Wednesday, 11 December 2019

I lost my unborn child to a hospital airstrike in Syria

I lost my unborn child to a hospital airstrike in Syria

 'I run a maternal and paediatric hospital in Idlib. There are four gynaecologists, four midwives and 19 nurses working full-time.

 All of us are women, and we work around the clock in the midst of ongoing violence and bombardment. When an attack happens nearby, we usually don't receive casualties from the shelling, but that doesn't mean we are protected from the fallout.

 As women health workers in a maternity hospital, are we spared from these attacks? Of course not.

 Eight months ago, the area around my hospital came under heavy bombardment. When a hospital is targeted, people usually imagine horrendous destruction: Body parts, people trapped under rubble, injuries, and so on.

The people in Syria, or at least those who have experienced such aerial bombardment, know what I'm describing. The targeting of hospitals is hard to describe. 

 On the day of the attack, we immediately had to evacuate infants, young children, and expectant mothers. Our neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was full. Of our 14 incubators, only one was available. We were forced to take 13 premature babies out of incubators to evacuate them and save their lives.

 While we were evacuating the hospital, the surgical department prepared to deliver babies via cesarean section, and we transferred some patients to a nearby hospital.

 As the evacuation got underway, I was in the operating room finishing an emergency c-section. I had no other choice. If I didn't operate, my patient and her baby would never have survived. That moment - the stress, nerves and fatigue - began to take a toll on me. When I heard the first cry of her baby, I felt a sense of relief.

 Attacks on civilian infrastructure are unlawful and a crime against humanity. We all know this on a rational level. However, when your own hospital comes under attack, it's an entirely different feeling. You can't just think about yourself. There are vulnerable patients and babies who depend on you for their survival and safety.

 When first responders arrive at a hospital that has just been targeted, they don't consider the medical staff victims of the bombardment. They consider us their colleagues, working hand in hand to evacuate and save as many patients as possible.

 We have been trained as first responders over the years, even though we never signed up for that job.

 On that unforgettable day, ambulances were coming to the hospital to transfer premature infants and patients to nearby facilities.

 When I finished the surgery, I was told that the baby I had just delivered needed an incubator. The baby was too weak.

 We had already evacuated the entire NICU in anticipation of a "double-tap" attack, a technique that has been used since the beginning of the conflict in Syria to target first responders and other health workers.

 We immediately started looking for a hospital that had an available incubator. We first drove to Al-Ghadfeh Hospital, but they had no incubator available. Al-Salam Hospital in Ma'arat Al-Numan had one available, but it was an hour away. I monitored the newborn's condition during the drive, and fortunately, we made it in time.

 I was in my first trimester of pregnancy when the attack happened. On that day, I lost my unborn child due to bleeding.

 No one can possibly describe the overwhelming despair a mother feels when she loses her child, especially under such inhumane circumstances.

 No woman should ever experience this, but it is all too common for those of us living in northwest Syria. That's why I was determined to do whatever it takes to save this newborn. I can't bear to see another mother suffer an unfathomable loss because of violence and displacement.

 A few days later, we reopened our hospital. The mother still hadn't seen her son because she was still recovering from her c-section.

 We brought the child to meet his mother for the first time after 10 days in the incubator at al-Salam Hospital. He survived, despite everything.

 Although I lost my own child that day, I was blessed with another. Had the hospital not been bombed, my unborn child might have survived too, and I would have a third child in my family today.'

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Arrests, Torture, & Mass Executions are Cornerstone of Assad’s Rule

Al-Farhan: Arrests, Torture, & Mass Executions are Cornerstone of Assad’s Rule

 'Coordinator of the Syrian National Commission for Detainees and Missing Persons and member of the Syrian National Coalition’s political committee Yasser Al-Farhan, said that arrest, torture, and murder are still the cornerstone of Assad’s rule of Syria. He reasserted the international community’s responsibility for the rescue of detainees and protection of civilians.

Al-Farhan said that the Assad regime has been systematically violating the international humanitarian law and international human rights law as well as showing utter disregard for the UN Security Council resolutions and all international norms conventions. “This requires effective measures to put an end to these crimes; redress the victims; and prevent impunity.”

Despite the Assad regime’s escalating violence, the Syrian people will not give up the demands for which they went out in peaceful demonstrations eight years ago, Al-Farhan said. He pointed out that there is no alternative to the removal of the regime “which has become a threat to international peace and security and continues to commit war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.”

Al-Farhan praised the demonstrations organized by dozens of young men in the towns of Ma’araba and Heit in Dara’a province in the last two days. Demonstrators demanded the immediate release of detainees from the prisons of the Assad regime, an end to arrests, and the withdrawal of the Iranian militias.

Local activists said that demonstrators in Ma’araba held signs that read “Iran and Hezbollah have no place among us," "release the detainees from your prisons," and "the people want the detainees out." Demonstrators in Heit held signs calling for solutions to the deteriorating economic conditions, combating corruption, and emphasizing commitment to the Syrian revolution.

For more than two weeks, the towns and villages of Dara’a province have seen renewed anti-regime protests calling for the release of detainees, an end to arbitrary arrests by the regime's security forces, and the withdrawal of the Iranian sectarian militias from the province.'

Political assassinations: forewarning of a new revolution in Daraa

Hundreds going to the funeral of two former opposition members in Daraa al-Balad November29, 2019 (Ahrar Horan gathering)

 'The political scene in Daraa is in a state of chaos after increasing the operations against the Syrian régime which responded by the assassination of former leaders and members of the opposition. The province fuelled by angry popular demonstrations, carrying political messages to the régime and its allies and foreshadowing a new revolution.

Successive negative events in the governorate varied between security operations against régime members and officers, and recurrent assassinations of former leaders and elements of the former opposition, followed by angry demonstrations against the entities of the régime and its security arms.

The former governor of Daraa, lawyer Ali al-Salkhadi, mentioned to Enab Baladi, that the “revolution” has taken a new line in Daraa, with these intensive operations targeting régime elements and their affiliates. “The issue of traitors and mercenaries is still ongoing. Anyone who is proved to have been dealing with the régime will be killed,” he declared.

The former leader of the opposition, Adham al-Karad, wrote on his Facebook page, in conjunction with several operations targeting elements of the régime, on November 27, “Today is the first day of the blessed revolution and the previous years were a preparation, the free people today have a lot of cards that can change the situation and achieve success, they are used successively and the escalation will be gradual in God’s Will.”

According to Salkhdi, the security operations, which have lately increased in pace, send a political message to negotiators in international forums, especially in Geneva. Moreover, the content of that message is that these negotiations are based on the blood of the Syrians and the massacres committed against them by Russia and the régime. “Horan people cannot keep silent in front of injustice,” as he put it.

This is what al-Karad stated on Facebook, “The problem is that the politicians drowned in the quagmire of details and lost the compass over and over. That is why they had to be reminded that the movement will not stop until goals are achieved.”

Al-Karad added: “Anyone who is seeking peace in Syria must stop the arrests immediately and definitely and begin to disclose the conditions of detainees in prison according to a clear and open schedule to the public.”

 Al-Salkhadi pointed out that the assassinations targeting leaders and members of the former opposition are reprisals against the régime in response to the security operations that are affecting its buses, headquarters and military and security figures.

“The régime is behind the assassinations of former opponents, which is a retaliatory act of the régime and its allies after its members were repeatedly killed in different parts of Daraa,” he added.

The Syrian régime does not comment on the security and political developments in Daraa, and that is a policy pursued by the official media which is merely promoting the services provided by the régime to the people of the region after taking control of the province with Russian support in July 2018.

The assassinations of former dissidents in the region have led to popular outrage. This fury included demonstrations, some of which occurred during the funerals, after the escalation of assassinations recorded against unknowns.

The most prominent of these events was the assassination of former leader of the opposition factions, Waseem al-Rawashdeh, by an unknown device, in Tafas town of Idlib countryside, on 27 November. This turned his funeral into an angry demonstration calling for the overthrow of the régime and the expulsion of Iranian militias from the area.

The demonstrators waved revolutionary flags and placards that read, “Those whose law was based on injustice and corruption can only succeed in killing and destruction in the country,” and “Horan did not and will not end, and the day will come when Horan says its last word.”

Soon after, the brothers Muhammad and Ahmad al-Sayasna, two former members of the opposition, were killed by unknown gunmen in the center of the city of Daraa al-Balad, causing the rise of the city’s neighborhoods the next day, in an angry popular demonstration in which hundreds attended the funeral of the two brothers.

In the past two weeks, several areas in Daraa have also witnessed demonstrations and protests calling for the overthrow of the régime and the lifting of the security grip and called for the release of detainees, most notably in the towns of Tal Shihab, al-Yadudah,Muzayrib, Tafas, Daraa al-Balad, Jillen, Beit Sahem, Jasim and Karak al-Charki.

On the other hand, there was an increase of “retaliation” security operations that targeted officers and members of the Syrian régime in different areas of Daraa, amid warnings of opponents of raising the level of operations against the backdrop of the deteriorating security situation.

The biggest escalation took place on November 28, when unidentified assassins murdered four security members in the ranks of the régime including an officer and an assistant. According to the correspondent of “Sama TV “ Firas al-Ahmad, Lieutenant Riad Abdullah al-Taleb, from the ranks of ” The National Defense”, affiliated to the régime, was shot dead by unknown assailants in al-Muzayrib town, west of Daraa, and another person was injured.

Al-Ahmad added that unidentified gunmen also assassinated the head of the Air Force Intelligence Detachment, Assistant Izz al-Din Rajab, in the town of Buser al-Harir, east of Daraa, by shooting him in an intended ambush.

An unidentified gunman also targeted the car of a member named “Abu Jaafar”, from the military security, in Daraa countryside. Also earlier, the body of Ahmed Sharaf al-Dairi, from the city of Al-Shaykh Maskin, was found dead, according to Enab Baladi‘s reporter.

The régime’s eastern checkpoint in the town of Sahwa, east of Daraa, was attacked by unknown assailants on November 15. The attack co-occurred with a similar attack on the régime’s security detachment in al-Harah city, north of Daraa, and another attack on the house of Firas and Alaa al-Labbad who are working for Military Security in Al-Sanamayn city.

Naser al-Mitwali was also assassinated in Tafas on 19 January. He was accused of collaborating with the Lebanese Hezbollah. The next day, Hamdi al-Zu’bi from al-Yadouda was accused of working for military security.'

Demonstrations take place in Daraa countryside, calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime and solidarity with Idlib

“My Only Crime Was That I Was a Doctor”

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 'In 2011, the Syrian government cracked down with extreme violence on mass popular protests calling for sweeping economic and political reform after more than 50 years of dictatorship. The anti-government opposition responded to that repression by organizing both political and military resistance to the Syrian regime. By mid-2012, Syria was experiencing a full-fledged internal conflict. For the past eight years, the Syrian government and its allies have sought to systematically extinguish dissent through every means at their disposal, a strategy that has entailed massive human rights violations. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced more than half of Syria’s population internally and across the country’s borders.

 The Syrian government has prosecuted the war by intentionally targeting civilian populations in restive areas and any perceived opposition supporters. It has imposed sieges on opposition-held areas, shelled and bombarded densely populated urban centers, and conducted a campaign of arrest, torture, and enforced disappearance of suspected insurgents and their supporters that has laid waste to much of the country and sparked an exodus of millions of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries and beyond.

 The Syrian government and its allies have also systematically targeted health facilities and health workers as part of a wider strategy of war aimed at breaking civilian populations and forcing them into submission. Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 583 attacks on health facilities; the Syrian government and its allies have been responsible for carrying out more than 90 percent of these attacks. Through their purposeful assault on health, the Syrian government and its allies have systematically denied access to medical care in areas outside of their immediate control and actively persecuted health workers who, in adherence to their professional ethics, courageously provide such care to the sick and wounded, including opposition supporters. The Syrian government has blatantly disregarded special protections afforded to medical units and personnel under international humanitarian law and has branded health workers – who provide nondiscriminatory health care in line with their legal and ethical obligations – as enemies of the state.

 The formerly detained health workers interviewed by PHR were arrested by Syrian government forces specifically because of their status as care providers, and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. This report details the price they paid for doing so, while recognizing that they are among those fortunate enough to have survived Syrian government detention facilities.

 Dr. Youssef was in his fourth year of surgical residency when the conflict in Syria erupted. He joined several friends to create an anonymous network of volunteers who established medical points to treat individuals who were injured while peacefully protesting.

