(The identity of the journalist has been withheld for security reasons)
HOMS, Syria (Reuters) - "Shabbiha" militias in Syria's most shell-shocked city used to offer fellow minority Alawites protection out of solidarity. Now, security comes at a price: About $300 a month.
Alawite residents in Homs say they are being coerced into helping fund the war effort of the "shabbiha", brutal sectarian militias supporting President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on an 18-month-old rebellion.
"The shabbiha exploit our fear. Every time, there is some excuse - they need food or ammunition. But it's basically a silent understanding now that each month the wealthier families pay," says Fareed, a greying surgeon who lives with his family in Zahra, an Alawite district of Homs.
The cost of war is rising at the site of the longest- running battle between Assad's forces and the rebels. Fareed fears his children could be kidnapped for ransom if he doesn't pay the shabbiha what they call "protection money".
Shabbiha are formed mostly from members of Assad's own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. They have been the fiercest enforcers of a bloody crackdown on the uprising led by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims, even accused of massacres.
The disgust some Alawites have at the idea of paying for them symbolizes a greater inner conflict many in their sect are struggling with: Do they risk rejecting the crackdown by their Alawite-led government and its brutal militias? Or do they buy in, literally, to the shabbiha argument that this is a fight for existence against Sunnis determined to take revenge?
"I'm not comfortable with it, it seems wrong. But I have no choice," says Saeed, 40, a balding engineer in a slick black suit. "If I didn't pay, I could be at risk. These guys are dangerous."
After months of fighting, only the shabbiha-guarded Alawite enclaves like Zahra are relatively unscathed. Zahra has swelled to nearly 200,000 Alawites in recent months.
The neighborhoods belonging to Hom's large Sunni population have become graveyards of bombed buildings and shattered streets. Very few families remain.
"THE SAFEST PLACE IN SYRIA"
With jobs and money drying up due to the unrest, the $300 fee is no small sum.
But Alawites in Zahra say that while they know the money they pay is extortion, and that shabbiha violence towards Sunnis puts them more at risk, they are regularly reminded of how precarious their fate is.
As the sound of crashing mortars in the distance shakes the silverware on his dining room table, Fareed stops his rant against shabbiha and sighs.
"Some days, I think we really do need them to protect us," the elderly doctor says, surveying his four children silently eating their meal.
The fight for Homs has fallen off the front pages as battles erupt in Syria's bigger cities, Damascus and Aleppo, but it has not eased. Gunfire perpetually rings in the background. Buildings are collapsing in the daily hail of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Shabbiha gangs used to rake in money by looting rebellious Sunni districts in Homs after the army raided them. But now that source of cash has run dry. Asking for "protection money" may be a way to make up for that.
The groups have become well organized in Homs. They have divided Zahra into six regions, each with a local "boss".
In each area, the boss sends young men with shaved heads and camouflage pants to monitor, strutting about with their rifles in hand. The army stays out, only manning road blocks on the outskirts of the district.
"There is no state presence in Zahra any more, even though it is surrounded by Sunni areas. Yet it is the safest place in Syria," says Saeed, reluctantly giving the shabbiha their due.
One improvement residents say their donations funded is the building of two 20-metre high blast walls towering over Zahra's main square. The street had once been within easy range of rebel gunmen atop buildings in neighboring districts.
"This used to be the deadliest spot in Zahra," says Manhal, the surgeon Fareed's son, as he walks behind the two massive white-washed walls.
Instead of seeing residents scurrying below, all gunmen nearby can see now is a giant poster that shabbiha plastered over the wall: A portrait of former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, who ruled for nearly 30 years until his death.
Frustrated rebels have taken to shooting at the picture instead. The eyes, nose and mouth are riddled with bullet holes.
NOWHERE TO GO
Not far from Fareed's family home, Wael "the accountant" combs a thick glob of hair cream into his dark hair and gets on his motorbike to make the monthly rounds for his boss.
"In my area we have 15 families. I get the money for the boss whenever there is a need: weapons, gas, car repairs, food for our boys," says the 25-year-old tough.
Wael doesn't think what he does is exploitative. He sees it as a service that residents need to pay to maintain. Unhappy residents can leave Homs if they want, he argues.
"We even arrange convoys to help them get out - that costs 10,000 lira ($120)."
There is no end in sight to Syria's civil war. International powers are too deadlocked to negotiate. Fighters show no interest in laying down their arms. Meanwhile, groups like the Alawites feel more vulnerable, and the shabbiha have taken advantage.
Umm Hani, a mother of two in Zahra, noticed the trend after a stunning bomb attack in July that killed four top security officials in Damascus.
"After that, the regime was shaken. And the shabbiha started to take more power, they started to demand more money. Without saying a word, they made their message clear: We are the ones responsible for you. Pay up."
There are deep wrinkles around Umm Hani's blue eyes after months of anxiety. Alawites like her feel trapped. She doesn't have enough savings to leave Syria. She feels she would be unsafe in the mostly Sunni refugee camps on the borders. Paying is the only choice.
"Where can we go? Who would accept us? So we stay, and we deal with our new little pharaohs."
(Writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Philippa Fletcher)