Mini-Republics: A Syrian Village Seeks to Survive amid Carnage
Even as war continues to rage in Syria, normal people in the country are doing their best to survive in places like the village of Korin. It has transformed into a kind of mini-republic and has WiFi on the town square. But its population is slowly dwindling.
The St. Lucie cherry trees were in bloom when the calamity began. It was not unexpected. Indeed, the men of Korin and surrounding villages had done their part to bring it about. Since winter, after two years of an almost static front line, they quickly overran several of the Syrian army's last outposts in the Idlib Province. And soon after regime troops fled the eponymously named provincial capital at the end of March, the bombs arrived. It is a pattern that has often been seen in Syria: Soon after rebels take an army base, an airport or a city, the air force arrives to pound them from above.
For weeks, regime helicopters circled at an altitude beyond the range of rebel weapons and repeatedly dropped half-ton barrel bombs on Korin. On at least one occasion, a cylinder full of chlorine gas outfitted with detonators was dropped on the village, which is located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Turkish border. Sukhoi jets appeared between the clouds and fired rockets at those buildings that were still intact. Thirty-one people died -- a number smaller than it might have been because the residents of Korin, accustomed as they are to fleeing violence, had retreated to the olive groves that surround the village when the first bombs started to fall. For a while, they lived in tiny shacks among the trees -- shelters that had been built in more peaceful times.
The air strikes began to wane around the time when the olive trees bloomed. The jets were needed elsewhere; additional villages were in need of punishment. And in Korin, the villagers returned from the olive groves. Soon, around three-quarters of the erstwhile population of 11,000 were again living in the town, collecting stones and organizing cement and tarps to repair their homes. If the war weren't still going on, one could almost have called it a peaceful summer.
It was the calm between the storms -- a fragile calm, not unlike that of a tiny boat on the high seas. After all, Korin and the entire region surrounding it, with hundreds of towns and villages, have been living for almost four years in a state of anarchy.
It is almost as though someone had devised a wicked experiment to see what happens when everything that serves public order is suddenly removed. When police, courts and indeed the entire state simply disappears without a new one replacing it. And when the old state reappears periodically to spread death and destruction. It is a situation reminiscent of End Times science fiction tales in which marauding hordes find themselves in a constant battle for fuel, water and women. But what is it really like?
'Mad Max' in Tuscany
Locals celebrated in the spring of 2012 when the army pulled out of their last Idlib Province strongholds and cities under their control following bitter fighting. They mistakenly believed that the collapse of Bashar Assad's dictatorship was at hand. But it wasn't. For the next two years, the army would occasionally launch artillery salvos at Korin from its position some eight kilometers away. Ultimately, the regime troops were driven away, but then death began falling from the sky for a time. Aside from that, residents were largely left alone in their succulent green landscape of gently rolling hills. "Mad Max" in Tuscany, if you will.
The others live behind the hills. The distance is not great, and they aren't really enemies, says Aziz Ajini. But "it's not completely safe." Ajini used to be an English professor in the provincial capital but is now the village's chain-smoking éminence grise. At the end of 2015, it was quiet in Korin. Everyone here knows everyone else. If the late autumn sun comes out, a few people emerge to sit in front of their homes. When the wind picks up, one can hear the flapping of the plastic tarps people have used to cover up their shattered windows.
Instead of simply crumbling, public order has merely contracted. "Korin has become a state," says Ajini, "just like all the towns here." A collection of rump states formed in self-defense. For years now, the media has portrayed Syria as being entirely consumed by horror and destruction, by explosions and black-clad barbarians who behead their victims on camera. But there are countless places that -- like islands in a storm -- are doing all they can to survive the fighting.
Traveling from one town to the next "is today like crossing an international border," adds the Korin village council member who is responsible for ensuring the town's water supply. "Each area has different rebel groups, some towns are more religious, others are bitterly divided." Fear of the others grew automatically, he says, fear of those one doesn't know so well and who don't offer protection. People began staying away from each other, preferring to stay in their tiny, but halfway safe surroundings.
The calm is astounding given the fact that it is simple for people to arm themselves. It is easier than ever to kill someone should one so desire, and it has become virtually impossible to hold criminals accountable without risking a blood feud. There are no police, and even if there were, it is no longer possible to call them. Not that a trustworthy judicial system existed under Assad, but there was a state. Today, there is merely a fragile balance that can be disturbed at any time. Everything must be negotiated. The authorities have been replaced by personal relationships and village solidarity.