 On August 21, 2011, seven plainclothes security officers arrested Dr. Youssef as he was treating a patient in a hospital in the Qalamoun region north of Rural Damascus governorate. They took him to the al-Nabek State Security Branch. There, the authorities took his personal effects, strip-searched him, and confined him in a 1-by-1.5 meter cell for the next 69 days. He was not charged or given any reason for his arrest and was not allowed to contact his family or seek counsel. State security authorities interrogated and tortured Dr. Youssef daily for periods of between one and three hours. The interrogators had detailed knowledge of his activities, including awareness of jokes he had told to certain individuals on specific days. Dr. Youssef’s interrogators repeatedly asked him about the medical point network he had helped to establish and the network’s members. Interrogators told him they detained him for supporting “terrorists” and working against the regime. The severity of the torture increased in each session. The initial torture sessions consisted of his interrogators beating his stomach and legs with heavy electric cables. They later applied electricity to his genitalia and administered electrical shocks to his body while he was submerged in water. They threatened to hang him on three separate occasions. Despite the constant torture, Dr. Youssef continued to deny all charges, both fabricated and real, in order to protect himself, his colleagues, and his friends.

 A month into his detention, an interrogator told Dr. Youssef that authorities had already detained his colleagues, mentioning them by name. The guards nevertheless continued to torture him, apparently solely to punish him. They beat the soles of his feet with thick plastic pipes filled with concrete. He eventually confessed to various activities he was accused of having been involved in, including providing support to protesters, on the express condition that his captors improve the conditions of his detention. The authorities required that he write his confession three separate times.

 On the 69th day of his detention, the authorities moved Dr. Youssef to a larger cell within al-Nabek State Security Branch for two weeks before transferring him to the General Intelligence Branch in Kafarsouseh, Damascus. At the end of these two weeks, and after almost three months of detention in intelligence facilities without charges, he was transferred to Adra Civilian Prison north of Damascus. In Adra, Dr. Youssef had more regular access to food, and could communicate with his family for the first time since his arrest. The authorities finally filed formal legal charges against him in the Civil Court of Damascus and subsequently released him on bail in December 2011 without rendering a verdict.

 In September 2013, Dr. Youssef learned from members of the opposition that they had information from an agent working with an intelligence branch in al-Nabek that the authorities intended to re-arrest him. He immediately left for opposition-controlled Idlib, where he began working in a field hospital. In August 2014, Dr. Youssef left for Turkey. While he is not able to practice medicine in Turkey, he has continued to provide administrative and programmatic support to the medical sector inside Syria.

 Before the conflict, Tareq worked in marketing in Aleppo. He had no previous medical training. Soon after the government crackdown began in 2011, he trained in first aid and started working as a paramedic, transferring patients between medical facilities. He eventually joined a group of doctors as a member of a non-profit organization that offered medical services in eastern Aleppo and became the administrative director of one of the main trauma hospitals in opposition-controlled East Aleppo.

 Toward the end of May 2013, Military Security arrested Tareq at home and placed him in solitary confinement at the Military Security Branch of Aleppo until the end of the summer. In addition to a raft of accusations related to “undermining” the Syrian state, Tareq’s interrogators charged him with “membership in a terrorist organization,” in reference to the Aleppo City Medical Council. About four months into his detention, Military Security transferred Tareq to Damascus, where he was imprisoned underground in al-Mazzeh Military Airport for one week before being transferred to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus. They placed him in solitary confinement in cell number 56. He was interrogated and tortured three months later and then again two months after that.

 Tareq’s interrogators subjected him to a broad range of torture methods including a variety of stress positions, beatings, electrocution, burning of the body – including the genitalia – with boiling water, and sexual assault. Tareq described how he often fainted from the pain during interrogation sessions. “Losing consciousness was a blessing because it was a break from all the physical and psychological torture,” he said. At one point during his detention in the Palestine Branch, Tareq was hung naked by the arms in front of a female detainee placed in the same position.

 “They brought me in and hung me from the ceiling and, in a second, removed all my clothes. I suddenly realized I was completely naked. I was unable to understand what was happening until I saw a naked woman one meter in front of me. Her nipples were burnt. There were cigarette burns across her chest. Her hair was unkempt. There was dried up blood between her thighs. I felt a deep shame. For three days, the woman was hung in front of me. It was the most difficult period of the past four years. The prison guard used to enter and insult us. He did not touch us with his hands because he was disgusted by us. He used to molest the woman with a plastic tube and tell me: “Why don’t you defend her? Where’s your honor?” In the same way, he used to molest me while interrogating me to get me to have an erection. Ultimately, he would insult her and ask her: “Is it enough? Is its size large enough for you? Are you satisfied?” She would cry.”

 In addition, he witnessed several other instances of sexual violence against other detainees.

 “They brought in two women and the soldiers on duty raped them right in front of us. One of them fainted from screaming. I thought she was dead. She was a nurse from Qusair in Homs. Confronting those kinds of atrocities and feeling powerless in front of this inhumanity is much harder than physical torture.”

 In total, Tareq was detained in the Palestine Branch for 14 months. After numerous cycles of torture, they took his fingerprints, which he interpreted as a sign that he would go to court. Instead, he was transferred to the Military Police prison in Qaboun, Damascus, where he was detained for nearly one month. On October 29, 2014, Tareq was transferred to Adra Prison, which he described as a “five-star hotel compared to the previous detention facilities.” While at Adra Prison, he appeared in Counter-terrorism Court about once every six months. He was charged with “supporting a terrorist organization” (the medical board) and plotting to overthrow the Syrian regime. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison, revoked his Syrian nationality, confiscated his assets, and fined him 1,800,000 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of $3,500 at the time). With the help of a lawyer provided to him by the International Committee of the Red Cross, he was released after having been detained for four years, five months, and ten days.

 Hassan, a nurse from Homs, described the first week of Ramadan in 2012 at the Riot Unit in Homs Central Prison, when prison authorities cut off food, water, and electricity in response to detainees protesting poor conditions. Hassan spoke of how blockaded detainees resorted to drinking stagnant water from an old reservoir and to hunting mice and rats and cooking them over burning blankets to break their fast.

 The majority of interviewees described being denied regular access to showers and soap. Omar, the health volunteer from Harasta, explained that in his 63 days of detention in the Kafarsouse Military Security Branch in Damascus, prison authorities allowed him to shower only twice. Describing the process, he said:

 “They told us to take our clothes off and rounded us up by groups of 50. They led us from our building to another and then down into a basement. There, we were led into the showers three at a time. The water was boiling hot. They gave us 60 seconds to shower. Anything over that and we would get the whip. They gave us one bar of soap and the three of us would try to lather each other up as quickly as possible. That shower space was also a toilet and the kitchen where the prison’s food was cooked.”

 Some interviewees reported not being allowed access to the toilet, forcing them to relieve themselves in their cells. The cells were often described as filthy, with grime, blood, and dirt covering the ground and the walls. Unsanitary conditions led to chronic diarrhea, widespread lice, scabies, and a range of severe skin infections. Describing conditions in Military Intelligence Branch 215, Omar said:

 “Lice was itself a form of punishment because they didn’t even try to treat it. Eleven of us would need to share a single blanket, even though some of us would have lice or scabies. It was a tactic they used to transmit these diseases and make us feel even more depressed.”

 The gravity of enforced disappearances and their impact on the families of detainees was palpable in Dr. Jamal’s description of the scene outside the Civilian Court in Damascus on the day he was released:

 “As soon as I came out of the courthouse – and this is a something I will never forget – about 50 women rushed me. Each one of them had a picture in her hand. ‘This is my son,’ ‘This is my husband,’ ‘This is my brother,’ they would tell me. ‘Have you seen my son?’ I tried to look at the pictures, but I couldn’t recognize any of the faces. There was a man there who told me to leave before more of them showed up. And that’s what I did. I ran away. It was such a difficult moment. They’re just standing there, and they show these pictures to every detainee who gets released out of that courthouse.” '

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Régime Arrests Math Teacher in Lattakia Over Facebook Post

 'The Syrian régime arrested a math teacher, Ahmed Suleiman, at his home in Lattakia a few days ago, because of a social media post he made, in the latest example of a policy that has almost entirely emptied the country of critical voices.

 According to pro-régime sites, security forces arrested Suleiman at his home on Thursday without showing any arrest warrant or clear charges. Later, security members returned and took his personal computer.

 It is believed that the reason for the arrest of Suleiman, 65, is a post he wrote against the rampant corruption in Assad’s Syria, in which he called for a number of ministries to be dispensed with merged with other, and to use the surplus money to support the Syrian pound, which has recently declined in an unprecedented manner against the dollar to 750 pounds to the dollar, while régime media promotes the narrative that the sanctions and conspiracy against the country are the reason for this decline.

 Opposition accounts concerned with following affairs related to prisoners and forcibly disappeared people said that the reason for the arrest was Suleiman’s previous posts in which he talked about the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the spread of Shi’ification policies by Iranian militias in the country, which is considered to be a banned topic the régime forbids discussing.

 This arrest recalls the arrest of a prominent activist, Nabih Nabhan, from Tartous province earlier this year. He was released in August, after the arrest sparked outrage among loyalists and opposition figures alike.

 Over the last two years, the régime has tightened restrictions on freedom of expression in the country, which has happened gradually, issuing strict cybercrime laws, which have imposed heavy restrictions on social media activity. It has also stopped military and war correspondents and arrested some loyalist activists, such as Wissam al-Teer, head of the Damascus Now Network, while silencing other activists with threats. The oppression has affected famous régime figures, such as Shokran Mortga, Ayman Zidan, Amal Arafa, and Abed Fahd, who violated the régime’s narrative in one way or another.'

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Extracts from Samar Yazbek's The Crossing

 'This is a damning story. Damning of a dictator who cares nothing for what he does to his people to stay in power and damning of a world that stands by and does nothing.'
 [From Christina Lamb's foreword, p vii]


 'A new family of neighbours joined us in the shelter. Aala, who always insisted on telling a bedtime story before going to sleep, pointed them out.

 "Their mum is on our side, but their father supports Bashar," she explained. "My dad is with the rebels. And those girls support Bashar, too, which means their not on our side! But never mind. They have to hide with us so they don't die." '
 [The First Crossing, p26]

 'Nearby sat a woman approaching forty, who was massaging the back of a boy aged at least ten; the only son she had left at home, she explained, but he had a mental disorder. He did not speak, though his deep-blue eyes sparkled. During my visits to Syria, I saw a lot of mute children.

 She said, "My brother was one of the first people to go out and support the revolution when it took off here. Everyone knew him as 'Mohammed Haaf' - he was the hero of Saraqeb.

 They went out on peaceful demonstrations at first, but the régime bombed us, and executed nine of our children right in front of everyone. My brother carried on fighting to his last breath. Every day we were dying, and he'd say to me, 'We won't die like cowards, we'll die in a way that's worthy of us.' They killed my other brother, too. And they set fire to my house as we were trying to escape.

 Two of my brothers have been killed, and my son was dragged from my arms. I still have another son alive, but he's off with the rebels. They've all gone, and only this little one is left. My son who's fighting for the revolution says he won't come home until Syria is free."

 She pulled out photos of her two martyred sons to show me. At the fourth image, she paused. She bowed to beat her head against the ground.

 "They snatched him from my arms. I clung on to him until they surrounded me and dragged him from my arms. He was an activist in the revolution, and they killed him. He was just a kid..."

 'A rebel fighter from Jabal Zawiya visited, a commander of a military battalion. Now and then his face was overcome by a dreamy calm, almost peaceful were it not for his thoughts of death.

 "They took my little brother," he said. "They took him to jail and tortured him ... They tortured him and burnt him alive ...

 We're from the village of Ayn Larouz - six of the kids from our village have been killed. My brother was only sixteen - he was alive when they set him on fire.My family have left our house and gone into hiding.

 At the beginning of the revolution and all the defections, I was in touch with an Alawite officer; he was my friend. This Alawite officer who'd been helping us helped four of the defecting soldiers to escape.

 Suddenly he disappeared. The régime was afraid of potential defections, so they were always swapping officers round
 We build some weapons ourselves when we don't have enough. Once we tried making rockets, but one of the rockets we'd made went missing after we launched it from a wheatfield. We ran like Tom and Jerry! We were terrified it would land on one of our houses, even though we were quite far away. We found it a few days later in the same field." '

 'We were scorched by the sun as we made our way through the countryside north of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. It was as though they were ancient abandoned sites: only rarely did you see another person, and all you heard was the occasional drone or aircraft circling in the air. Even so, we were further from the bombing now.

