Syrians stand next to the tracks of army tanks in the Syrian village of Treimsa, in Hama on July 13
Syrians stand next to the tracks of army tanks in the Syrian village of Treimsa, in the central province of Hama on July 13. Abu Hanna's voice is hoarse from chain smoking but his simplicity charms his listeners -- a group of about 30 Syrian rebels holed up in an abandoned house near the central city of Hama. © D. Leal Olivas - AFP/File
Syrians stand next to the tracks of army tanks in the Syrian village of Treimsa, in Hama on July 13
Marc Bastian, AFP
Last updated: July 23, 2012

Abu Hanna, 60-year-old Christian guide to Syria's Sunni rebels

Abu Hanna's voice is hoarse from chain smoking but his simplicity charms his listeners -- a group of about 30 Syrian rebels holed up in an abandoned house near the central city of Hama.

The 60-year-old Christian ex-teacher says he is these days engaged in advising Sunni rebels who are challenging President Bashar al-Assad's regime in a conflict that has killed thousands of people so far.

The house in the countryside near Hama where the group is holed up is dirty, messy, overcrowded and rife with weapons and ammunition.

It is 11:00 am (0800 GMT) and fatigue is clearly visible on the faces of the rebels who have been up for hours in order to have a meal before observing the dawn-to-dusk fast of the holy month of Ramadan.

"How are you Abu Hanna? Did you just wake up" they ask as the the short, stout mustachioed man walks out the house.

"I am a Christian. I don't observe Ramadan," says Abu Hanna who uses an alias for security reasons and claims to have been an opponent of the regime for decades.

The former teacher of English says he has been a "rebel since 1970" when Hafez al-Assad, former president and the late father of the current leader, seized power.

"I am against military dictatorships. I am a political activist," he says, adding that he is "committed to the revolution of March 2011" -- the month when the present uprising against the regime erupted.

"We initially demonstrated peacefully, but we were shot. What else can we do but take up arms," he says.

Abu Hanna insists he is not a fighter.

"I am too old, I am a grandfather," he says.

Nevertheless he has found a role for himself in Syria's brutal conflict.

"I guide the thuwars (revolutionaries). I advise them. Most are young, without any life experience. They need a guide because they could do something bad if they are not counselled."

But when asked to define "bad", he is quiet before saying: "Nothing... They might fight for example."

His commitment to the rebellion has spelled trouble, He was arrested and interrogated by authorities under the rule of the current and past president, but being a Christian he was always released unharmed, he says.

"I have not been tortured but today they are looking for me... twice they have tried to kill me," says Abu Hanna.

According to Abu Hanna the regime is "very careful not to arrest Christians" but it is only a facade.

"The regime wants to show that all the rebels are Sunni Muslims," he says, adding that when Christian rebels are killed the authorities blame "terrorist groups" -- the term used by the regime to refer to rebels.

Christians account for some seven to eight percent of Syria's Sunni-majority population of 22 million.

And most of them, according to Abu Hanna, have stayed out of the 16-month conflict that erupted in March 2011 although they do not support Assad because they are "afraid of being massacred."

"They are scared. But young Christians are fighting the regime in Hama, Aleppo and Homs," he says, adding that the Sunni rebels are also "happy to show that our revolution is not a sectarian war."

Abu Mohammed, the commander of this rebel group, agrees.

"He is a Christian, but for the thuwar there is no difference between Muslims and Christians," he says.

"Muslims and Christians are brothers in building the new Syria," adds the fighter Abu Omar, as he embraces Abu Hanna.

Looking ahead Abu Hanna dreams that the rebellion against the Assad regime will be successful and pave the way for democratic elections in which he will have a key role.

"Six months after the victory of the revolution, there will be democratic elections. I will become a member of parliament and I will cut off economic relations with Russia," a strong ally of Assad's regime, he says.

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