x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Syrian university students stuck in the middle

Conflict between the few Sunnis and Alawites left on campus mirrors nation's wider battles.

Students protesting against Syria's president Bashar Al Assad march through the streets of Homs last October.
Students protesting against Syria's president Bashar Al Assad march through the streets of Homs last October.

BEIRUT // Wedged between the Sunni neighbourhood of Baba Amr to the west and Alawite areas to the east, the Al Baath university campus is at the heart of the conflict that has ripped apart Syria's opposition stronghold of Homs.

It is a university in turmoil. Alawite students, from the same sect as the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, are pitched against Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the opposition.

But amid the tumult, many students are still desperately trying to complete their degrees, dodging violence and checkpoints to sit their end-of-year exams.

Nader, a 23-year-old Sunni Muslim in the fourth year of an engineering proram, said most of the students who sympathise with the revolution have left. Others have been killed in the violence or detained in campus raids.

With the administration in support of the regime, those opposition sympathisers who remain only come in for exams and leave again as quickly as they can.

When he makes it past the checkpoints from his home in the nearby neighbourhood of Bab Al Sbaa, Nader still has campus security to contend with.

At least five security guards patrol the main entrance. Identity cards are demanded and if you are a Sunni, you are more than likely to be turned away.

"I went in for an exam recently and the security guards at the gate stopped me," said Nader. "One said to me, 'You are ruining the country and you expect to come and do your exams?' Then they kicked me out. I turned and left and found another way in."

The situation has improved a little since earlier this year, when tanks were stationed on university grounds as the government launched a siege on Baba Amr. Volleys of gunfire and rockets were aimed back at the campus by rebels trying to hold off the relentless assault.

Still, every journey to lectures remains harrowing for some students.

"When I go to university I tell myself that I might not come back," said Khaled, a 24-year old architecture student who says he sees finishing his exams as a way out of Syria and its 16-months of unrest.

But he is concerned by rumours that the administration is altering results of students known to be anti-regime. "If its true, we can't do anything about it," he said. "Taking exams in this atmosphere just adds to the pressure."

Some student are less concerned about their exams. Ismail, an Alawite, has formed a group of about 30 people to coordinate with the ruling Baath party to, as he describes it, "save the security situation in the university from terrorists".

"We watch the coffee shops and the bathrooms for anyone who wants to sneak in and graffiti the walls," he said. "We found some students from Al Qusoor writing bad words about the president, so we caught them and delivered them to university security."

His mobile ringtone is an excerpt from a speech by the former president, Hafez Al Assad, imploring Syrians to protect the motherland.

Many students would like to leave Homs and finish their degrees elsewhere but the ministry of education has put a stop to transfers.

"I want to transfer to Damascus or Latakia but it wasn't allowed so I had to stay here, there is no other choice," said Ahmed, a 24-year-old English language student who said only a few hundred students were left on campus, out of about 3,000.

"Homs is a paralysed city and I'm worried about my future," he added. "All we want is peace but, unfortunately, the sound of the bullets is much stronger than the sounds of words."

The coffee shops that once served refreshments to throngs of students are now shuttered, the campus a shell of its former self.

The ruling Baath party envisioned the country's universities as classless utopias, where sectarian divisions fell away - but the conflict has created divisions.

"There is a deep wound in Homs between the people, and that's affected the university also," said Ahmed, an Alawite. "Before the crisis we were friends and colleagues from all the sects and now we've become divided."

Khaleel, a Christian, said he was used as a go-between by his friends who feel they can no longer mingle. "Two days ago, my friend, who is a Sunni, asked me to give a message to one of our Alawite friends because he thought his Sunni relatives wouldn't be happy if they heard he'd been talking to Alawites. The message was 'happy birthday'. Imagine not even being able to say happy birthday to a friend."

Professor Fareed, an engineering lecturer, said that the faculty have similar problems.

There is also the constant threat of violence. The university's website carries a tribute to Ahlam Imad, a professor at the faculty of engineering and petrochemical who, it says, was shot dead along with her mother, father and three of her sister's children when "armed groups" stormed her house on June 28. "We are all afraid of the situation but our lives are not worth more than those of the students, so we stay and we just get on with it," said a French literature lecturer.


* Samer Mohajer is a pseudonym for a Syrian journalist