ZAATARI, Jordan >> Like all the small children in the desert refugee camp here, Ibtisam is eager to go home to the toys, bicycles, books, cartoons and classmates she left behind in Syria.
But not if that means living with Alawites, members of the same minority offshoot of Shiite Islam as Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
“I hate the Alawites and the Shiites,” Ibtisam, 11, said as a crowd of children and adults nodded in agreement. “We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they killed us.”
If the fighters seeking to oust Assad sometimes portray their battle as a struggle for democracy, the Sunni Muslim children of the Zaatari camp tell a much uglier story of sectarian revenge. Asked for their own views of the grown-up battle that drove them from their homes, child after child brought up their hatred of the Alawites and a thirst for revenge. Children as young as 10 or 11 vowed never to play with Syrian Alawite children or even pledged to kill them.
Parroting older relatives — some of whom egged them on — the youngsters offered a disturbing premonition of the road ahead for Syria.
Their unvarnished hatred helps explain why so many Alawites, who make up more than 10 percent of the Syrian population, have stood by Assad even as the world has written him off. The children’s refusal to share a playground or classroom with Alawites dramatizes the challenge of ever putting together a political solution to the conflict. And the easy talk of blood and killing from such young children illustrates the psychic toll that the revolt and repression are taking on the next generation of Syrians.
“We hear it all the time from the kids but also from the parents — that this is not political at all, and not a call for democracy, but is about people fed up and angry at rule by a minority, the Alawites,” said Saba Al-Mobaslat, director for Jordan of the nonprofit group Save the Children, which provides toys to refugee children and tries to teach them understanding. “There is a concern that this is a whole generation that is being brought up to hate, that can’t see the other’s side.”
The roots of the animosity toward the Alawites from members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population, run deep into history. During the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, the two groups lived in separate communities and the Sunni majority so thoroughly marginalized Alawites that they were not even allowed to testify in court until after World War I.
Then, in a pattern repeated across the region, said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma, French colonialists collaborated with the Alawite minority to control the conquered Syrian population — as colonialists did with Christians in Lebanon, Jews in Palestine and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. The French brought Alawites into the colony’s military to help control the Sunnis. And after Syria’s independence from France, the military eventually took control of the country, putting Alawites in top government positions, much to the resentment of the Sunni majority.
“Now the Alawites believe — possibly correctly — that the Sunnis are going to try to kill them, and that is why the Alawite Army now is killing Sunnis in this beastly way,” Landis said. “The Alawites feel justified in brutality because they fear what may be in store for them if they lay down their guns.”
“I don’t see any way out of that,” he said, “except to say that we are in for a long, difficult ride and you pray that the Syrians are going to get over this somehow.”
At the Zaatari camp, a desolate tent city where nearly half the 25,000 residents are younger than 12 and desperately bored, many of the children retain a disarming innocence.
“Who will rule Syria next? Another president, but we will choose him,” Rahaf, 11, said confidently. “I don’t know who yet, because we have not seen the names.”
Just as the Syrian uprising first began as a peaceful protest movement inspired by calls for democracy around the Arab world, some children at the Zaatari camp sought to describe the struggle in ideological terms.
“Why are they bombing us?” Ahmed, 12, from Hauran region near the border with Jordan, asked rhetorically. “Because we are asking for our freedom.”
His father interrupted to explain what freedom might mean.
“The biggest general in Hauran, a young Alawite soldier can step his foot on the general’s head,” his father said. “A young Alawite soldier can humiliate the biggest officer.”
His son picked up the theme.
“The Alawites say, ‘Kneel in front of my shoe,”’ Ahmed said, before looping the subject back to the revolt. “We can’t be free with Assad, because he kills us.”
The convictions of Heza, 13, were blunt.
“We will never live together,” he said. “All the Alawites are security agents. After the revolution, we want to kill them.”
Even if it might mean killing a Syrian child his own age?
“I will kill him,” Heza said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Mobaslat, of Save the Children, said aid workers with her group avoided bringing up sectarian feelings directly because they tried not to start conversations they could not resolve. She also said she believed some children at the camp were Alawites, Shiites or other minorities who were pretending to be Sunni Muslims for their own safety, so raising the issue in a group could create trouble.
She said her group’s workers tried to talk about children accepting one another, making their own decisions and deciding for themselves whom to trust, to hate or to love. The goal is to encourage children to see others as individuals rather than part of a group, she said, “but that doesn’t happen overnight, just because of an uprising.”
“Sunnis are Muslims and Shiites and Alawites are the ones who kill us,” Salem, 12, explained matter-of-factly.
Ranya, 13, insisted that “there will always be a problem between Sunnis and Alawites, because they are the ones who are doing this to us.”
She hates the Alawites, she said, but not exclusively: She also hates Hassan Nasrallah — leader of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which supports the Assad government — as well China and Russia, Assad’s other foreign backers.
A few yards away, a 41-year-old mother was swaying with her 2-year-old daughter, Malek, in her arms so the baby could sing for a visitor to the family’s dusty tent: “Heaven, heaven, heaven, Syria is heaven.”