When a young man was found beaten to death near Korin in May 2014, the 10-person village council -- elected out of a pool made up of a representative from each family -- began investigating to the extent that it could. Who was the last person to see the victim and had somebody been with him? One witness had seen him in an argument with two distant cousins. The two confessed, but that was only the beginning of the problems. How could a blood feud be avoided?
"We referred the case to the Sharia court in the city of Binnish," Ajini explains. "It has a good reputation in the entire province" because it is home to one of the region's ablest judges. Ajini says the court is not a practitioner of the strict Islamic jurisprudence often associated with Sharia, but the label, he adds, increases people's acceptance of its verdicts.
The murder case was a difficult one. A prison sentence was not possible because are are no prisons and the death penalty could have torn the village apart. So the court negotiated a compromise in the form of 7 million Syrian pounds of blood money, equivalent at the time to roughly 32,000. It was a fortune, and the family of the perpetrator had to sell gold and land to be able to pay it. Furthermore, the two murderers were forbidden from entering the village for a year.
Banishment, of course, sounds not unlike the Middle Ages, but in other aspects as well, life in the village republic feels like a reenactment of the past. Once again, for example, it is surviving almost exclusively from the food stuffs it grows and harvests -- mostly olives, figs and mahleb, a substance that smells not unlike marzipan and is made from the seeds of the St. Lucie cherry. It is used in cakes, sweet dishes and ointments. Other villages situated at a higher altitude, or which have more water, plant peaches, melons, potatoes and peppers -- and the settlements trade among themselves. Korin's most valuable product, though, the seeds of the St. Lucie cherry, brings in roughly 8 per kilo and is still exported. Brokers transport the seeds through the frontlines all the way to the Gulf States and Sudan, where they are essential for the production of a traditional tincture for women that ensures they smell nice even in the extreme heat. The harvest was good this year, the farmers say. There was enough rain and, beginning early this year, they once again feel secure enough to travel to their more distant olive and St. Lucie cherry orchards, which were once mined by the army. A few farmers paid for that strategy with their lives.
WiFi in the Town Square
Diesel, the fuel for vehicles and generators alike, also only arrives in Korin by way of brokers, who bring it in along paths leading to the village. At one of the largest fuel stations, which consists of a sooty basement containing barrels on blocks, owner Yazan describes his offerings. At the beginning of 2015, he says, there was the diesel type "Regime," which was sold for 110 Syrian pounds per liter, "Islamic State" for 90 and "Islamic State filtered" for 100. At the end of the year, only "Islamic State" was available, for 125 pounds per liter, or roughly 50 euro cents. When asked about the fact that the fuel comes from the enemy, Yazan merely replies: "Yeah, but what should I do?" He is more worried about the fluctuating prices on the fuel market. When IS stopped smuggling fuel for a time, the price of the jihadist diesel soared, but the smugglers also then wanted more for the regime diesel, simply because they could now demand a higher price. Yazan says that it took him a while to get used to such things. "After all, my job didn't used to exist. It was all in the hands of the state."
As archaic as life has become in some areas, the effects of the war were to modernize others: Every evening, Korin is bathed in sallow white light. Almost everyone here now uses LED lights, which are either hooked to the generators or to hip-high packs of batteries.
Furthermore, a former IT specialist for the Interior Ministry in Aleppo returned to his hometown of Korin and installed a satellite facility and several Internet hotspots. Since 2013, there has been WiFi on the main square and you can buy coupons in the stores for Internet access. When he was installing the cables for one of the hotspots, Mohammed, the IT specialist, quipped, "At least I didn't have to drill any holes. I simply used the bullet holes left behind by the last army invasion." At the end of 2015, there were fully four Internet providers in Korin, all of whom sought to use their own antenna to amplify the signal of a Turkish mobile phone service provider.
