'Mariam had come from Tal Kalakh, a Syrian farming town of 20,000 people. Everything began to change one day in May after Friday prayers. More than 3,000 people marched through the town, chanting: “The people! Want! The fall of the regime!” Men in uniform blocked their way. The mukhabarat, the plain-clothed secret police, stood behind the uniformed men, giving orders. Ahmed stopped his truck at a gas station across the road. “Go home!” a loudspeaker ordered. “Disperse! We will shoot.” The men in uniform raised their Kalashnikovs. The two sides were barely 10 yards apart. No one in the crowd moved. No one believed the security would fire. It was still the beginning of the uprising.
There was a sound like firecrackers. Rifle shots. Thousands of people ran in blind, disbelieving panic. A neighbor’s son lay on the ground, hit by a bullet. Others fell, dead or wounded. That is how Ahmed remembers it. “It was a peaceful demonstration, no weapons, nothing,” he said. He drove home as fast as he could to tell everyone what had happened. But they already knew. Women were in the street, ululating. People shouted: “They fired. They fired.”
Ahmed told me the story of what happened next. At this point, it has entered Tal Kalakh folklore. The Daher family lived near the army barracks. The troops were not allowed cell phones, or TV. They were not allowed out. Officers had suspended all leave because soldiers who went home rarely returned. One night a soldier found a way to slip away to visit a nearby grocery store. A television was on: Al Jazeera. The soldier saw refugees lifting razor wire and streaming into Turkey. A woman in a headscarf was being interviewed. He watched. He couldn’t believe it.
“That’s my mother. What’s happening?”
“The regime is killing people,” the shopkeeper said.
“What in the name of God is going on out here?”
“The whole country’s been turned upside down and you have no idea?”
“I swear, no. It’s like a prison inside the barracks. They told us: ‘It’s Israel. It’s militant gangs.’ But that’s my mother.”
The soldier went back to the barracks and gathered his friends. They decided to escape. He shot the officer who had said they were fighting Israel. There was a gun battle inside the barracks: loyalists against defectors. The violence spilled into the streets as the defectors fled. The whole of Tal Kalakh watched green tracer fire arc back and forth across the town. There was nothing on state TV about it, of course, but by lunchtime the next day everyone knew what had happened. The Dahers’ street buzzed with the story of the soldier and the soldier’s mother. The shopkeeper swore it was true.
The defecting soldiers joined a new organization called the Free Syrian Army. The armed rebellion had begun.
The FSA began to appear everywhere there were people who supported the uprising. The war arrived in Tal Kalakh one evening in May 2011, when the regime decided to make an example of the town. Tanks and armored vehicles drew up along the main road outside. In the early hours of the morning, the shelling began. Mariam, Ahmed and three of their children hid in a bathroom in the center of the house. Their daughter Ala’a, their oldest child, was away taking exams in the capital, Damascus. No one slept during the bombardment. “God is our protector,” they said to each other as the ground shook and windows shattered inward. It continued until just after 6 a.m. The family emerged slowly and carefully. They found nothing left of the house next door but a pile of rubble. Ahmed and Mariam didn’t even have to discuss it: They knew they had to leave.'