 The desolate road, the hushed villages, the armed roadblocks in the midday sun, the salty sting in my eyes: it all brought me to the verge of tears, until I caught a glimpse of something moving. At the far end of a vast field, a set of sprinklers was spraying out water. So life did go on in spite of everything! On the horizon, at the end of the line of sprinklers, I spotted a girl of no more than fifteen. Leaping about with excitement, she stuck her head under the water. Then she pulled off her hijab, drenched it and her hair, then wiped her face with the wet cloth.

 Suddenly we came across a row of small domed mud-brick houses and a small truck passed by. A group of women and young girls were crammed in the back of the truck. Their veils concealed everything but their eyes, the best protection against the noon sun. Each woman had a hoe in her hand. The truck stopped and they all got out and walked over to the field. How could these areas be a breeding ground for jihadis and Salafists, when the very nature of the agricultural life here required women to go out to work alongside the men?'

 'It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the headquarters of Ahrar al-Ashayer (the Free Clans Brigade). Among the surprising things I learnt in the scattered rural villages, the words of an army defector at this desolate battalion headquarters remain with me most strongly.

 "My friend Mohammed and I signed up together," the rebel soldier told me. "We did everything together. In Homs we carry out a raid on one of the neighbourhoods. They tell us there are armed gangs and terrorists. So we go into a house and smash everything in sight, while the officer yells at us, cursing his head off. He wants one of us to rape a girl. The family is cowering in the next room. The officer orders us to stand to attention, and he starts inspecting us right up close, until he stops by Mohammed. He pats him on the back and orders him to enter the room. Mohammed's from the same village as the officer, in the forest region. But he steps back in panic, so the officer starts yelling all kinds of expletives at him.

 'What are you, a girl, for fuck's sake? You pussy!' Mohammed kneels down on the ground, he leans over and starts kissing the officer's shoes.

 'Please sir,' he begs him. 'Ya sidi -sir- I can't do it. Please, sir, don't make me do it.'

 The officer really starts laying into him, booting him over and over. He grabs Mohammed's trousers by the waistband and screams in his face.

 'I'll slice off your dick!' My friend starts to cry at this point - oh, if you only knew Mohammed! He never cried, but that day he was bawling like a child and I saw snot drip down to his mouth. Then the officer grabs Mohammed's crotch.

 'I'll show you how to do it you fucking pussy! You want me to show you how?' And that's when Mohammed lashes out: he kicks him and launches himself on him with all his weight. Man he's strong. He really lays into him, giving him a sound beating. And then he stops and throws down his gun. The officer gets up straight away and shoots Mohammed. He killed him. And do you know what part the officer chose to aim at?" He gestured, without shame, towards his crotch.

 "He ordered another of our friends to go in and rape the girl., and he went into the room in silence, and we heard her scream, and we heard her mother and her siblings screaming, because they were all crammed into the next room.Their father was a dissident; he'd been killed two days earlier. That was the day I decided to defect and, by God, not a single day passes without me thinking of Mohammed. He's here in my heart. I've kept his letters to his girlfriend, and if I survive I'll send them to her. I will. It's an oath around my neck - if I manage to stay alive."

 As we left the headquarters behind, when we were some distance away, his and the look in his weary eyes were still firmly inscribed in my mind.'

 'From the sun-scorched headquarters, we hurried onwards to reach the Ammar al-Muwali clan in Daqra, one of the families based in the rural province around the city of Maarat al-Numan. We talked with a group of young men, and with Abdul Razak, the leader of the clan, about the importance of having a civil state, of one Syria, where freedom was the only sect.

 "As you see, we're standing up to injustice here," said the clan leader. "All we demand is justice in a country which is ruled by law. Yes we are clans and we are armed, but to start with we went out to protest peacefully. However, if they want to kill our children and our women, then we will fight them. By God Almighty, I'm an educated man, I've been to university, but to me, even the tiny fingernail of one of our children is as important as the entire world, and I will not stand by while they trample on my dignity, or the dignity of any Syrian.

 Wallahi, by God, you are like my sister," he said, turning to me, "and if anyone touches a hair on your head it's like they're touching my sister. You are with us against injustice and against the tyranny of the House of Assad. We are all Syrians standing up against injustice ..."

 We laughed at the stories of how much wealth he had lost since the beginning of the revolution, and how he had shared it with his people. He spoke proudly about his brother, a military commander who had joined the battle against Assad.'

 'That evening I returned home in silence. Aala sat on my lap, where she combed my hair, and tried to trick her into telling her the stories I had heard. She wanted to turn me into a narrative, a bedtime tale to tell future guests. But there was no time to finish this secret game between me and this seven-year-old storyteller. The bombing started again. I quickly picked her up, and grabbed Ruha's hand, terrified, we ran down to the shelter. The noise of the explosions was ear-splitting.

 I called Aala over again. "Come here and I'll tell you my story. I haven't always been like you see me now. Originally, in my previous life, I was a gazelle who was badly hurt and whose heart burst with pain."

 "Liar!" they shouted.

 But then we laughed ... we laughed long and hard, and I tried hard to persuade them that I really was a gazelle.

 I finished the story from where I left off.

 "The gazelle's heart was in great pain, and a drop of blood fell onto the green grass ... and I was born!"

 I dozed off as I reached the end, the words starting to feel heavy on my tongue. I gazed at them like a ghost, and the women spread a thing blanket over my back before I was out for the count.'

 'We were at a check point set up by the Farouq Brigades. A fighter with bright eyes and honey-coloured hair took a deep breath and told me he had deserted the "special units" of the Syrian Army, because he refused to kill.

 "I mean, why would I throw myself into the jaws of death? Who wants to die? No one! But we were already dead and we wanted to live."

 "We just want a civil state," echoed another, slightly older man.

 "Fuck the officers, they're all bloody Alawites," the younger man added.

 "No, not all of them," the older one retorted, glaring at him.

 The first man continued the story of how he had absconded from the army. His friend came over and whispered something in his ear. Suddenly, the youth with the lively eyes looked at me, embarassed.

 He was biting his lip. His voice trembled as he spoke - and this was the same man who just a moment ago had been brandishing his rifle and venting his anger to the sky.

 "Forgive me, ma'am, I didn't realise." This soldier seemed childlike as he came closer and spoke to me hesitantly. "I don't hate anyone. But that lot of Assad's are dogs who want to make us kill innocent people ... Forgive me, ma'am."

 "Don't worry," I said, "It's fine. I'm not an Alawite, and you're not a Sunni. I'm Syrian and you're Syrian." He looked at me with astonishment.

 As we left the Farouq Brigades checkpoint, I thought about my parting remark. Just who was I trying to reassure. Who was trying to build a state out of blood and fire: this defected soldier who'd turned into a child before my eyes, or those murderers, al-Assad's henchmen?

 Where do fighters like them get their strength from? Which of us is more a stranger to the meaning of life - them or us? Those who live their lives in the presence of death and who laugh in its face?'


 'The city of Binnish was empty. Not crowded with demonstrators like the last time I'd come here. Since then, it had been bombed by al-Assad's MiG aircraft and abandoned by its residents. Only very few remained. The newly confident Nusra Front had taken over and many people in the city had joined them. The movement now controlled state property, but it had been interfering in people's lives, and declared wearing trousers a heresy, even for men. The military infrastructure had also changed. There were now fewer roadblocks.'
[The Second Crossing, p52]

 'On walls I glimpsed graffitied lines from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and for the first time I saw written next to them sentences glorifying the militant groups Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. These two groups, while separate from the Free Army, coexisted rather than cooperated with each other. One of the phrases, in bold letters, read: "Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham: our beating hearts."

 These days, police salaries were paid for by the armed battalions. The police ticketed traffic offences, and where possible, the battalions enforced the penalty. Ahrar al-Sham was so deeply entrenched in the social fabric that they even owned a bakery, which was both a source of funding for them and a means of control over people in need of supplies. The Nusra Front held sway over the Sharia Court and its judges and clerics, where the law that was upheld was Islamic religious law. The security forces consisted of several battalions, including Suqour al-Sham (Falcons of the Levant Brigade), Dera' al-Jabal (Shield of the Mountain) and the Shuhada Suriya (Martyrs of Syria).'

 'Saraqeb looked even worse than I remembered, with signs of destruction all around. As we arrived at the basement refuge of the displaced family who were being sheltered by Ayouche, we stopped to talk briefly to her neighbours, but then a plane flew overhead and we had to make a run for it. The plane dropped its bomb on the house next door. After the second bomb, we stayed in the basement, waiting. As I asked the mother of the family how they had been forced from their home, I shuddered as the force of the exploding bomb sprinkled peeling paint down on our heads like snowflakes.

 "The planes have been bombing us since the beginning of the revolution.," she said. "Our village, Amenas, is next to the brick factory, which was turned into a major barracks for the army and their mercenaries, the shabiha. A lot of people from the village were killed when they bombed our neighbour Naasan's house.

 The shabiha raided another family's olive garden, and they all disappeared,. The men of the village found the entire family massacred: the mother, the daughters, the brother, a young boy and a daughter-in-law. Sometimes the shabiha went out in gangs. Once, they caught one of our sons and we found him with his eyes gouged out and his fingers chopped off, but he wasn't dead. There was another man who they grabbed and sat on a brazier of burning coal. His backside was burnt to a crisp like roasted meat. His wife ran away ...

 I didn't want to leave our home, but when the shabiha entered Matsuma, a neighbouring village, they massacred entire families. A mother was weeping for her son because they'd slaughtered him before her eyes, so they killed her too because she was crying!

 I hid my daughters so they would n't be raped. Then a rocket fell on the house of one of my brothers. He came out from under the rubble, shouting: 'He who gave me my soul shall be the one to take it away!' How I laughed!

 We paid someone seven thousand five hundred lira to help us get out and we fled in the night. There were long lines of people fleeing. They were barefoot, some of them half naked, and the shelling didn't stop.

 In the night time, the rebels came out to us and brought us food for suhoor, as it was Ramadan. Along the way, one of the women gave birth. We were all homeless, my husband and his eight brothers and sisters - everyone had to go. Then we learned our house had been obliterated. We have nothing left." '

 ' "Write about the village of Amenas ... the place where I was born."

 She told me she loved to draw and write poetry, and retrieved a notebook, which she opened. Then she started to read out her diary.

 "This happened on the 5th of January 2013. In our village, they kidnapped Abu Amer's family and started to torture them; then they killed them all in the same way - shooting them in the head. Amer's wife was nearly nine months pregnant. She gave birth while it was happening. The men of the family found her and the baby both dead, along with other bodies scattered among the olive trees.

 It was the shabiha who did it, but they were driving cars with 'Free Army' written on them. They sabotaged the land and uprooted trees, and took pictures of the corpses and all the destruction. Then they published the images online, saying it was the Free Army who had done it.

 On the 12th January, we were at the village of Qabeen, where some relatives of ours live. On the night we left, we heard on the ten o'clock news that they were going to bomb our village and annihilate the revolutionaries. A convoy of tanks and soldiers would be passing through on the way to Taftanaz, the airport blockaded by the rebels. So we left at eleven o'clock the same evening. We were scared. We piled some of our stuff into a small car that had three wheels.

 On 13th February, a month later, we still had no idea where we were going. Every night we slept somewhere new, anywhere to escape the shells and the missiles. I ended up getting to know the surrounding villages like the back of my hand.

 On the 15th February, we reached Saraqeb. God protect you," she said suddenly, looking at Ayouche, "and keep you safe like you saved us! That was the day I was supposed to go to university to sit an exam, but the roads were blocked and it wasn't safe.

 This is our second day in Saraqeb. The 16th of February. What hurts most is the broken look in my dad's eyes, the look of humiliation, and the expressions of gratitude he repeats to everyone who offers us food and bread. We used to live comfortably and now we are living on charity and handouts. A missile fell at the cemetery near us. My younger brothers were outside playing. We ran to get them and then we all huddled up in a corner. Their faces were frozen, rigid with terror.

 The 19th of February. I found a sparrow and a nest, and there was a tiny chick that had just hatched. We're keeping them in a cage in the middle of the room. The bird looks after its chick by feeding it food into its little beak. A bomb falls nearby and the sparrows flutter about nervously in their cage. Neither of them calms down until the bombing stops.

