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Walking a Fine Line in the Water Works of a Rebel Town

QALAAT AL-MADIQ, HAMA PROVINCE / As Qalaat al-Madiq, a Sunni town overlooking the sectarian fault line of the Orontes River in Hama, switched from rebel to regime control over the past two years, Rami kept his government job at a water infrastructure facility. The position forced him to conciliate both sides in the conflict.  .

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Rami (his name was changed to protect his family) works at a dam in the town that collects water from a series of six pumps spread out in the valley east of the Orontes River. When rebels advanced in Hama’s countryside in early 2012, he convinced opposition fighters to protect the pumps.

“I told them that these pumping stations are not Bashar al-Assad’s property, they are for the Syrian people,” Rami said, “and the revolutionaries responded positively to this call.”

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Rebels were able to keep the network operational in 2012, even as the conflict spiraled and much of the country’s public works infrastructure was destroyed. The Apamea Dam collected roughly 27 million cubic meters of water that year. Geographically, much of the water is sent to farmland owned by Alawite villagers to the west –  members of the ruling religious minority – and rebels debated whether to release the water to them. But withholding it would have harmed Sunni farmers as well, and after it became clear that there were no advantages to stopping the flow, the dam reserves were released as usual.

The Assad regime retook its positions in the area in September, forcing rebels to retreat, and bringing Qalaat al-Madiq under government control. Rebels roam the town freely, and even manufacture rockets in view of government snipers, but the Syrian military surrounds it.

The return of the military led to an increase in criminal activity. Soldiers rarely left their checkpoints and fortified positions, many of which were near pumping stations, but their presence deterred rebels from protecting important infrastructure, creating a security vacuum. Rami said looters ransacked four of the dam’s six pumping stations.

“The machines are large and custom made, so they couldn’t be sold easily,” he said, “but the copper inside them was stripped, as were pipes and other fittings. They even stole doors and windows.”

Losing the pumps was a disaster for the network. The dam only had 3 million liters of water in May, most of it left over from last year. Farmers planted grains this year rather than the far more lucrative summer crop of cotton and beets.

A handful of employees remain at the dam. “I’m just a watchman now,” said Rami. He has no equipment to operate, and no water to release. Some of the workers brought their families to take shelter at the dam after fleeing fighting in their villages.

Only Sunni employees come to the dam, as the town is too dangerous for Alawites.

Reporting to Alawite Superiors

Rami reported the lootings to the dam’s director, an Alawite who lives a few villages away. He said the man changed the report to blame “armed gangs and terrorists,” the Assad regime’s label for its opponents.

“I also alerted my boss that rebel commanders helped protect the facilities, and that I travelled with them to inspect equipment at the facilities,” Rami said. “I was worried that if I didn’t let him know the truth, I could be fired for cooperating with armed gangs.”

A clear divide emerged between Alawite and Sunni government employees in Qalaat al-Madiq after the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Sunni workers have friends and family in rebel brigades. Alawites are forced to be loyal to the president, and many have become part of the irregular militia known as Shabiha.

At an accounting office for the Irrigation Ministry in Salhab, an Alawite town in Hama, Rami saw flyers offering up to 50,000 Syrian pounds (about $400) bonuses to join the republican guard and militia forces. “We never see such offers in Sunni offices,” he said.

Some of Rami’s colleagues have taken up arms for the Assad regime while remaining on the payroll of their government jobs. When Rami took shelter in a nearby village to escape fighting in Qalaat Al-Madiq last year, he was detained by the Syrian Army, along with a dozen other refugees fleeing violence. His job as a government servant didn’t save him from humiliation.

“I told the intelligence officer that I am a manager of a plant, that I am a government employee, but he slapped me and said that I was the head of the conspiracy,” Rami said. He saw two of his Alawite coworkers at the station, and they recognized him but didn’t help him.

“They beat the other prisoners and insulted them, but they didn’t come near me,” he said.

War has increased the animosity between sects in this tinderbox known as the Ghab Plain, the lush land around the Orontes. But the seeds of resentment were planted decades ago.

“From the moment I was posted to this job, I never hoped to get a government car or be promoted to director,” Rami said. “My Alawite colleagues always had priority, because they had relatives and friends in intelligence and military who support them, sometimes without them even knowing it.”

Rami supports the toppling of the Assad regime and replacing it with a democratic system where all citizens have equal rights. But he said he understood that “Alawites don’t want this because they benefit from the current system.”

Despite this bitterness, the bonds of friendship formed over years of working with Alawites keeps Rami from framing the battle against the Assad regime in exclusively sectarian terms. He said his boss, despite changing a report, had never abused his position, and the two remain friends. “I told him over the phone the other day that we might never see each other again even though he’s just [15 miles] away,” Rami said. “He’s my friend and I want to see him.”

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