'The sound of the azan marked the end of fasting and the beginning of the barrel bombs. Throughout Ramadan the crude bombs—oil barrels packed with explosives and metal—had been dropped from helicopters at the start and end of each day’s fasting, intending to strike while people gathered. One night, a barrel bomb hit while people were gathered at the Ansari mosque. Fifteen people were killed and several wounded.
One day we met the First Brigade’s media activist at his home. First Brigade was one of the largest and most powerful Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo. On the floor was body armor, torn to shreds. The media activist who had once worn it survived the bullet to his torso, but not the one that hit him in the face. At least six Syrian citizen journalists had been killed over the last few days, either on the front or from barrel bombs. The body armor would be refitted and reused again by another media activist or fighter.
Jaysh al Fatah (“The Army of Conquest”), a large rebel operation, had conquered Idlib, a large city west of Aleppo, and were swiftly moving south towards Latakia and Hama, where Abdul happened to be working in the operational command based in a hospital in Jisr Shughour, a nearby town. Seeing another opportunity to flee, Abdul escaped and began negotiations with the rebels for his surrender. Al-Nusra Front accepted him, and he was able to contact Nasser and his family who lived on the rebel side of Syria. After a month of detention, Nusra decided that Abdul could return to his family.
It was rare, after years of war, for people to stay positive. Wiam, on the other hand, bore a streak of cynicism. She was Kurdish, from Homs, and was there during the early days of the war. She documented everything with her camera. She started with the early protests, and then when everything went to shit she found herself filming the regime firing mortars into the crowds.
When Homs fell, she was invited to speak in France and elsewhere about what was happening. Everything seemed to fall on deaf ears. Wiam disliked the Islamists because they were obliterating any sense of freedom in her country. Women in Syria had been able to choose whether to wear a headscarf or not. They could choose to work or study. Now Wiam was often told to wear a black abaya. She refused.
The orphanage was huge, home to more than 800 children. Most of the orphans’ fathers had lost their lives fighting with the Free Syrian Army. One of the first trips I made to Syria was to find an Australian kickboxer named Roger Abbas, who had reportedly been killed in Aleppo by a regime sniper. As I followed his trail, I learned that he had been working in the camps of Baba Salam before joining the fight in Aleppo with the FSA. When you see the living conditions of the children here, the hundreds of refugees fleeing, the bombings, it seemed to me that it would be easy to pick up a weapon and fight.
We made it to Kafranbel on a Friday. Helicopters were in the air, so the protest was on hold. We made it to the radio station and met the organizer of the protest. He showed us the posters and the banners, which ridiculed the regime, ISIS, and American policy. One featured Assad feeding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, drawn as a baby drinking from a milk bottle filled with the blood of Syrian civilians.
On the way back to Idlib, I fell asleep in the back of the pickup and woke to the sight of regime flags. The pickup stopped at the front of a government office. It was an empty husk of a building. A large, torn poster of Assad flapped in the wind. The battle had only lasted a week, and the government was driven out. Jaysh al Fatah now controlled the city.
Civilians were returning to Idlib. A coffee house was being built and the marketplace was being stocked. A Corolla taxi rolled into town with bedding and luggage attached to the roof. With so many leaving Syria, there were still a few returning to their lives at home. The battle in the city was rather quick, and the visible damage wasn’t as bad as Aleppo.
“We will stay,” a man who had returned to the city with his wife and children said to me as they were unpacking. “There might be nothing left. We might be bombed. We might be gassed by chemicals, but I would rather be home than to be miserable without my homeland. We live and die in Syria.”
We spent mornings monitoring the helicopters. We heard radio reports of the neighborhoods they flew over. Each helicopter could carry two or three barrel bombs, depending on the weight. The larger ones were about 500 kilos of packed explosives and shrapnel. Between 6 a.m. am to 10 a.m. they would do two or three runs. The White Helmets sat ready and waiting for the reports to come in. Several bombs dropped, but there were no casualties; some didn’t explode.
Most of the medical equipment at the hospital was from the 1970s. It had been targeted several times before and had to constantly change its location. Many of the doctors had fled Syria; the few who stayed could now be counted on two hands. They worked tirelessly with the wounded.
“The regime punishes us. It makes us want to flee Syria,” a surgeon told me as he prepped for another patient. “If we leave, we never want to come back. There is nothing left for us.”
Later, we went to the blood bank. It had narrowly avoided the wrath of a regime barrel bomb, and a large hole now took the place of a window. The manager was happy to see us, so happy that he set us up to give blood while giving an interview. “If I had a message for the West but also the whole world: If you have the power to stop the war in Syria, do it,” he said. “If you can’t, please do not fan the flames of war.”
The next day we visited a school. It was hidden away in the marketplace. The classes were filled and the teachers running it were women. Zeina, the head principal, allowed us to walk around and see the classes, each filled with children.
“At first, we were too afraid to send our children to the schools because of the barrel bombs,” she said. “But now we send them. Bashar al-Assad, he wants the next generation to be ignorant, illiterate. He bombs us into fear, he makes us flee, we lose our heritage, we lose our culture, we lose our religion. The fear we have is ingrained into our children.” '