonstration while chanting, “It is not going to be forever. Long live Syria and down with Assad.” He told me on that day, “It was as if I had heard my voice for the first time.” Pictures of Syrian children, some of whom I have met in Beirut, fill my mind. They are defeated, scared and growing up prematurely. I dare not go deeper into the disaster that we experience, to preserve the little of me that I still have.

On that road, you can also see the "mountains of Lebanon" as an eternal curse of geography.

The short taxi driver has shaggy red hair. He is “neither Lebanese nor Syrian.” He is from the Jabal Mohsen area of Tripoli. He has a stutter, wears thick glasses and has a slight handicap in his left leg, suggesting that he is a helpless and peaceful young man. He seemed so, until he started speaking. He told us about his “heroics” on our land and how he had killed dozens of “Syrians” in Homs and Hama. The mention of Homs — the capital of the Syrian revolution and the city where my “stranger” friend hails from — opens an unhealable wound. The driver says, “My leg was hit in the al-Karabis neighborhood.”

My friend interjects, saying the neighborhood is in northern Homs. The neighborhood saw massive peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution. It was bombed and partially destroyed; then it became the center of violent clashes, the most recent of which took place in April of last year. The driver continues in a high and provocative tone, completely ignoring the anguish of my friend and my shock, and explains how he burned many houses “with people still in them” with RPGs. He adds, “I also fought in the battles of Tripoli, in retaliation for those who are killing us in Syria.”

A painful silence prevails for some minutes, then is interrupted when I ask, “Who are they are killing?”

I expect him to laugh. He answers very seriously, “They are killing us. They are killing the Alawites.” He explains that he and many of the young people of Jabal Mohsen told Arab Democratic Party Chairman Refaat Eid that they wanted to volunteer to fight in Syria. Some of them went to Homs, others to Hama and Aleppo, under the banner of the so-called “popular committees.”

We pass by nine regime checkpoints, all of which form a tight security cordon around Tartus and its suburbs. The military conducts excessive searches at every checkpoint; they slowly and deliberately turn the bags upside down. The driver’s security ID has not provided much help, although it has the Lebanese flag and that of the Arab Democratic Party and the name of Rifaat Eid on it. This is because at the four military police checkpoints, they “do not like us,” as the driver puts it, and the remaining state security checkpoints are provoked by the identity of my “stranger” friend. My friend steps out of the car to buy some things. The driver turns toward me and, in a completely different tone, says, “The Popular Committees are going to steal, rather than fight. I saw them with my own eyes.” 

Prior to the revolution

The pace of change was slow in Tartus, as in some other provinces, prior to the revolution. “Everything in this city is moving slowly, even time,” says Maya, a 26-year-old university student. There are no private schools or universities. No public universities have been established yet, except for some faculties affiliated with Tishreen University in Latakia, which were inaugurated earlier this year. There are no malls or markets, except for a single street with clothing stores and fast-food restaurants. The city witnessed the opening of Porto Tartus, “the largest investment project” on the Syrian coast, in 2012. Other than that, the youmg people of Tartus have used “connections” to get jobs in banks or to get their names registered to work on new investment projects that may or may not see the light of day. In 2010, Tartus ranked second among Syrian provinces in unemployment, at 13.3%, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.‫

It has become clear that Tartus was not neglected coincidentally, but premeditatedly. Nearly three years into the revolution, the province was named the “Mother of Martyrs,” given the number of martyrs dying in the name of the regime (military members, officers and volunteers). …


Tartus’ streets are unusually crowded with pedestrians. Shops and restaurants have proliferated with people bearing tales of suffering. According to relief activists’ estimates in the city, more than 800,000 people have arrived in Tartus, fleeing Scud missiles, cluster bombs and barrel bombs.

Official estimates suggest that there are 700,000 families in 21 shelters. Add to this many families who live outside shelters in neighborhoods within the province, as well as affluent families who live within the city's neighborhoods.

Activists warn that the situation is degenerating by the day. One of them says, “Apart from this aspect and the social and psychological impact, there is another very serious aspect: the health aspect. Most of the incoming people live in very poor conditions and unhealthy places that lead to serious diseases.”

The activist stressed that in the absence of a major intervention, the “Aleppo boil (leishmaniasis), scabies and skin diseases will be the simplest of the prevalent diseases. Diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, among others, will spread.”

Most of the population of Tartus is fed up with the newcomers. They call them “displaced” and treat them as inferior. “We die on their land and they live on ours,” they say. This phrase is one of the gentlest that you hear.

Pressure is also placed on relief activists out of fear that they might establish human relations with the “enemy.” Still, activists pursue their work high-spiritedly. They play with children as if they were born to them. They distribute aid shyly and politely. They do not treat incoming people with racism that could offend them. Zeina, 27, says, “They are our children and our families. We have dreamed together of a free civil Syria and the dream is to be continued.”

In the street of the souk, an elderly woman screams, “I shall not ask the homeland that does not respect my son while he is alive to respect him after his death.” Um Hussein lost her only child and rejected “the government’s tribute” to her. She also refused to have her son's name mentioned on a martyrs’ souvenir in the city of Dreikish, west of Tartus.

The majority boast about the greatness of the achievement they offered to the “homeland.” They flex their muscles, as they deterred all those who tried to “destroy” Tartus. They criticize and curse the government. "Only the majority in Tartus" knows what happened, what will take place and how.

Maher says, “We’ve endured and won with our blood. We will not let old mistakes happen again." Despite entreaties, Maher won’t explain further. Maybe he knows better about these mistakes. Maher, among others, does not want to be “further” affected by what is happening in Syria. They want to maintain Tartus as it is today, “with all its incomers, expensive prices and strangers.” They refuse to believe stories about children who died of starvation and cold, about a person who lived under siege for more than a year and who had to eat cat meat, or about houses destroyed over the heads of their inhabitants and neighborhoods that no longer exist on the map. They do not want to believe. Syria does not mean anything to most of them. They are only concerned with staying … staying strong.

If victory was declared

In November 2013, the governor of Tartus announced the province’s intention to turn the abandoned commercial center building near the state security center downtown into an accommodation center for families living in tents, especially the 25,000 people in the Karnak centers.

Some have rejected this. The majority of the population of Tartus has openly accused the government of “stupidity.” Some of them have probably even done so on TV. They used Facebook to call for a sit-in at the building. There were even calls to form a human circle to prevent the entry of outsiders, in the event that the government did not respond to their objection. They also threatened to oust the governor.

We all recall the fate of a group of youth from Homs who took to the streets at the beginning of the revolution to call for the ouster of the governor. At the time, the regime forces responded with live bullets, and regime thugs beat demonstrators with batons.

The situation is different in Tartus, as the accommodation center proposal was canceled after the municipality rejected it. The categorical rejection was based on two points: The first was the fear of any slight or substantial “demographic shift,” as “no sane person brings strangers to their own homeland.” One person said, “Suburbs are full of strangers. They still want to bring more. We are almost done, for God’s sake.” The second point was the lack of confidence in the government and its decisions. “When the regime declares victory, this entire government must be held accountable.” The [concept of a] homeland is lost in their minds.

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