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Assad’s Hometown Plans For Funeral

June 12, 2000

QARDAHA, Syria (AP) _ Here among the green hills where President Hafez Assad was born and spent much of his youth, somber preparations were under way Monday to welcome the late Syrian leader for the last time before he is laid to rest next to his eldest son.

In a mournful atmosphere and a quiet broken only by verses of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, blaring occasionally from loudspeakers, workers were busy making arrangements for Assad’s funeral, expected to bring together tens of thousands of mourners from across the country Tuesday.

Officials were planning an elaborate state funeral _ the biggest in Syria’s modern history _ with dignitaries from all over the world flying in for daylong ceremonies beginning in Damascus. Assad, who died Saturday at the age of 69, was to be flown from there to the coastal city of Latakia and carried on a gun carriage to Qardaha, about 125 miles northwest of Damascus, for prayers and burial in the family cemetery.

In Qardaha on Monday, municipal workers draped pictures of Assad on the main road where the funeral procession will pass. They also posted pictures of Bashar, his younger son and likely successor, and Basil, his eldest son, who died in a car accident in 1994.

Small groups of young people in mourning black paraded the streets waving black flags, some crying. Hundreds of security guards lined the main highway leading up to Qardaha and the narrow streets inside the village where many of Assad’s Alawite clan live in stone, red-roofed villas.

``You will live in our hearts forever,″ read a black and white banner at the entrance to Qardaha. ``Bashar, you are the hope of the nation″ read another _ one of many pledging undying support for Assad’s expected successor.

Outside Basil Assad’s elaborate hilltop grave, workers were constructing a makeshift stage for officials and close friends of the family who were expected to attend the funeral. About 100 people were arranging wreaths, spreading out piles of white plastic chairs and erecting loudspeakers on lampposts.

Assad is to be buried close to the huge marble mausoleum for his son.

``I cannot believe this is where our president of 30 years will be laid to rest tomorrow,″ said Ibrahim Rahiyeh, 68, a retired construction worker from Qardaha. ``It’s the end of an era.″

Not far from where Rahiyeh was speaking stands the modest, one-story stone house said to have been the Assad residence.

``Assad’s early years were spent largely out of doors, perched on a donkey on the way to the fields, helping with the gathering of fruit, or just scampering about in the mountains with other children,″ biographer Patrick Seale wrote of the Qardaha of the president’s youth.

Today, Qardaha has modern homes and schools, as well as a large mosque Assad built and named for his mother, Na’isa. Prayers were to be held Tuesday at the green-and-white stone Na’isa Mosque.

On Monday, the mosque was draped with large black banners. Elsewhere, little black flags fluttered on almost every electricity pole, balcony and car antenna and huge pieces of black cloth hung from homes, buildings and car windshields.

Najah Sharkas, a 40-year-old housewife from the city of Homs, sat quietly watching workers near Basil Assad’s mausoleum.

``My heart is broken,″ she said.

Sharkas said she came from Homs to Qardaha on Sunday and will stay for Assad’s funeral. She said she has no friends in the town.

Asked where she would spend the night, the woman said: ``I will not sleep, just like I haven’t in two days. I am so sad that I may never sleep again.″