 My older brothers have disappeared. I called my friendto bring me the notes from the lectures I've missed, but the car broke down again, we arrived too late and my friend had already left. I sat down on the steps and cried and cried.

 That's enough," she said, grabbing my hand. "If we die now, the world will know our story, won't they?" '
 [pp 57-61]

 'We arrived in Rabia, a village whose cavernous underground Roman tombs had become shelters for refugees. Some of the olive trees had been burned by shells, but several remained around the caves, which were inhabited by some thirty families.

 A girl aged about sixteen, wearing a hijab, a headscarf covering the head and chest, was sitting at the entrance to one of the caves. She had lost both legs when she had been hit by a shell. One had been cut off at the thigh, the other at the knee. Her eyes were nevertheless serene. She said she was teaching her sisters and brothers to draw but they had hardly anything to draw with. The girl explained she would need several operations because her wounds had become infected and she was likely to succumb to blood poisoning. Yet she appeared indifferent watching us descend into the cave where her mother and siblings lived. She tilted her head and went back to drawing lines in the soil.

 The mother, Oum Mostafa, and her children hardly ate one meal a day. All the children were barefoot and poorly clothed. In the bitter cold their swollen stomachs protruded like small hills.

 The woman's middle daughter had been deafened by a shell landing near her, but she took care of her sister with the amputated legs. When the older girl eased herself down the steps to join us, the deaf child held her hand tightly, and it struck me that despite the darkness, their faces seemed to glow with astonishing beauty. All this beauty amidst such hideous misery.'

 'In Taqla, we stopped at the quarters of the Freedom Martyrs Brigade, Abu Waheed's battalion. I was burning with curiosity to see the gun they'd built from the remains of a tank.

 "This is nothing compared with the arsenal the régime gets from Iran," Abu Waheed explained. "We will fight, we have no choice : we either die or we fight. The young men of the Freedom Martyrs are all villagers who have rallied together to protect their community. They are ordinary people. In other groups you'll see things are different because of their funding and the supply of arms they get. Our mission is to fight for our country, and our battle against Assad is a battle for our country.

 This gun has a shelling range of fourteen kilometres, and we use Google to set the distance. We make some of the parts here. We've barely got the materials for things like this. I've put everything I have into the revolution. I had a state funded business worth fifty million lira - I gave it all up. They've bombed us, killed us and killed our children, they've displaced our people, and we will kill them. All we're doing is defending ourselves. We're not attacking them. We pick up their conversations. I hear what they talk about in their planes: they want to kill us, every single one of us!" '

 'What I saw in Maarat al-Numan was truly shocking. Entire buildings had twisted to the ground. A four-storey building drooped so that its roof was touching the pavement, unfurling like a theatre curtain. And beneath it disappeared a mass of human bodies. Buildings leaned in to touch each other, amid the huge piles of rubble that filled the city. As it was on the front line it was the target of ceaseless bombing: it literally never stopped.

 I heard another shell explode. Right in front of us. We swerved into an alleyway. This road was also pitted with craters and potholes from the explosions.

 The market was a wreck. We were approaching the Great Mosque, one of the city's ancient monuments - or at least it had been once. It had been razed to the ground. The site had been cleared, but the it had been bombed again, as the régime was targeting the minarets in particular.

 First a pagan temple, it was later converted into a church and then a cathedral. It still had ornamental engravings and capitals atop great columns bearing symbols of Christian and pre-monotheistic religions. The Islamic Library was also devastated.

 It was a sight of utter devastation: dangling electrical wires intertwined with jagged metal poles and splintered shreds of wood. Concrete walls lay in heaps, layered up like sheets of pastry in a croissant.

 Back on the street, in front of the mosque just before the entrance to the market, an old man stood and gestured to me.

 "Look! Look!" he shouted, pointing at the remnants of the minaret. "That's Bashar's reforms for you ... We didn't do a thing ... We just asked for a few rights ... That's all we wanted, let God be our witness ... Just look ..." He started to cry. One of the young men took his arm and walked with him for a little while. The old man had lost three of his children when the market was bombed. And now he just stood here, weeping.

 The wall of the market bore the words, "We stand defiant despite the blockade." '

 'Assad's army had set fire to the books when they entered Maarat al-Numan and destroyed the museum. What remained of them was smothered in dust. I brushed away the dirt to reveal some of the titles: Uncovering Enigmas by Zamkhashari, The Universal Orbit of the Radiant Astronomical Body by Abdul Rahman al-Ahmad and several editions of The Archaeological Annals of the Arabs, also The Encyclopaedia of the Oceans and Exegesis of Pride in Razi's 138th edition, from the Eastern Metropolitan Press. So many books, so many in tatters.

 "We are busy with the war," said the commander. "We can't preserve it all." '

 'We went on towards the front line. A large banister was swinging in the air like something in a scene from a science fiction film. This concrete building had been drawn and quartered, ripped apart at the seams. On the second floor you could see a bedroom, on the third you could see pots and pans precariously lined up on the shelves in the kitchen, next to a bathroom where lingerie still hang drying. The first floor had been opened up to reveal a large bed, with a child's wooden cot as its side. Children's toys, pyjamas on a peg, an embroidered bedspread, once golden but now faded to black.

 One of the men with us told me, "It was pounded by shell after shell. The eastern district of the city was completely deserted, there wasn't a trace of life here after the famous battle to liberate Maarat al-Numan in the autumn of last year. The shelling didn't stop for a second after we liberated it. We cleared the area, got the people out, while they were raining shells down us from the sky."

 The population of Maarat al-Numan was originally 120,000 people. For a while, there was not a single living soul here. Eventually some of them returned. They preferred death in their own homes to hunger and homelessness.

 Another airstrike started and we darted into a side alley, taking cover from the falling missiles. We arrived at the Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib mosque to find it was completely devastated, its dome flattened to the ground. Everything was so surreal and strange on this elevated plateau, beyond which the plains extended into the distance.'

 'A few young men had returned from the rescue point for the wounded they had set up at al-Hamidiya on the front line. "Al-Assad's planes dropped twenty-eight bombs in one day," one of them told me, pouring me a second cup of tea. "It was like that for a while, but the bombing eased off a bit when two of their planes were shot down." The men laughed.

 "They're hitting us with Scud missiles," said a man who had just joined us. "It's no surprise. We achieved victory on the ground, so now the cowards are battering us from a distance."

 "Maarat is the front line, the line of engagement with the régime," said another young man in his twenties."We will not leave our land, even if we die. If we had anti-aircraft guns, Assad would have fallen long ago."

 Another young man came in, who stood still and turned to me as he declared, "The Nusra Front is the best group that's fighting." Some of the men grumbled in disagreement, but they let him finish speaking. "To start with they were mostly foreigners, but a lot of Syrians have joined them, and they have actually got arms."

 "What about the Chechens who joined up recently!" another joined in. "What have they brought with them?" They're our brothers in Islam," said another, "and they're fighting against the infidels."

 "I support Ahrar al-Sham," one guy said, interrupting, "because they don't steal like the other brigades." "Of course, because they've already stolen enough," retorted another, "Allah doesn't miss a thing!" '

 'We were now heading to the town of Kafranbel, a forty minute drive away, to see Razan, a female activist who had decided to come back and work in the liberated areas. Razan was a petite woman in her early thirties, who had been detained twice in Assad's jails. These days, she worked in medical relief and at documenting events.

 Sitting cross-legged around the heater on this occasion, trying to use it to make a pot of tea, were my guides Mohammed and Manhal, battalion commander Abu Waheed, our journalist friend Fida, a leading activist called Raed Fares, Razan, Hammoud and Khaled al-Eissa. Ahmed Jallal, a local artist some of whose famous paintings were lying on a broken chair by the door, came through to join us.

 I asked Raed about the idea of an Islamic state, and he admitted there were people who wanted to build an Islamic caliphate as a response to the excessive violence of the régime; people felt safe with the Nusra Front and their piety, because while their only option was death, according to the Front at least they would be blessed in the life hereafter. The population had developed from a Sufic to a Salafist mentality. "This change in mentality shows sheer ignorance of religion and Islam. Ignorance is the basis of extremism."

 Raed was a little irritable but the others listened as he aired his views. "We're struggling to cope with the relief work. There's a crisis of confidence among people, and everyone distrusts each other, including the emergency relief workers. Hunger has had its impact. There needs to be transparency so people can start to see what's going on in the revolution. We want a radio station that we can use to talk to the people of Kafranbel and to establish a sense of nationalism. We're asking the national Council and the Coalition for help with that too! Especially since the Nusra Front has started to interfere with the distribution of bread and mazut, as they have done in Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. There will be catastrophic results." The National Coalition of Syria, based outside the country, was aimed at representing the political opposition to the Assad régime and had already been recognised by many countries of the world.'

 'Abu al-Majd stretched out his legs and leaned back against the wall.

 "I was a lieutenant colonel in the Syrian Army serving in aircraft engineering at Deir Ezzor airport, but I deserted in the first month of the uprising. We hatched a plan to seize the airport. Although they couldn't prove I was one of the plotters, I was in al-Mazza prison for a year.

 While I was in prison they tortured me, but I didn't confess. They used the 'ghost technique' on me for four days, where you're handcuffed and strung up by your wrists. They electrocuted me." He laughed. "They would never have released me if I confessed. I went to the headquarters and they reinstated me to service. They wanted me to return a stolen plane from Jordan to Syria. I deceived them into thinking I would talk to the pilot.

 Instead I and a group of officers established an operations room and started to liberate Deir Ezzor. In July, I came to Kafranbel and set about liberating army checkpoints. Do you think it was these foreign extremists who liberated our villages? No. We liberated them with our blood and the blood of our children. When they asked for help in Haish, we went to them too, but then the brégime bombed us with their warplanes."

 A fighter came through and told Abu Majd he had to see off some combatants who were heading to the front line.

 "Tell this lady about the defectors in the battalion. The lady is an Alawite."

 "Why did you say that?" I asked him, angrily.

 "So the kid knows we're all one people."

 The fighter spoke up: "I had defectors with me from every sect: Druze, Christians and Alawites. Some of them are still fighting along with us, but there have been problems. I mean, some people are afraid of them."

 "The Nusra Front wants an Islamic caliphate," Abu al-Majd said, interrupting, "and this is impossible in Syria. This is a revolution for all Syrians. We're on our own. The world has abandoned us, and Hizbullah is fighting with the Assad régime against us. We have no way of knowing what will happen." '


 'Here is another day I will never forget: 20th July 2013. How could I forget the moment I truly stepped into the void of meaninglessness?

 We were in the media centre in Saraqeb. It was Ramadan. We heard a loud and powerful explosion followed by several others as shards of glass fell from the windowpanes. The men were shouting that we had to leave, but someone warned us that the plane was still circling above. We couldn't get down to the basement. Cluster bombs scattered little bomblets on the ground that kept on exploding.

 One of the missiles that had landed by the office had scorched the earth and the entire surrounding area. Houses had been hit by the three successive barrel bombs, and there were young men at work gathering up the casualties.

 "Go to the hospital. They'll need you there," shouted one of the young men.

 "I feel like we're trapped rats and Bashar al-Assad is killing us for a laugh," I said to the others.

 The doctor who was friends with my companion came out and took us to a side room. He was from Saraqeb, thirty years old and angry.

"The other doctors have all fled and there are people outside waiting to be seen. What can I do? I don't have enough drugs. And people are dying. Families are angry. What can I do?"

 I went into another side room. There were two beds with a female corpse lying on each.

 "They were killed by the exploding barrels today," a nurse informed me.

 I approached a white van parked by the hospital gates. Some young men came to carry the three corpses of a mother and her two children into the hospital. The little girl's plait appeared and then her face. She was probably no older than four. She had plastic sandals on, but there was no sign of any toes on one of her feet. Only blood vessels and a copious amount of blood.

 "That's the sixth barrel that's fallen," another man shouted above the noise as we watched the cloud of dust rising opposite us. The same helicopter was dropping its seventh barrel over the centre of town, then spinning round and tossing down another.

 As we headed to the car, the doctor called after us. "Bring back the days of the MiG planes and the chemical attacks. At least they were merciful compared to these barrels, which destroy everything. There's no escaping them," he said.

