As conflict winds down in many parts of Syria, one major question is how certain communities will be put back together again, particularly when events took on a sectarian angle. For example, the town of Busra al-Sham in east Deraa countryside of southern Syria had a substantial Shi'i minority before the war. Following the town's fall to the rebels in March 2015, the entire Shi'i community of the town fled. Though Busra al-Sham entered into a reconciliation agreement through Russian mediation in the summer of this year, the Shi'a of Busra al-Sham have not yet returned to the town.
Below is an interview I did with a Shi'i person from Busra al-Sham who is presently in the Hezbollah-affiliated Special Force. The interview, conducted on 23 December 2018, has been condensed for some clarity. Any parenthetical insertions are in square brackets.
Q: When did they [the Shi'a] come to Busra al-Sham?
A: They have been there for around 100 years.
Q: From where did they come exactly?
A: From south Lebanon: Khiam.
Q: And who are the main families?
A: al-Dhahir, al-Adhba, Ja'afar, Dheyaa, al-Khidhr, Mahdi, Hayder, al-Ibrahim, al-Mazra'ani, Marji. These are the most well-known more or less. But the biggest two families are Ja'afar and al-Khidhr. And al-Adhba as well.
Q: There are people who have said that the Shi'a came to Busra only 30 years ago approximately. But this is not true?
A: I know and am certain that my mother's grandfather was born in Busra and he died around 40 years ago. He is from the al-Khidhr family.
Q: Were you yourself born in Busra?
A: Yes. And my mother as well. She is now 40 years old.
Q: As for your father he is not from Busra originally?
A: No on the contrary he is from Busra, but he was martyred on 27 May 2014 in Busra as well.
Q: How was life in Busra before the events [civil war]?
A: The people were co-existing with each other, Sunnis and Shi'a. They would come to our weddings and we would go to theirs. Even soe of the Sunnis would attend the Ashura' councils. And they [the people of Busra] would take from each other and live with each other. And it was fine.
Q: There were never problems of sectarianism?
A: Never, never. Around every two or three years there would be some quarrel of talk among adolescent youth of 16/17 years of age, and it would be resolved immediately and not remain.
Q: Yes. Did some of the people in Busra convert to Shi'ism before the beginning of the events?
A: More than one person. There are people who converted and their families would disown them, being extremists. And there are families who would accept this thing at ease.
Q: So before the beginning of the events, what was the proportion of Shi'a in Busra al-Sham?
Q: And with the beginning of the events there were big demonstrations in the locality?
A: Yes. They would come out after Friday prayers. And they would call the Friday according to what al-Ar'our would call it.
Q: And were the demonstrations sectarian?
A: The first few no. Later the matter would develop and they would begin putting in place sectarian slogans. And they began attacking the homes of the Shi'a that were among them, and burning cars by night without anyone seeing them.
Q: When did the demonstrations end?
A: When they burned the district and all the security centres that were in Busra departed, they stopped. And they began to take up arms, and on [social media] connection sites. They [the protesters] were coming out in demonstrations against the security, but when the security left, they stopped. The security left for about a month and returned. Once it returned, they began to take up arms.
Q: When exactly? Beginning of 2012?
Q: Of course Busra remained under the control of the Syrian government between 2012 and 2015, while most of the eastern countryside fell.
A: The town centre, yes. Though the [Syrian] army remained, it did not have influence. The party [Hezbollah- and likewise all references hereafter to 'the party'] was more active.
Q: How was the situation in those days?
A: From what angle?
Q: I mean from the angle of services, daily life and the security situation.
A: The security situation was so-and-so. There were some streets closed by snipers. And mortar rounds in all their lengths would fall down. [Daily] life: everything was available, but every time something would be cut off. Sometimes bread: no flour would remain in the oven. Sometimes gasoline, gas. All the reinforcement routes were closed except the route Bard [name of a village]-Suwayda'. It would be closed each time for a day and then reopen.
Q: "Though the army remained, it did not have influence. The party was more active." Can you clarify this? Do you mean Hezbollah entered the town to protect it?
Q: When did the party enter approximately?
A: Around the fifth month of 2012. At first it entered secretly. There were just a few people who were bearing arms with us.
Q: Yes. But later the party's presence increased?
A: Very much so, as all the districts were closed off, and the youth began going and registered. And also some youth from the Sunnis registered with the party.
Q: Yes. So there was a formation affiliated with the party in the town.
Q: How many people registered in the formation approximately? And when was the formation established approximately?
A: Around 500. It began in early 2012 and began gradually growing till the end of 2012 as the party imposed its control over the area.
Q: Yes, so when the party secretly entered at first in May 2012, they set up the formation.
A: Yes. It remained secret for around two months.
Q: And the youth recruited into the formation, and it became more active than the army by 2013, right?
A: Yes. The name became for the party [i.e. Hezbollah became the main force]. As for the channels and television, they would speak in the name of the army and say with the assistance of the popular forces.
Q: Yes. Was there a name for the local formation in Busra?
Q: Just Hezbollah, you mean.
A: Yes. It was just the party.
Q: But during all these years there were no more than a few guys from the Lebanese brothers in the town?
A: Actually there were around twenty. For each speciality two or three came for assistance and training.
Q: Did any Iraqi brothers come to protect the town?
A: No, never, never.
Q: For clarity, before the fall, that is 2012-2015, some of the neighbourhoods were under the control of the insurgents?
A: Yes. The eastern, northern and western neighbourhoods were all with them, except the eastern neighbourhood from the southern side was with us: from the side of Bard. We were in half [of the town].
Q: So half of the town was held by the insurgents.
Q: And half of the town was under the army and party.
A: Yes, but the town centre was with us.
Q: Did you enlist in the party's formation?
A: In Busra, no.
Q: But you were in the town all those days.
A: Yes. But we would go to the party's centres and help them.
Q: Yes. The day of the fall. Did all the Shi'a flee on the day of the fall or before it? What happened exactly?
A: The battle was three days and on the fourth with the sunset the town fell. They left gradually from the first day. Some would send out just their families. And a group would go out: they and their families. The last day by sunset, all had left, and the children as well. But some young men and some youth remained till the 12th hour. After that, without exception, no one remained.
Q: And now where are the exiles from Busra?
A: In Damascus, Suwayda', in Homs in al-Qusayr. The largest number are in Sayyida Zainab.
Q: The youth who enlisted in the party's formation in Busra. What happened to the formation? Was it dissolved?
A: Yes, it was dissolved. Each one went his own way. Some remained with the party, some joined up with the Iranians, some with the Iraqi Kata'ib Hezbollah and many new formations.
Q: Ah. So some of the youth of Busra al-Sham have joined the Iraqi Kata'ib Hezbollah?
Q: Yes. Going back to something before the fall: when the youth of Busra enlisted in the local formation, how did they train example? Inside the town or in Suwayda'?
A: They would go for courses in Lebanon, but there were some specialities they did in Busra.
Q: Yes. And now what is the situation? None of the Shi'a have returned to Busra?
A: None at all.
A: Just the way it is. Hahaha.
Q: No one knows if they will return.
A: Correct. No one knows except God.
Q: Yes. Do you think that peaceful co-existence is possible if the Shi'a return to Busra?
A: No, no at all. They will not return like 2010.
Q: So in truth you do not want to return to Busra?
A: On the contrary by God. Even if there were to be a civil war, I want to return. My father's grave is in Busra. And we have a house of our own there.
Q: How was your father martyred?
Q: He was in the local formation for the party?
A: Yes, an official.
Q: Do you want to take revenge against the insurgents? Just this [question left]
A: Sort of.