As Syria’s war rages, villagers who’d fled to cities for better lives return (McClatchy Newspaper, 01/04/2013)

DWEETCHIA, Syria — Until a few months ago, the village of Dweetchia was all but empty, one of hundreds of once-populated specks in northern and eastern Syria that had been abandoned over the last decade because of drought, environmental mismanagement and poverty, a modern exodus that led perhaps as many as a million Syrians to search for better lives elsewhere.

For years, the Syrian government had attempted to hide the crisis from the outside world. Now, however, with violence loosening the government’s control, the area has become accessible to foreign journalists, who for the first time can see firsthand what took place in Hasaka province in Syria’s northeastern corner and its neighboring provinces, Raqqa, to the west, and Deir el Zour, to the south.

The conditions that drove people from the villages haven’t changed, but Dweetchia is once again full of people. Many of its former residents have returned, joined by refugees seeking safety from the fighting that’s ravaged much of the country.

“We don’t have electricity, we don’t have water and we don’t have jobs, but what should we do?” asked Mohammed Hussein, who left Dweetchia in 2002 to look for work in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Hussein, 49, had been living with his wife and six children in Khan Sheeh, a southern suburb of Damascus, when heavy fighting broke out there. He and his three sons had been working as laborers for the equivalent of about $4 per day. They returned to Dweetchia three months ago as work became scarce and the area became increasingly dangerous.

“Even when the revolution began, we stayed,” he said. “But when the shelling started, we left.”

“There were originally 93 families in this village, and 90 percent of them left,” said Fayyez Ayad Hafil, who’s been registering the returnees for what little aid is available.

“Now almost everyone has returned, plus refugees,” Hafil said, flipping through a register he keeps of names and the places they’d fled. “Just today we registered 900 people.”

Dweetchia’s abandonment can be traced to the Syrian government’s efforts to press the country’s agricultural sector. Under Hafez Assad, President Bashar Assad’s father, the region flourished, bolstered by irrigation projects that depended on water from the region’s rivers.

But in 1998, disaster struck. A series of dams built in Turkey diverted the rivers. Then a series of droughts hit, particularly from 2006 to 2010. People began to pull up stakes and migrate.

Today, the problems remain. The nearby Khabur River is barely a trickle, and within a month will be entirely dry once again, the villagers said. Nor have services improved.

“The closest hospital is 60 miles away, and we don’t even have an ambulance,” said Badr Shibli, who coordinates humanitarian relief in Markada, the closest city to Dweetchia.

In the past several weeks, Shibli has registered 24,000 new arrivals to Markada and nearby villages, adding to a population that in recent years had hovered at around 70,000. The influx has taxed the area’s infrastructure: Cases of typhoid are on the rise, Shibli said, as is leishmaniasis, a skin infection spread by sand fleas. “We need chlorine to sterilize water,” he said. Promised aid has yet to arrive.

The new arrivals are fleeing fighting in Deir el Zour as well as in Hasaka city, the provincial capital to the north, on which rebel fighters are closing in.

In Rakai, a village across the road from Dweetchia, Dahham Awwad, 63, sat in front of a mud-brick house. A farmer, he left the southern city of Deraa seven months ago after being wounded by shrapnel in his leg. He said he and his five children were living mostly on handouts from family members who were only slightly better off.

“We just ask God to help us,” Awwad said. “We are poor people.”

The environmental and economic displacement that emptied this part of Syria helped create the conditions that fed the rebellion that’s rocked Syria for two years and claimed more than 70,000 lives. It’s no accident that the first parts of the country to fall outside the government’s control were rural. As the rebellion moved to the cities, it began in neighborhoods that were populated by those who’d flocked to the cities looking for work in recent years.

“All of Jazeera went to Sham,” said a farmer in the village of Greyfati, in northeastern Hasaka province, using the traditional Arabic names to refer to the area north of the Euphrates and Damascus. He called himself Abu Mohammed, a nickname that means father of Mohammed. He declined to give his real name because, he said, he still feared the government, which he claimed had persecuted him for decades on suspicion of anti-government activity.

He remains bitter about the way the Assad government has handled economic development in Hasaka and Deir el Zour, the center of Syria’s oil industry and its agricultural heartland but whose people have remained some of the country’s most impoverished.

“They brought Alawites from the coast to work in the oil fields, even though the people here didn’t have jobs,” the farmer said, referring to members of the religious sect to which Assad belongs. Most of the residents here are Sunni Muslims. Alawites, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, are concentrated in the country’s west.

“During Saddam’s time, we were accused of being Saddamists,” the farmer said. Hasaka borders Iraq, and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein maintained a long-running feud with Hafez Assad. “We were robbed. I would join any political party that was dedicated to the overthrow of this regime.”

Many have. Abu Mohammed spoke while sitting in the home of a leader of Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, a rebel group with links to al Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq. Nusra’s influence in Hasaka, Deir el Zour and Raqqa province has grown steadily in past months.

“I hope we get our rights,” Abu Mohammed said. “There are more people from Raqqa and Hasaka in other parts of the country than in Raqqa and Hasaka.”

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @davidjenders

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