"They want to open up a way through here to allow people to reach the brick factory," said a rebel fighter who'd come with us in the car. He had been sitting there silently the entire time, crammed in the back seat with the other young men. "The bombing has been relentless, non-stop for a week. You have to get out of here, ma'am!"
 [The Third Crossing, pp133-139]

 'The fighters here were from the Saraqeb Rebel Front, and as such part of the Free Army. Ahmed was a twenty-nine-year-old fighter from Saraqeb. A Damascus rose had been tattooed on his hand. He'd studied at business college and completed his compulsory military service.

 "I finished military service in January 2011. I didn't even have a chance to enjoy myself before the revolution began. We went out to protest like everyone else: it was peaceful and all we demanded was reform. But they killed us and arrested us and burnt our homes in Saraqeb. We didn't carry weapons; we just took turns guarding our homes. We had one gun between us - three friends protecting our women and children from the shabbiha and the secret police. They killed our friend, and so there were two of us left. I joined the Martyr Asaad Hilal Brigade after that.

 A member of the shabbiha shot at us and our guys fired back in response. They then started shooting at us indiscriminately. We formed vigilante groups of fifteen to twenty people to protect the town, and they erected five checkpoints around Saraqeb for the army and the secret services.

 I didn't intend to kill anyone when I joined the battalion. Whenever we'd enter a battle we'd make sure not to aim our guns at a lethal part of the body. They bombed us, arrested us and killed our boys, and things got out of control. They were brutal and we stopped caring where we pointed our bullets. I live with my mother, father and brother now, and I'll never stop fighting Bashar al-Assad for the sake of the friends who I saw killed in front of my eyes."

 I asked him about the religious extremist battalions that had diverted the revolution's original path.

 "I don't know what you mean exactly; there are different groups. There's a big difference between ISIS and the Nusra Front. A big difference," Ahmed replied.

 "But the Nusra Front are some of the best people; they don't steal, they don't kill. They protect the people," said another man.

 "I'm not insulting the Nusra Front," Ahmed continued, "They aren't harming anyone, whereas ISIS has insulted both Islam and Syria. They're strangers who're not related to us in any way. And all Muslims have the right to decide how they interpret religious law, even when it comes to whether a woman wears the hijab or not. Honestly I can only respect the Nusra Front after they liberated many areas."

 "But what about their political aims?" I asked.

 "This, I don't know!" Ahmed answered. "But I'll tell you something. Right now we're in a phase of chaos and filth. Everything is grimy. From the régime to the jihadist battalions and the intelligence services, to the police and the rebels. The whole world. We're all mired in filth right now. There's a difference between fighters who have left their families and livelihoods to come and fight in Syria for the sake of their faith, and their leadership which has associated itself with the secret intelligence services. Yes, the leadership of some of the battalions has been infiltrated.

 The problem is that whereas only some Sunni fighters support the rebels, all the Alawites are behind Assad. So why should all of us Sunnis die while the minorities survive? If they are Syrian like us then why are they keeping so quiet? I don't understand it at all, I swear.

 I'm a fighter, but I'm from a good family, I'm educated and I hate killing. I want to get married and have children. But all I know is that I'll never stop fighting Bashar al-Assad. And I realise this is absolute madness and we're heading towards death. But should we die without defending ourselves?

 I've been to Turkey twice. I walked around the streets there and it felt very odd. There was no bombing! There were no planes! And no rockets killing people. I felt alienated. Because all there is here is death and dying!

 "Nothing's worth it," he said. "We're all going to die, perhaps any minute now." He lit my cigarette and smiled to himself.'

 'I learned that Abu Nasser was born in 1991 and he'd tried three times to pass his final school exams, the Baccalaureate, but never managed it. He seemed shy and didn't want to speak, looking at me from the corner of his eye.

 "Don't be shy, Abu Nasser," I said. "You're like my little brother."

 "You are dearer than a sister to me ma'am, I swear," and began his story.

 "I took up arms as part of my jihad, my struggle for th sake of God, with the Hassan bin Thabit Battalion that's linked to Ahrar al-Sham. I stopped smoking and went to the front line. I've never fired a single bullet, other than to avenge a friend who was killed in front of me.

 We were at the Menagh airbase for three months without striking a single blow. Instead the Syrian Army attacked us and executed some of our men by shooting them in the head. The battalion commander abandoned us during a battle and just disappeared. He was supposed to be our emir! He even took my rifle with him. So I joined up with Abu Tarad, the commander of the Saraqeb Revolutionaries Brigade, but I can't afford a new rifle.

 I love the oud but I don't know how to play any more. I used to think I was fighting against infidels who were killing Muslims. Now I say I'm fighting injustice. If Bashar falls and I'm still alive then I'll go to America where my brother lives, and study music.

 Now I don't even think about getting married. How can I get married when I might die at any moment. We're living under permanent bombardment. The situation is becoming worse. In Aleppo, if we found a man drinking alcohol, they'd whip him in full view of everyone. There are jihadist battalions who are whipping, burning and slaughtering people."

 "Who are these people?" I asked.

 "That's not important," Abu Nasser concluded, "but I've seen them slaughtering people because they were Alawites. And whipping people for not following sharia law." '

 'Mohammed told me we needed to check the shelter near Saraqeb market that we were planning to turn into a women's centre. The market was quiet with little activity. Despite the bombing and the siege, I felt a flicker of happiness. But then a voice shrieked from the portable transceiver.

 "A helicopter! Where are you, you idiots? Didn't anyone see it? For fuck's sake, why didn't anyone put out a warning?!"

 We heard the crashing shudder of helicopter blades and a haze of dust puffed up around us. Then came the thunderous noise again. Our vision cleared slightly and I spotted a man dash by carrying his wounded child. I heard a terrifying sound. We stopped because strings of white smoke were falling onto the car. I heard the crash of flying objects scraping against the car.

 What Mohammed and I didn't know was that the third barrel bomb, which the helicopter had circled then flung down on the market, had been directly above us and yet it hadn't exploded upon impact with the ground, but in the air.And what had caused this incredibly lucky escape? The helicopter had been pushed to a higher altitude because the rebels had acquired some anti-aircraft weapons that could hit aircraft at a height of six kilometres and they'd managed to take down several planes this way. Because these barrels were crude weapons, a fuse needed to be attached and lit before they were released from the plane. The reason we were alive that afternoon was due to a combination of the time it took the barrel to reach the ground and the imprecise length of the fuse, which had burnt out while the barrel was still in the air.'

 'I was leaning against the window, lost in my thoughts, when shouts echoed, followed by the sound of shots being fired and a lot of noise. There were armed men inside the office.

 Manhal was yelling, "The computer Samar! Give me the computer!"

 I managed to put on my abaya and a veil and opened the door. Manhal was standing outside, his face streaming with blood, as he blocked a man from forcing his way in.

 After one or two minutes, I opened the door. The stranger was still in front of my door, and Manhal was standing there with his face covered in blood.

 One single thought occupied me: that these were ISIS fighters who had come to either kidnap me after finding out who I was, or to kill us because they had recently been rounding up the revolution's activists to arrest or murder them.

 Manhal was bleeding so profusely, I thought he was dying.

 "Are you OK?" I asked.

 I had almost forgotten the masked gunman was still there until he hollered terrifyingly, "Get inside will you!" The masked militant wasn't Syrian; he was one of the foreign fighters. He had hazel-coloured eyes.

 The whole episode was over in less than ten minutes. They'd tied Mohammed up with a sharp plastic strap, the same type of strap the secret police and the shabbiha used to tie up detainees and anyone they fancied laying into. Abu Hassan was tied up and so was Badee. They had been beaten with the butts of rifles. All the office equipment had been stolen. They had stolen all the papers and files. But the biggest shock was that they'd taken Marcin too. Besides the daylight robbery, it had been an organised operation to abduct a foreign journalist for ransom.

 Manhal and a few men chased after the car, but it had disappeared. When they tried to complain to the Sharia Court, their petitions were in vain. The Sharia Court wanted proof it was definitely ISIS who had kidnapped Marcin.

 Now Marcin had disappeared and news of my presence among the activists in the office started to spread, it became vital to leave Saraqeb.

 ISIS' kidnapping operations and killing of activists hadn't yet taken the brutal form it would do after my departure from Syria. At the time Marcin was taken, kidnappings were mainly carried out in a haphazard fashion for ransom money, especially when it came to foreign journalists. The days were yet to come when they would develop a strategy for terror that combined kidnappings with killings, and which involved releasing videos of beheadings.'

 ' "Since the beginning of Ramadan they've taken to waiting until the sunset prayer to start the bombardment, whether it's aircraft or rockets. I've heard them talking on the radio," said Abu Mahmoud, a forty-year-old fighter. "I've heard them saying they were preparing a tasty meal of barrels to break our fast on. And they were laughing. One of them said to his friend, right before they hurled a barrel down: 'Go on, it's time to feed the dogs!' "

 He said he had worked in construction in Saudi Arabia for six years, before returning to Syria, where he had bought a car, got a job, and built a house in Kafranbel. When the peaceful demonstrations began, he decided to leave his driving job,and turn his energies to revolutionary civil activism. But when Assad's army entered Kafranbel on 4th July 2011, the nature of his work changed and he started targeting pro-régime informants.

 "I didn't intend to carry a weapon. This is a tool of death and I want to live. Hafez al-Assad's régime killed my father when he was in Palmyra prison, where they jailed him for eleven years. The régime robbed me of him and stole my civil rights, and still I didn't object. But then we went out to demonstrate peacefully, and they started killing us. I don't want an Islamic régime, I want a democratic, civil state." '

 'We were joined by some university students in their early twenties, young men who helped Razan run the Karama Bus project, which was a sort of mobile school for displaced people. Over the next couple of days we would be going with the Karama team to nearby schools in rural villages.

 Once the bombing had subside again, and we'd had several cups of tea, we heade off to the school, on a hill in the village of al-Dar al-Kibira, only a ten-minute drive from Kafranbel.

 The team rigged up the lighting, the screen, the projector and the audio equipment. Some of the mothers came up to speak to me, curious at the sight of a stranger.

 Suddenly a ten-year-old girl stepped forward and started to sing, her voice loud and clear. She was holdig hands with her twin sister, who had become mute since the bombardment, but she was trying to involve her in the song. Both girls were just skin and bone. The woman from Maarat al-NUman started to explain that they'd been orphaned, but she was interrupted by a woman in her sixties who whispered to me, "Can't you see what's happening to people. How long are we going to have to live like this?"

 The same thing I kept hearing in the villages surrounding Kafranbel and in the town centre too. These were the people who believed in the revolution but didn't participate in it. They were losing hope after having been starved, besieged, bombed, and seeing their children killed.

 The group of bearded young men remained nearby. The Karama Bus team told me some people weren't happy with their work, especially the cinema or the drawing lessons, which these people deemed blasphemous and sinful. But this bunch were only observing passively without trying to stop any of the activity.

 Halfway through the next film, we heard the sound of a huge explosion, then there was a flash and the sky lit up. I glimpsed the panic in the children's eyes. A rocket passed over. A missile landed near us. Yet no one screamed.

 "Switch off the projector! You're spreading light and attracting the bombers!" a man shouted. They turned it off and a woman came over to us.

 "Hey, my dear, just what do you think you're doing? You want to teach the children and help them cope with these disasters ... Listen, they want to eat and they want this goddamned Assad to stop bombing. Go and stop him from bombing and then we'll be fine."

 "I swear, auntie, if we could stop him we would," I replied. "This is all we can do."

 The space emptied, although we could still see faces peeking out of the windows of the schoolroom.

 "If a missile landed when they're gathered together like this, oh, my God, so many would die!" said Razan.

 "Then it would be God's will, his judgement and his decree," one of the group of young bearded men responded scathingly.

 Silence prevailed and the sky darkened. We got back into the car.

 'While Hossam had been driving me around town, he told me he had finished his university degree in Arabic literature and had dreamed of becoming a university professor, but they had appointed the daughter of an officer instead of him, even though she was lazy and made no pretence of working hard. He had defected from military service in July 2012, and participated in the liberation of the first checkpoint in Kafranbel. After a week he had thrown down his weapon and returned to civil activism. he claimed the Free Army and the military battalions were dishonest and given to stealing, and he couldn't carry on in the light of the murders and the brutality.

 During his compulsory military service, the colonel in charge of the engineering department had ordered him to blow up a silver Saba car, The colonel had been on an explosives training course run by Russian experts.

