Syria conflict: brothers in arms on opposing sides
By Dominique Soguel - NEAR ALEPPO, Syria
Umm Yasser uses a floral headscarf to dab away her tears almost as quickly as they fall. But nothing can ease the pain of a mother whose sons fight on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
“We have one son in the regular army and another in the Free Syrian Army,” explains her husband Tayseer, who also struggles to conceal his grief.
Tayseer and Umm Yasser last saw their third son Mohammed, 26, some 16 months ago when he began his military service.
The conscript was sent first to the southern city of Daraa, cradle of last year’s uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, before later being dispatched to Deir Ezzor in the far east.
Military service, Tayseer says, is a national duty: he and all the men of his family served with pride. But now things are different because the regime is turning guns on its own people instead of on a foreign enemy.
Tayseer is well aware of his son’s dilemma.
“Mohammed is being forced to serve. If he defects he will die. There are hundreds of checkpoints on the road and he has been stripped of his ID card.”
In his time away, Mohammed, who studied Arabic literature, lost his wife but so far does not know this. She went home to her own relatives in despair after suffering a stress-induced miscarriage, Tayseer says.
Military service used to last 18 months in Syria, but since the start of anti-regime demonstrations in March last year many soldiers have been obliged to serve longer or been deprived of home leave in a bid to prevent defections.
Phone networks are routinely down in the rural village north of Aleppo where Umm Yasser and Tayseer live, so news from Mohammed is scarce.
Fear that the line is being monitored also limits father-son exchanges to small talk, while emotion cuts short conversations with his mother.
Tayseer recalls the last time his wife spoke to their son.
“They barely managed to get two words out before mother and son were both in tears. And he can hardly tell me anything because phone calls are tapped.”
That was more than six weeks ago, before the battle for Aleppo broke out in late July.
Umm Yasser sits pensively in their olive grove. Worst case scenarios flash before her green eyes: killed in a rebel ambush, tortured to death by regime loyalists if Mohammed manages to defect and come home and is caught…
She has aching fears about another son, 23-year-old Anis, who three months ago joined the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force battling to topple the Assad regime and to take over the nearby city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital.
“It’s hard,” she admits, taking in deep breaths.
“I don’t know who will live or who will die by the time this war ends. I’m really scared they will be killed. That whichever way they go they’ll be killed. Both of them are being shot at.”
Tayseer says Anis was a motivated student before the revolution began, although he failed to pass his first year at university.
He sees his son’s decision to join the FSA as the logical outcome of “witnessing the massacres and killings of the Syrian people, province by province.”
“Anis decided: ‘Let’s defend our land and honour before they came to us’,” his father says.
For a long time, Aleppo and its province were spared the violence gripping the rest of Syria. But everything changed when the FSA launched a surprise offensive on the city and “liberated” several villages along the border with Turkey.
Umm Yasser and Tayseer are worried sick, but they are not alone in their grief. In their small town of just a few thousand people they can name at least 10 other families who share a similar burden.
One elder by the name of Abu Mahmud says: “This tragedy is terribly common.”
FSA fighters generally do all they can to help solve their brothers’ predicament.
Yahya, 19, says he has spent long months trying to help one of his brothers, whose mandatory military service was extended indefinitely, to defect.
“It’s tough,” he says. “Officers are always on his back and he is also on the other side of the country.”
The chief distraction from Umm Yasser and Tayseer’s grief is the need to eke a living from fields that yield less and less since there is no more money to fuel the petrol-powered pump they use to irrigate their aubergines and tomatoes.
“Our crops have been bad because of lack of fuel and water,” Tayseer says.
Six families now live in a half-built concrete building next to Tayseer’s home that he can no longer afford to finish building. He has also opened the doors of two small shacks to friends and relatives displaced by the conflict.
In addition to their sons bearing arms, Umm Yasser and Tayseer have another four sons, who used to work in Aleppo, and two daughters who all remain at home.
Tayseer does not dare venture into the city any more for fear that soldiers at a checkpoint will kill him because of his links to the FSA.
But he remains philosophical, despite their heart-wrenching situation of having two sons in opposing lines of fire.
“All of us, whether on this side or the other, are defending our homeland,” he says as he pours himself a fresh brew of bitter coffee.
Umm Yasser finds comfort in prayer. “They are in God’s hands,” she declares.