Tea and Tanks: Life with a rebel unit in northern Syria

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army buy AK-47 bullets from a weapons seller in Idlib Province on July 4, 2012. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the UN to use the threat of sanctions to force change in Syria on July 6, 2012, as President Bashar al-Assad was rocked by the defection of one of his most senior generals.
Credit: LO

This article is part of a series wherein GlobalPost correspondents write the backstory of their own reporting. 

JABAL AL-ZAWIYA, Syria — Two shots cut through the forest silence. The gunmen dropped instantly behind their rocky shelters. Six hundred meters away, two regime soldiers were down.

Those precious bullets, a scarce commodity among Syrian rebel fighters, had found their targets. It took a few minutes for the spray of return fire to begin penetrating the trees in a wide radius surrounding the government checkpoint.

We stayed low and quiet, attempting to analyze the gunfire. A frightened stray dog burst through the trees. As it darted back into the forest, a collective chuckle of relief after the unexpected invasion of our hiding place broke the lingering tension.

The first gunman was Khalid, a veteran sniper trained by the Syrian regime in Damascus. Since turning his skills against his former employer when he defected 9 months ago, Khalid boasted he had killed 55 of President Bashar al-Assad’s men. This jolly father of five seemed an unlikely assassin, but his calm, precise movements were ever-reliable, his pleasant, cheerful manner never wavering.

What his young counterpart Jamal lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm and composure. A student of political science before the revolution, Jamal learned to use his Dragunov sniper rifle when he joined the ‘jesh horr,’ or freedom fighters, in the mountains of his hometown in Jabal al-Zawia when his university closed last year. At four US dollars per bullet, his training had been limited, but he quickly learned the ropes.

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I was traveling in May with Finnish photographer Niklas Meltio. We had been with this rebel unit of 80 men for almost a week. After traveling through several towns and reluctantly drinking at least a gallon of over-sweetened tea, we managed to find this temporary home. Gaining real trust from locals in an area where government informants are everywhere was hard enough, but convincing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to allow us to take extreme risks to cover their conflict was even harder.

As a woman, I had the added problem of convincing them I was capable. A good knowledge of their weapons and how to use them certainly helped, but I still had a long battle ahead, along with many more cups of tea. Syrian hospitality can be unrelenting.

The group leader was known as Abou Mosaad. Most of the men, particularly those with higher rank, where known by the Arabic title ‘Abou‘ — meaning father of — followed by their eldest son’s name. This not only served as a show of respect, but it also helped preserve anonymity for those who were not yet on the regime’s wanted list as members of the FSA.

Abou Mosaad was meek, mild-mannered and a deeply religious man. He had a neatly trimmed beard and a kind face with an air of authority that assured respect. We both took a liking to him immediately and soon nicknamed him Fidel, due to his resemblance to a young charismatic Fidel Castro. Among the men under his command were police and army defectors like Khalid, university students like Jamal, engineers, farmers, drivers, teachers and family men.

The unit base consisted of a large courtyard shaded by a ‘toot’ tree that produced a generous supply of sweet, white berries. Off the courtyard were two large rooms for prayer and sleeping. Two smaller rooms were used as prison cells and a third for weapons storage. There was already one prisoner when we arrived, Ibrahim Wanoose, a driver for one of Assad’s officers from a village near Homs. Several more were to come and go during the coming weeks.

The base was located on the outskirts of a quaint stone village, where most of the men’s families lived. Situated on a mountaintop, it overlooked surrounding villages, olive plantations and stone fences below. The immediate area was under control of the freedom fighters; around seven villages out of 36 in Jabal al-Zawiya.

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The title ‘Free Syrian Army’ is rarely used here. This seems partly due to the isolation from rebel groups in other parts of the country, but for many it is a statement against men they see more as deserters than leaders who left Syria to establish this official resistance movement across the Turkish border.

“Those who are protecting the Syrian people are the real Free Syrian Army, not those who are sitting outside the country protecting themselves,” explained Abou Mossad. “We work independently. Our task is very clear: to protect civilians. We work along with anyone who shares our goal.”

Hundreds of houses had previously been burned in the area during attacks by government soldiers, but for more than a month, clashes had only taken place in the surrounding villages and countryside. Some refugee families who had fled to Turkey were slowly returning to rebuild their homes.

Life for women was very strict. After several years in the Middle East, I was already accustomed to wearing headscarves and long jackets, but never did a few days go by without some pressure to wear the full abaya (a full length, black, head and body covering). The concept of a woman working or even thinking for herself was completely foreign and it was a constant struggle to reinforce the fact that I was here to work and was as capable at my job as any man, provided I wasn’t inhibited by a long, black, sweltering robe.

Many of the men slept at the base with one assigned to night watch. Most were married and would occasionally take a night off to stay at home with their families, but all remained on call. Their lives were now engulfed with the battle against Assad’s regime, their former lives put on hold.

The unit came under the central command of Ahmed Al Sheikh, known widely as Abou Issa. He was in charge of a movement with 6,000 members — around 2,000 were armed fighters. This area appeared to be better organized and definitely more united than groups in the other cities we had encountered who seemed to spend as much time fighting each other as they did the government forces. Meticulous records were kept of names, missions, weapons, ammunition and donations that arrived every few days of food and clothing from more affluent areas of Syria.

Niklas slept at the base with the men to be sure we did not sleep through any of the action, while I was shipped off to Abou Mosaad’s house nearby to stay with his mother, wife, sisters and four children.

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Missions were carried out every few days ranging from roadside bombs targeting tanks and army vehicles, to small sniper units of three or four men. Accompanying Khalid and Jamal were Abou Reesh and Ahmed, a young music teacher.  Both carried Kalashnikov rifles.

Abou Reese had, thanks to us, gained the unfortunate nickname of Doctor Muznun, or the crazy doctor, as he took the lead in treating the men and prisoners for minor ailments and was frequently seen wondering around the base with a needle and syringe in his hands.

And Ahmed, with his constant chatter and hilarious range of songs, could even make a sniper mission seem like a picnic.

“I’m more of talker than a worker,” he announced to us one morning while waiting to explode a roadside bomb on a regime tank before bursting into the theme song from the movie “Titanic.”

But this time he was more restrained.

Even he seemed nervous about the isolation of the mission at hand in the forest. Backup forces were a long way behind. As he handed out gum, this time the low-volume serenade was verses from the Koran.

Khalid and Jamal took a few more shots, announcing they had taken out three soldiers, before we made a run for it through the trees. About a kilometer away were two motorbikes waiting for us. Not exactly a fast getaway, especially when it took a 15-minute discussion to decide how, with two motorbikes and six people, to transport me without my touching a man.

As the sound of helicopter blades again sounded above the treetops a snap decision was made to allow me to hang off the back of one of the bikes while holding on to Niklas.

Over the coming weeks we accompanied them on many more missions, once coming under heavy helicopter fire with bullets landing inches from Niklas and Abou Mosaad as they hugged each other tightly beneath a small tree, Abou Mosaad frantically reciting verses from the Koran.

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