 "After the course, he trained us himself and I flew with him to Tal Rafal, where the battalion commander gave us some IEDs. I presumed we'd be detonating the car in a war zone, and I believed the story about the armed terrorist gangs.

 That night, the colonel woke me up at midnight. He told me two lads would accompany me to attach the detonator. On the way, I discovered the men were from air-force intelligence. The next big surprise was when our car stopped in Qaboon Square in Damascus, not in a war zone. We drove right into the square, where two cars were already parked. The men said that Major General had asked us to return in the two cars.

 I stalled for time so I could disable the detonator. If I had attached it correctly, I'd have been responsible for detonating thirty-five kilograms of explosives in a square packed with people.

 I defected first thing in the morning. Believe me, I really thought there were terrorists, but what happened made me realise the truth. Assad's gang are the terrorists." '

 'Raed [Fares] had promised to tell me the story of Kafranbel, about how the revolution began, and how far it had reached.

 "The protests began in February 2011. Two groups started writing anti-régime slogans on the walls of Kafranbel.

 It was agreed we'd hold the first demonstration in Kafranbel on the 25th March. But too many people were afraid to protest, and a member of the Ba'ath party arranged a pro-régime rally the same day to intimidate them further. This spurred us into going out on the streets the following Friday. There were about two or three hundred of us, although half were undercover security agents. There are many informants everywhere inSyria and Kafranbel is no different.

 Some of the powerful local families formed 'popular committees' of vigilantes who stood at the doors of mosques to prevent any demonstrations. We went back out on the 15th of April. We held up the flags of the régime and signs with slogans such as 'Only God, Syria and freedom'.

 On the 17th of April, it was Independence Day, and a public holiday, so we protested in the afternoon, calling for the downfall of the régime. Security cars turned up, along with two hundred intelligence officers, the mukhabarat. They opened fire. They pointed their machine guns at our chests and we stood, unarmed, and raised the victory sign. And they withdrew.

 I went into hiding. We started to stage demonstrations on a daily basis. Still, popular support remained weak because the people of Kafranbel were afraid. For them, the memory was still fresh of the 1982 Hama massacre that'd claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people in one week at the hands of Hafez al-Assad's forces and intelligence services.

 We'd go to the neighbouring villages and urge them to go out and march against the régime. We marched to the city of Maarat al-Numan and the people there came out with us. On the 22nd of April, we produced Kafranbel posters for the first time. We've been making them every Friday since, with fresh slogans on them each time.

 People who had been frightened also started to join us, and the numbers of demonstrators began to range between four and seven thousand. People were still terrified of confronting the mukhabarat, the security services. But I'll never forget the women who showered us with flowers and rice as we marched and called out for freedom." '
 [The Third Crossing, pp190-193]

 'Raed [Fares] continued, "On the 2nd of May, mukhabarat officers raided houses in town. They broke into activists' homes, storming in and arresting about fifty of them. This prompted supporters to hold a sit-in outside the police station. Other people joined us as we barricaded the exits of the village with stones and car tyres we set fire to.

 The next day the Ba'ath Party branch secretary came and asked what the people's demands were. We told him our demands were to dismantle the security services, to end their stranglehold on everyday life, and to replace the president. He said the only way to achieve the release of the detainees would be if we stopped using slogans that were anti Bashar al-Assad, and if we refrained from cursing the spirit of his father Hafez al-Assad. But we hadn't cursed the spirit of Hafez al-Assad; we'd just chanted for Bashar al-Assad to be overthrown.

 The coordination committee started spontaneously. At the time we were just a committee. This was back in February 2011. When we felt that the people elected didn't have strong enough legitimacy, we met in the Cultural Centre and held further elections.

 On the 1st of July 2011, we went out and held a major demonstration. But on the 4th of July the army cut the whole area off and we fled from Kafranbel. There were nine army checkpoints, around one thousand seven hundred soldiers, one hundred tanks and one hundred military vehicles. We secretly re-entered the town, and made banners there despite the presence of snipers and troops. Then we marched from the Uqba mosque, until the army fired shots at us. It became a routine: we'd demonstrate then flee from the army. But we were peaceful and none of us were killed.

 We didn't think the régime would stay. We assumed we'd be able to topple them by striking and holding peaceful demonstrations. We didn't anticipate what happened next.

 We had eighteen rifles buried under the soil of the fig orchards, which we had agreed we would dig up only when we needed to defend our homes.

 On the 16th August, we went out to demonstrate. The army attacked us and spread through the town, beginning a campaign of mass arrests. The mother of one young man tried to drag him out of their grasp, but they pushed her to the ground. When she fell, her hair was uncovered in front of everyone, which really provoked people. They were indignant, so they rallied round and we went to the al-Ayar checkpoint. We were still only armed with one rifle and a sniper rifle, but we stayed for two hours, killing six soldiers at the checkpoint, including an army captain. And so the armed campaign began.

 The following day, the army retaliated heavily and arrested many more people at random. They converted the carpet factory into a detention centre and broke into people's homes.

 In November, we set up the first battalion - the Kafranbel Martyrs Battalion, which late became part of the Free Army. Our plan involved attacking army sites at night. Two people would ride a motorcycle, shoot at the checkpoint, then flee. After that we'd be fired at all night long from the checkpoint. But we stopped them from moving around at night and harming civilians. Yes, we did it because they were tormenting our families and we wanted to end the suffering. They trashed our houses and arrested our men. We were only trying to scare them." '

 'Raed [Fares] had promised to tell me the story of Kafranbel, about how the revolution began, and how far it had reached.

 "The protests began in February 2011. Two groups started writing anti-régime slogans on the walls of Kafranbel.

 It was agreed we'd hold the first demonstration in Kafranbel on the 25th March. But too many people were afraid to protest, and a member of the Ba'ath party arranged a pro-régime rally the same day to intimidate them further. This spurred us into going out on the streets the following Friday. There were about two or three hundred of us, although half were undercover security agents. There are many informants everywhere in Syria and Kafranbel is no different.

 Some of the powerful local families formed 'popular committees' of vigilantes who stood at the doors of mosques to prevent any demonstrations. We went back out on the 15th of April. We held up the flags of the régime and signs with slogans such as 'Only God, Syria and freedom'.

 On the 17th of April, it was Independence Day, and a public holiday, so we protested in the afternoon, calling for the downfall of the régime. Security cars turned up, along with two hundred intelligence officers, the mukhabarat. They opened fire. They pointed their machine guns at our chests and we stood, unarmed, and raised the victory sign. And they withdrew.

 I went into hiding. We started to stage demonstrations on a daily basis. Still, popular support remained weak because the people of Kafranbel were afraid. For them, the memory was still fresh of the 1982 Hama massacre that'd claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people in one week at the hands of Hafez al-Assad's forces and intelligence services.

 We'd go to the neighbouring villages and urge them to go out and march against the régime. We marched to the city of Maarat al-Numan and the people there came out with us. On the 22nd of April, we produced Kafranbel posters for the first time. We've been making them every Friday since, with fresh slogans on them each time.

 People who had been frightened also started to join us, and the numbers of demonstrators began to range between four and seven thousand. People were still terrified of confronting the mukhabarat, the security services. But I'll never forget the women who showered us with flowers and rice as we marched and called out for freedom." '

 'Raed [Fares] continued, "On the 2nd of May, mukhabarat officers raided houses in town. They broke into activists' homes, storming in and arresting about fifty of them. This prompted supporters to hold a sit-in outside the police station. Other people joined us as we barricaded the exits of the village with stones and car tyres we set fire to.

 The next day the Ba'ath Party branch secretary came and asked what the people's demands were. We told him our demands were to dismantle the security services, to end their stranglehold on everyday life, and to replace the president. He said the only way to achieve the release of the detainees would be if we stopped using slogans that were anti Bashar al-Assad, and if we refrained from cursing the spirit of his father Hafez al-Assad. But we hadn't cursed the spirit of Hafez al-Assad; we'd just chanted for Bashar al-Assad to be overthrown.

 The coordination committee started spontaneously. At the time we were just a committee. This was back in February 2011. When we felt that the people elected didn't have strong enough legitimacy, we met in the Cultural Centre and held further elections.

 On the 1st of July 2011, we went out and held a major demonstration. But on the 4th of July the army cut the whole area off and we fled from Kafranbel. There were nine army checkpoints, around one thousand seven hundred soldiers, one hundred tanks and one hundred military vehicles. We secretly re-entered the town, and made banners there despite the presence of snipers and troops. Then we marched from the Uqba mosque, until the army fired shots at us. It became a routine: we'd demonstrate then flee from the army. But we were peaceful and none of us were killed.

 We didn't think the régime would stay. We assumed we'd be able to topple them by striking and holding peaceful demonstrations. We didn't anticipate what happened next.

 We had eighteen rifles buried under the soil of the fig orchards, which we had agreed we would dig up only when we needed to defend our homes.

 On the 16th August, we went out to demonstrate. The army attacked us and spread through the town, beginning a campaign of mass arrests. The mother of one young man tried to drag him out of their grasp, but they pushed her to the ground. When she fell, her hair was uncovered in front of everyone, which really provoked people. They were indignant, so they rallied round and we went to the al-Ayar checkpoint. We were still only armed with one rifle and a sniper rifle, but we stayed for two hours, killing six soldiers at the checkpoint, including an army captain. And so the armed campaign began.

 The following day, the army retaliated heavily and arrested many more people at random. They converted the carpet factory into a detention centre and broke into people's homes.

 In November, we set up the first battalion - the Kafranbel Martyrs Battalion, which late became part of the Free Army. Our plan involved attacking army sites at night. Two people would ride a motorcycle, shoot at the checkpoint, then flee. After that we'd be fired at all night long from the checkpoint. But we stopped them from moving around at night and harming civilians. Yes, we did it because they were tormenting our families and we wanted to end the suffering. They trashed our houses and arrested our men. We were only trying to scare them.
 We planted mines made out of sugar, fertiliser and other substances, to protect the demonstrators by holding the military back. The townspeople started to get angry about the destruction of the roads. But what could we do? Our men were being tortured to death. We found their bodies after the liberation of Kafranbel in the grounds of a school the army had been using as a base.

 When a ceasefire was scheduled between the régime forces and the Free Army for the 10th of April 2012, we hoped this would put the pressure on. If the fighting stopped - and the régime were to stop bombing and shooting - then the demonstrations would return to being peaceful, but the régime didn't want this. It wanted to justify the claim that it was killing people because they'd taken up arms.

 With the assistance of the military council, which was part of the Free Army, we received ten new RPG rockets. I think it was during this period that Assad's era in Kafranbel truly ended.

 We started attacking the checkpoints again. The régime's army began to shell us using tanks and Fozdika missiles. But we didn't stop fighting until we'd liberated five checkpoints.

 The real moment of liberation took place at three o'clock in the morning. We planted mines around a checkpoint in the village of Hazazin, where they had tanks, and detonated them. They started mortaring us and we ran in every direction.

 We withdrew, deciding we'd return to liberate the army building the following day, but by then they'd pulled the checkpoint back to the district headquarters, and the other checkpoints back to the military base as Wadi Deif. There were only the headquarters and three checkpoints left in Kafranbel. That's when we started writing 'Liberated Kafranbel' instead of what we used to write - 'Occupied Kafranbel'. That was in June 2012." '

 'A significant portion of women from Idlib province aspired to achieve the revolution's original goals of justice, freedom and dignity, and Oum Khaled was one of them. She liked to read and believed it would be women who made change happen. She prayed, fasted, drove a car, and ran a hair and beauty salon for women.

 "We can teach English and French, and give literacy courses and computer courses. Yes I live in a state of war and bombardment, but I want to teach our girls to live their lives well. We all want to get married and have children and build our lives. We don't want to surrender to death." '

 'I asked Abu Waheed if I could meet Abu Khaled's wife and her sister. The wife, Oum Fadi, was hugging her two children.

 "They bombed our house, and we spent the winter here. There's nowhere else to go. When they bombed us, we left all our belongings behind and ran off into the street. This poultry barn has been sheltering us for a year.

 We can't leave our husbands when they're fighting. I was a doctor's secretary and I'm good at reading and writing. Now we live like cave people.We move from village to village, dragging our children along. We just about have enough to eat, and our husbands fight. Can you imagine what that's like?

 The people of the other villages made us leave. The people aren't united! There is a growing hatred between them now." She pointed towards the window. "There's the front line. There's only three kilometres between them and us. We live here in isolation, penniless. You can hardly call it living. If it weren't for the fact that I fear God, I would've killed myself.

