Assad’s Castaways


J. Malcolm Garcia in Guernica:

Moutasem and Sarah watch their breath in the frigid February air. We are in the principal’s office of Muhammad al-Fatih, a secondary school for teenagers of Syrian refugees in Antakya, Turkey. The school has no heat, but it is better to freeze here than to be in Syria right now, my Syrian translator Hazim tells me. There, the army patrols villages and cities, killing suspected activists. Men, women, children. No one is safe. If the army could arrest the air, he says, it would.

Hazim is a Sunni Muslim, as are the students in the school and the rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The rebels have been battling the troops of President Bashar al-Assad since March 2011.

Syria’s Alawite minority and Sunni majority have been at odds for hundreds of years. The minority Alawites, like Assad, dominate Syria’s government, hold key military positions, and enjoy a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth.

Moutasem and Sarah, and other children I will meet in the coming days, have had their lives upended by a war made more complicated by centuries of ethnic rivalry.

Moutasem, fifteen, wears black shoes, pressed blue jeans, and a red wool sweater, and slouches, relaxed, in his chair. His eyes stare intently. When he sees me shiver in the cold, he offers me his coat.