Of course the handful of village radicals still around rant that all kinds of sinful things come through the Internet, but they too use the web -- and they have never been able to make much headway in Korin. Nobody from Korin, for example, is fighting for the radical Nusra Front, which has become stronger elsewhere in Idlib. Still, around 10 people from the town joined Islamic State and went to Raqqa, villagers say. They were unstable people, Ajini recalls. "One of them was with three rebel groups before he ended up a member of IS," he says. "And the funny thing is, he was a heavy smoker. I have no idea how he is holding up among the jihadists." Those discovered smoking in IS-held areas are lashed. Another contacted his wife from Raqqa -- Facebook exists in the Caliphate as well -- and requested his wife to join him with their children. At the same time, he announced that he had volunteered for a suicide mission. "Nobody understands it," Ajini says, shaking his head.
A Dangerous Cycle
The Western view of the war in Syria tends not to look beyond the Assad regime and the brutally murderous and propagandistically adept Islamic State. The group has taken over huge swaths of land in the sparsely populated desert steppes of eastern Syria, but hasn't made much headway in the more densely populated strongholds of the insurgency -- in Idlib and Aleppo in the north, in Hama in central Syria and in Daraa in the south. For the people living there, however, IS is no less fearsome than it is to Westerners. Indeed, the radical group is often seen as being more threatening in that it is often just a few dozen kilometers away.
Beyond Islamic State, religious groups receive support from people in many villages in the Idlib Province. The reasons for such support are multifaceted and often rather worldly: It frequently has to do with the desire to strengthen moral norms in the absence of functioning institutions or with consolation in the face of ongoing violence. But it also has to do with power and money. In 2012, when moderate rebels belonging to the Idlib Martyrs' Brigade began kidnapping regime henchmen to then exchange them either for prisoners or money, it kicked off a dangerous cycle. Two members of the Idlib Martyrs' Brigade from Korin began to also kidnap rich farmers and businesspeople. One of the people they kidnapped was a businessman from the nearby city of Ariha who later joined the militant Nusra Front in order to get at the kidnappers. And indeed, a Nusra Front delegation traveled to Korin to arrest the perpetrators. Only after long negotiations, and in exchange for a promise that he would be tried before a court instead of killed, did Korin turn over one of the two kidnappers. The other had fled.
Even as people from Washington to Moscow are warning of radicalization, a fundamental dilemma facing the opposition is largely being ignored. Village republics such as Korin embody both the promise and the limits of the revolution. On the one hand, the inventiveness and tenacity of these mini-states is astounding. Despite the adversity they face, they work on a local level. But only on a local level. What is happening in Syria is a revolution of localists. They vehemently deplore -- and usually rightly so -- the incompetence of the opposition in exile. But they cannot supplant it. They are aware of conflicting interests even among their supporters -- such as Saudi Arabia in opposition to Qatar, and both against the US -- but they don't join together. They want Assad to fall and they want a halfway fair, functioning state. But nobody knows who should achieve those goals.
The sovereign miniature republic of Korin, with WiFi on the main square and hushed fear of everything beyond the nearby hills, remains subject to the ebbs and flows of this war.
'Couldn't Take It Any Longer'
The Russian airstrikes hit northern Syria just as hard in September as the spring bombardments struck the village. Russian warplanes and helicopters flew up to 100 sorties a day, heading for those areas that were to be taken over by Assad's troops or their Shiite allies. But it remained largely quiet around Korin. It is a bit of geographical good luck amid the country's general disintegration. The Russian intervention notwithstanding, the Iranian military leadership in Syria negotiated a locally restricted, yet far-reaching cease-fire directly with one of the largest Islamist rebel brigades, Ahrar al-Sham. According to the deal, two isolated Shiite villages not far from Korin are not to be touched. In return, no airstrikes are to be flown in the entire region.
It is a bit of calm in the middle of the storm. Some residents have given up anyway and are trying to flee from Korin to Europe. Around 30 people from the village have already made it to Germany, including the son of English-teacher Ajini. He now lives at a farmhouse in eastern Germany.
Those who have remained behind spent the late autumn preparing for winter and felled additional olive trees so as to have wood for heating, a necessary measure which will make next summer's harvest that much smaller. Those who left have sent back reports of their weeks of walking and their fear during the crossing of the Mediterranean.
Only Abdulhakim, one of the teachers in the village, can tell stories of the journey in person. He spent all of his savings to flee to Europe and made it all the way to Berlin. But a few months later, he returned to Korin. "I was in safety, but I couldn't do anything for my wife and my children as the bombs were falling here," Abdulhakim says. "I couldn't take it any longer."
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