 We're dying slowly here. Our relatives who stayed behind have died in the bombing. The snakes creep around us day and night.

 I'm going to get pregnant every nine months and keep having children so that we don't become extinct. Our children will regain their rights. We want them to be educated. We want them to fight so we can return to our homes. We won't kneel down to Bashar al-Assad. We will never kneel. And we won't go back."

 No one smiled.'

 'Abu Waheed, Abu Khalid and I drove in the direction of the town of Haish, one of the first battle fronts in Idlib province. We were heading towards the front line, which at this point was only 700 metres away from the forces of the régime.

 "Are we safe up there on our own? I asked.

 "Allah is our protector," Abu Khaled said.

 Haish once had a population of 25,000, but it was an intensively bombed area, and had once been bombed continuously for fourteen days. The population had disappeared. Around 25,000 people had either fled or been killed or arrested. There were no roads or streets, just broken dusty paths, pitted with craters, which meandered between the ruins of houses.

 It was so unusual for women to be on the front lines that, if they spotted me, the opposition would be bound to try and work out who I was, putting us in greater danger.

 We entered a small and relatively unscathed room. Then the fighters streamed in. There were at least ten of them. And shooting began outside.

 "They found out you were here," one of the fighters said.

 The men looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and delight.

 "Hey ma'am, weren't you frightened?" said a chubby young man with a lightly tanned complexion and a jovial face.

 I smiled and explained I wanted to find out about him and his fellow fighters, who they were and why they'd stayed, whether it was true the battalions here followed the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, and whether ISIS had arrived.

 "Everyone you see now is from Haish and we haven't left our town," the fighter replied. "My name is Fadi and I used to work in Lebanon. When I saw on television how people were being killed, I left my job and came back. This is my country and I have to stay.

 I see this as a Sunni-Shiite war and nothing else. It wasn't like that at the start, but the Iranian Shiites started interfering and fighting against us - them and Hizbullah. We can hear them speaking Farsi on the radio. They've bombarded us with every kind of weapon going: surface-to-surface rockets, barrels, Scud missiles, bombs. There isn't a single building left standing.

 A thin, clam young man spoke. "I'm Anas. I'm twenty-five years old. We started going out on peaceful protests from here, the centre of Haish. We never broached the subject of religion. We just said, 'Down with the régime!' but it turned out the régime were infidels. Do you know why they're infidels? We had fifty bombs drop on us in one minute. They've used every kind of aircraft but they haven't managed to enter the town.

 Here in this battalion, we're all sons of Haish, but we aren't on our own There's the Nusra Front and other battalions. But the international community has abandoned us. Death awaits us and we seek God's help to defeat the tyrant Bashar."

 The anger was spreading quickly on their faces. "The Alawites have killed us, and we will kill them," another said.

 Abu Khalid looked at me with a smile and intervened, saying, "These young men are all from poor working families. The régime destroyed their homes and killed their families. As you can see, they have some feelings of sectarian persecution."

 One of them interrupted him. "No, sir, the Alawites and Shiites don't know God and they're infidels." The rest of the young men repeated similar statements.

 The Haish Commandos were would up, keen to tell me their problems. They needed to set up a media centre but the constant bombing made it a challenge. Their civilian activists had also been killed; only Anas was left and he'd become a fighter.

 "We once tried to ask for help from several villages and several well-known media offices here, but they haven't helped us. They've all deserted us!" one of them said.

 I wanted to stay and listen but the bombing could have started up at any moment.We crossed the threshold to leave the house. A young man I hadn't spotted clearly, spoke up now.

 "But tell the world, ma'am, that we're dying alone and that the Alawites killed us, and that day will come when they'll be killed. We will return the harm in kind, to them and the infidel Shiites, them and their prostitute wives."

 I stared at him. "May God protect all you young people, and compensate you," I said.

 "Amen ma'am," they responded. "May God protect you. We swear it's been a pleasure having you here. You should have stayed to break the fast with us."

 A bullet flew over our heads.

 "My family are Alawites," I said quickly and spontaneously. I got into the car and two of them ran after me and poked their heads through the car window.

 "Please don't take offence ma'am. I swear we didn't mean you! I swear we don't hate all Alawites. We owe you and your family our respect."

 The young fighters were clearly embarrassed and now they wanted to compete in protecting us. Two of the young men walked ahead of us, beneath the crossfire, as our car crawled behind them. Every few seconds, one of them turned round to look at me, his eyes apologetic and full of gratitude, and I'd smile back.

 We were at the front line. Before the car turned round, I waved at them. The four stopped and waved back, still visibly embarrassed.'

 ' "We'd got to June 2012, when the revolutionaries took control of Kafranbel - but the army checkpoints were still in place?"

 Raed [Fares] nodded. "On the spur of the moment, on the 6th of August, we decided to embark on a final battle of liberation. Fouad al-Homsi sent a message saying he and his men were surrounded by army troops. At that point, some men set fire to a load of tyres and shouted, "We're here to help! We're here to help!" And so the battle of liberation began.

 There were a thousand of us armed rebels. We fought continuously for five days. They started bombing us with aircraft. On the seventh day of our struggle for liberation, army helicopters started bombing us as well. The aircraft bombing weren't as barbaric as it is now. They were only bombing to provide cover for themselves.

 The truly barbaric bombing began on the 8th August 2012, which was the day they dropped the first explosive barrel bomb of the Syrian revolution. Since then we've been bombed continuously using barrels.

 Between the 8th and 10th of August, Kafranbel was liberated from the régime. We made the liberation declaration in the mosque. We thought we were close to our victory over Assad.

 After liberation, they bombed us every day, and Kafranbel turned into a ghost town. Its population went down from thirty thousand to about fifteen thousand, and those that stayed would travel to the neighbouring villages during the day and come back at night.

 An important detail is that in June 2012 there were many defections in Kafranbel by officers and soldiers. One thousand soldiers and thirty-five officers left in one mass desertion.

 The problem was that after liberation a competition for power emerged among the newly defected officers and the people who'd joined the revolution more recently. Since then, the situation has fallen into chaos as more military battalions have been formed.

 Ahrar al-Sham had offered to liberate the checkpoints in September 2011. We declined. We were afraid they would stay in Kafranbel after the liberation. In February 2013, the Nusra Front also offered to participate in the demonstrations but we kept saying no. In my opinion, the locals wanted the Islamists there because they thought they were the only ones who could free them from Assad, because the Islamists had money, weapons and faith. The locals also thought if the Islamists came in, they would govern them fairly after decades of unjust rule. After all, the régime presents itself as secular.

 But after the Islamists entered the liberated areas and started to govern them, people reailised they were a carbon copy of the régime. And by Islamists, I mean the al-Qaeda affiliates who want an Islamic caliphate and to impose sharia law. Now there is widespread rejection of them and the locals want them to go.

 Some of the first activists made mistakes that angered people, but the main frustration was directed at the rebel soldiers, because they weren't able to respond to the constant bombing from Assad's aircraft. At the beginning of the revolution they had faith in the Free Army and glorified it. Thousands of people have been martyred as the Free Army has tried to liberate the land, but our lack of anti-aircraft weapons has meant we've lost it. And there was a lot of talk of betrayals. This made people lose confidence in the Free Army.

 The régime has its cronies here, and they've done everything they can to tarnish the image of the Free Army and fabricate vicious rumours about the rebels, about everyone - the relief workers, the media activists, the armed fighters. The régime's used rumours as an essential weapon of war to spread terror and division among the people.

 We are just entering the third year of the revolution; people are tired and they're searching for someone to blame . The Free Army battalions are fighting day and night without making any gains, families see their children are dying for nothing, the media shows all this footage in vain, and there's no water, no electricity, no food ... In short, people are exhausted.

 When donations started coming in from the expats of Kafranbel, we decided to establish an organisation to deliver these resources to everyone. We had fifteen thousand displaced people and they had to be fed. And any battalions that came to help us, we fed too. When the fighting intensified, the displaced people left and the relief centre has become this media centre. We've generated our ideas ourselves.

 Now we face a danger that's greater than we can bear. All these jihadist battalions and the current chaos, which came out of nowhere.

 I'll never give up on our dream. We've accumulated a significant amount of experience, which we need to build on. I will never lose hope, but I can't say it'll be easy to regain popular support." '
 [pp219-225] 'We found Abu Ahmed, the emir of the Ahrar al-Sham movement, in an office that resembled that of a senior civil servant, except that weapons were propped up against the sofa and armed militants stood guard outside.

 After working as a tiler in Lebanon, he had returned to Syria in August 2011, immediately joining the militant movement. \He hadn't participated in the peaceful demonstrations as none of that interested him. Across the way from his office was a stream of families coming to receive humanitarian aid from both the Smile of Hope organisation and Ahrar al-Sham.

 "I joined the military movement to bring down the régime of Bashar al-Assad and to replace it with God's law in this country. We have lived under the injustice and criminality of Hafez al-Assad and his son for over forty-four years. Long enough.

 I was the sixth to join Ahrar al-Sham. We discussed whether we should kill soldiers and decided that if they had defected, we wouldn't kill them, but if they died during the fighting, it wouldn't be counted against us as a sin.

 We planted IEDs in the paths of security patrols. But when the army entered in early 2012, the situation changed. We didn't expect the army to come in and kill us and shell civilians. When the shelling began, it was an operation of annihilation, and we stepped up our strategy accordingly.

 At the beginning, there were difficulties but we began to win weapons from the spoils of each battle. These were resources stolen from Muslims and they must be returned to Muslims. There's no water or electricity here, and our investment projects have been set up to help the people. If you support the cause of God, He will help you.

 We have some people who work independently of the revolution and we have non-Syrian jihadis who are loyal to us. Ninety-eight per cent of us are Syrian. There were three from Chechnya but they were originally Syrians whose parent emigrated at the beginning of the sixties.

 What we want is the downfall of the tyrant. Naturally, we want an Islamic emirate. There will be laws to protect the sects and the non-Muslims. It will be unlawful for women to go out without a hijab. That's the most important thing.

 The Alawites can't stay in Syria. The Christians will be treated the way the Nasara are in Islam. There are only a few Alawites who supported the revolution. Let them leave and we'll fight the Alawites and the Kurds until the last drop of blood.

 We and the Nusra Front are broadly in agreement on Islamic doctrine. We disagree on certain issues, but they are courageous men.

 The brothers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are present here in Maarat. They have joined us in the fighting and a large proportion of them are immigrants who wish to fight the Nusayri sect, the Alawites that is.

 Syria will stay as it is, but Islamic. The Alawites will leave.If the Druze and the Ismailites return to Islam, they are welcome, and if they don't, they'll be judged as infidels. But the Alawites are apostates and must be killed."

 "But this isn't a merciful religion, and this isn't God's will," I said to Abu Amed. "It doesn't differ from the evil of Bashar al-Assad."

 Abu Ahmed simply nodded. "Leave the matters of war to the men, sister."

 As we were leaving, he said, "I heard that you're interested in education."

 "Very much so, Abu Ahmed," I replied.

 "We want to open a school to teach our children to memorise the Quran," he said.
 "May God reward you with goodness, but the Quran is for people's faith, and education is for people's minds, and we need to develop the human mind. Leave God for the heart," I said.

 He shook his head indignantly.'

 'A large battle had taken place between the Free Army and ISIS, and Abu Tareq talked us through the events in detail.

 "ISIS has hijacked the revolution. We can't just let them get away with what they're trying to do. And yet it's an impossible choice: either we focus on fighting Assad or we fight the mercenaries who've muscled in on the revolution and corrupted it. We're worn out from the sky with the planes, the barrel bombs and the missiles, and from the ground by these Islamic battalions. People are drained." '

 'A man came forward from the olive trees. This was the local emir of the Nusra Front in al-Bara who went by the name Abu Hassan. He had constructed, repaired and renovated houses in Lebanon for seventeen years.

 "Whenever I came back to Syria, they would arrest and interrogate me, and accuse me of being a Salafist. But I wasn't interested in politics. My brother was jailed for four years, they released him in May [2011]."

 This testimony concurred with something I had been hearing regularly: that Salafists and Islamists were released by the régime at the same time as peaceful activists were being tortured, killed and exiled.

 "When events began to unfold in Daraa in March 2011, at the very start of the revolution, I came back and found that people had decided to protest against the Assad régime. We held peaceful demonstrations in Jisr al-Shughour, al-Bara and Jabal Zawiya. We didn't carry weapons until June 2011, when they began to shoot at us indiscriminately and started to storm our houses.

 The army invaded on 29th of June and we responded with a simple weapon: the Kalashnikov. We initially thought the army was coming into the village to separate us from the mukhabarat, but it turned out that they'd come to support the security forces in suppressing our rebellion. We were amazed to see tanks entering our village. We - the men - left our homes, while the women and children stayed. We were five men facing them.

 Every village armed some of its men to defend their homes and their honour. That's how the revolution began. The justice of our cause gave us faith in our victory and we decided to raid the army checkpoint at al-Bara and seize their weapons, because we didn't possess sufficient funds or arms of our own.

 We didn't kill members of the mukhabarat at the beginning. We used to release them, but that changed later. The régime was getting more and more brutal. Every day there were massacres, killings, bombing raids and arrests.

 A year ago I decided to join the Nusra Front, and a lot of the defected officers joined up too. But before that we created the Martyrs of Jabal Zawiya Battalion.

 The wealthy people of the village told us to buy anti-aircraft weapons and said they'd give us the money for them but we couldn't get hold of any. No one wanted to sell us anti-aircraft weapons. We had a hundred martyrs in our village.

 ISIS isn't present on the front line. It's in the background. They all used to belong to the Nusra Front. They're foreigners, most of them aren't Syrian.

 We are a religion of tolerance; we will be merciful with people of other religions. But we want to call people to Islam, and we want to kill Bashar al-Assad. Compared to the others I'm a moderate, miss!

 We don't accept the coexistence of Christians among us, the Nasara. Whoever wishes to enter Islam will do so, and whoever doesn't, will pay a jizya tax.

 There's no place for Alawites among us. After the past two and a half years, I can tell you that this is a Sunni-Alawite war, and it will be a long war that will last at least a decade."

 The other six men started to chime in with their opinions.

 "They burnt fifty-three men with acid in the village of Bileen," said one man. "And for what? We know the whole world wants Bashar al-Assad and that he won't fall, not because he's strong, but because he's backed by Iran, Russia, America and China. But we won't stop fighting him. But when he does eventually fall, I'll go back to my job as a building contractor.

 I went into an Alawite village, and I didn't kill the women or the children. I am a moderate, but my voice and the voice of others like me will not be heeded if the situation carries on like this. And who will pay the price? Not Bashar al-Assad. The Alawites are the ones who will pay the price. They're infidels and have no religion."

 "Why are you here?" Abu Hassan asked me.

 "I'm planning to publish my discussions with people about the revolution. I think these interviews will give a voice to the voiceless."

 He looked at me with curiosity. "Are you from Damascus?"

 "What do you think?" I said.

 "I don't know, you're accent is mixed," he replied.

 "I'm from everywhere," I answered.

 He smiled and added, "But it's brave of you to come here to us." '

 'This clean-shaven man's story was different. He was referred to respectfully as "Hajji" and came from the al-Raml Palestinian refugee camp in the port of Latakia, my home city and the heartland of Syria's Alawite population. now he was commander of the Ahrar Latakia (Free Men of Latakia) Battalion.

 "I used to work at the port as a day labourer. Then Jamil Assad and the Assad family seized control of the port and made us their slaves. I hate the régime and the Alawite sect, they've done nothing but humiliate us. The sons of Munther Assad and Jamil Assad treated Latakia like their own private fiefdom. We'd hear them - the shabiha, the Assad family's thugs - we'd hear them constantly cursing us as 'Sunni pigs'. You're a daughter of Latakia, you know what it's like. For example, a daughter of an officer is untouchable - she can roll even the strongest man's nose in the dirt.

 Between 2003 and 2005 we discovered they were building ten Husseinias in Latakia - Shiite congregation halls, and it felt like our religion was in danger because we were seeing this Shiite bloc emerging. They'd already started building Shiite mosques in the Alawite villages - the Iranians were building them.

 We knew that the Syrian régime had been sending extremists and jihadis to Iraq since the days of Hafez al-Assad. We didn't want to become extremists, so when the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions started, we young people met up and conferred about what we would do.

 Meanwhile, Daraa was on fire with the uprising and there was a massacre. That Friday at the Mohajireen mosque in the Palestinian al-Raml neighbourhood, we decided to perform a prayer for the souls of the departed. An enthusiastic demonstration followed spontaneously, and we marched right up to the door of the security detachment. . But they started beating us, so we fought back and set fire to the headquarters. The march continued until it reached the Khaled bin Waleed mosque , then the Saliba neighbourhood.

 We felt like we owned the world. We were able, for the first time, to say: 'God, Syria, freedom and nothing else.' The next Friday there were marches from several mosques and twenty thousand protesters came out onto the streets. The army fired at us and around fifteen people were killed; the number of wounded casualties was huge.

 After the massacre at Bin al-Alby Square in the Saliba neighbourhood we started carrying guns openly. That day, we'd agreed to demonstrate peacefully, marching from several mosques to a sit-in on the square. Women and children were carrying the Quran and chanting, 'We'll protest until the fall of the régime.'

 The army surrounded the demonstration. People were chanting, 'The army and the people are one,' and 'Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.' The army ordered them to disperse and they refused, so the army fired at them, intensively - live ammunition. Two hundred people, including women and children, were slaughtered that day. I was a witness. The bodies piled up on top of each other. Anyone standing on the balconies of the buildings nearby, who saw what had happened, was killed too.

 A sixteen-year-old girl grabbed a colonel by the chest, so he ordered a soldier to kill her. When the soldier refused to kill her, the colonel shot the soldier and then shot her.

 At exactly eleven forty-five at night, a fleet of cars arrived and carried off the corpses and  within minutes fire engines had washed the whole area and there was no sign left that anything had taken place. That was on the 17th April 2011. We decided that day that armed resistance was the only solution.

 But we were weak, and there were informers everywhere. After surviving three assassination attempts I learned to be careful.

 In the camp people were helping each other out, but there were problems. A lot of people were taking drugs, so we banned drug taking. Looting became widespread so we posted watchmen to provide security. We continued to protest and to prevent the army from entering the quarter. Every Friday we would come out of the mosques and march. We were more than ten thousand people out protesting.

 We established an independent state in the Palestinian al-Raml neighbourhood and were able to run our own affairs for six months.

 I was waiting for the Free Army and for the other regions to help us, but neither happened. We were relying on a purely defensive strategy to stave off the army as long as possible, since we were just a neighbourhood in a country controlled by the army.

 We were able to resist from dawn until the afternoon of the following day, helped by the nature of the alleyways in the camp. The army's boats shelled us fro the sea and tanks shelled us from the coast, and they attacked the camp and reached the taxi rank. We rounded up the women and children in Ein Tamra Street to evacuate the camp. We attacked the army checkpoint so we could accompany them out.

 We resisted and fought, but when the army reached the al-Sakantoury neighbourhood next to us, thousands of people fled. During this time they arrested forty-five young men in the Raml neighbourhood, but we got away. We escaped across the Turkish border. I had six hundred men with me, and I didn't know what to do. I asked everyone for help and I didn't get any, and I felt like the burden of responsibility was getting hard to bear.

 I rallied the fighters who had come to Turkey with me and told them that whoever wanted to go and fight on any front line was free to go because I didn't have the weapons. At the beginning of 2012, I returned to the battlefield in the Mount Kurd region and stayed there until July.

 We would steal cars because we didn't have any money. I ordered my men to kill the driver if he was an Alawite. Some people opposed me and were angered by my commands. I had a very bitter experience of Alawites when I worked at the port.

 Before the planes started bombing us, the battles were straight-forward and we were advancing. But things changed after the aircraft started bombing us. I left the guys in the mountains and returned to Turkey, where I secured money and weapons before returning to the battlefield.

 After a while Jebel 45, a peak on the range, was sold out by one of the battalions. There were more betrayals. The front lines were being sold out as soon as they were liberated. We started to lose confidence and we no longer knew who we could trust.

 With the torture that's ahead, I feel pity for you. Killing you would be mercy! What's happening here is nothing but a religious war! I feel sorry for you and I hope you'll stay far away from this vile war. I know of an Alawite soldier who defected and later committed suicide in a battalion of the Free Army.

 I took fifteen men with me to the Foronloq Forest region. Shellfire was pouring down on us like rain from every direction. We screamed at the soldiers, 'Defect, soldiers, defect! We are your brothers.' Their only reply was to curse us. I shouted to them to surrender because we'd cut them off, and when they just swore at us we shot at them. You wouldn't believe how exasperated I was because we were Syrians killing Syrians.

 During the battle of al-Zaeniya, we didn't leave a single man alive There were corpses strewn ahead of us as far as the eye could see.

 After al-Zaeniya, three other battalions joined mine and we advanced by fourteen kilometres into the régime-controlled area. After three months I asked for some support from central command. No one else agreed to advance with us. I informed the military council that I was going to withdraw. My debts piled up, so I sold the mortar and the Russian weapons. I went back to the central command headquarters. My battalion is now called the Ahrar Liberation Battalion. I only go to the front line with them when I'm ordered to.

 I think the foreign countries want Syrians to fight among themselves - that's why they made us turn on each other and then ran. That's why I'm more depressed than ever because so much Syrian blood will be shed for nothing.

 Another strange thing is that ISIS is present on the coastal front but not the other front lines. Ahrar al-Sham also have a presence and we, the sons of Latakia who want a national Syrian state, are being driven out!

 ISIS are the ones killing off members of the Free Army, instead of fighting the régime. A while ago they came with Grad rockets and wanted to attack a populated Alawite village. I refused. I told them to beat it. The ISIS fighters were Tunisian, Libyan and Saudi Arabian. Things have occasionally got a bit nasty between us - I've got into a fight with them once or twice.

 The régime won't fall any time soon. We have a long journey ahead. We need twenty years for the war to end and I don't know what will happen after that. But I'm certain I won't survive till then, which is a shame, because I love life. If there was someone to lead us properly then our prospects would look much better." '
 [pp254-264]'At this final border crossing, I was surrounded once more by the swarming crowds of terrified humans waiting to escape. The number of barefoot children had increased since I'd last passed through, as had the density of scattered tents and armed checkpoints, mostly manned by jihadists and ISIS soldiers. Until that time, the end of August 2013, ISIS had maintained a cordial relationship with the other jihadist factions like the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. Later, the situation would change: ISIS would enter into a war with them and it would become clear that its campaign had no boundaries; it was an organisation dead set on establishing a future state.

 Next to me, a beautiful girl was being swept along by the people surrounding her. The girl, whose name was Fatima told me she was leaving to get married. Her father had been killed in the bombing, and she was the eldest of six sisters. I saw Fatima again as I was crossing to the other side. She was met by a man who was in his early sixties or even older.

 I was leaving behind me this land drenched in ruin, soiled with secrets and conspiracies, sacked by marauding takfiri militants. The lands that the Syrians had liberated with their blood, the villages and towns of the north, were occupied once again.

 In full public view, the border from Turkey gaped open to all kinds of fighters, and to weapons streaming in from a number of sides. Who were the people financing ISIS? Who were the people financing the Nusra Front? What was causing the abduction of the revolution, this transformation of it into a religious war. These questions hung in the air.'


 'A year has passed since my final exit from Syria. The outside world won't believe that what is happening in Syria - which the whole world is witness to - is nothing but the international community's desire to see its own salvation. Other people are dying instead of them.

 The world merely watches on - apart from embroidering and sensationalising the contrived spectacle of the war between Assad and ISIS, until that scarecrow has grown into the fearsome monstrosity they need to assuage their conscience.

 This is what Syrians have become in four years. A peaceful popular revolution against a dictator tumbled headlong into an armed mutiny against army and state, before the Islamists hijacked the stage.

 The whole world is obsessed with "Islamic State", while Assad's warplanes continue to hurl bombs down on civilians in the provinces of Idlib and Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. The cogs of international deliberation slowly grind, as the blood pours, as millions of people are displaced, and millions become refugees. Syria will never be the same again.

 They went to their revolution full of dreams of freedom and justice. They paid the price of their miscarried dreams heavily in blood.

 For more than twenty years, stories constituted the only realm I believed in, but I have discovered, after a year of living in exile, that exile is exile and nothing else. It means walking down the street and knowing you don't belong there.'
 [Epilogue, pp271-275]