To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.
At Atmeh camp, just inside Syria on the Turkish border, where I had been giving storytelling workshops to displaced children, there is no passport control, only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, though, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.
Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.
There were no security cameras. The boys told me they had taken Chechens across this way. A whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – they wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.
I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.
"I don’t know. Talk to them some more."
So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.
I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped on to concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly trimmed lawn with a nonchalant air. I strolled through the air-conditioned duty-free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s land. No private cars had been allowed there since a car bombing in February killed 13 people. Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with “nogodbutgod” printed on the beret.
On the Syrian side a fighter from the Farouq Battalion glanced at the passports. Behind him, unthreatening men milled about with Kalashnikovs. They were of various militias, bearded and clean-shaven, wearing mix-and-match military, sports and farming gear. Behind them, a sixth-century Byzantine arch announced our passage into Syria, a land that possesses an unbroken archeological heritage, from Sumerian times to the present.
But this was Syria as I’d never seen it. Instead of Assad’s blue-eyed visage, the Free Syrian flag was painted on a barrier. Revolutionary graffiti flourished at the roadside, from “Freedom forever” through “Zero hour approaches, O you dogs of Assad” to “Death to the enemies of God”. The triumphalism of the slogans was immediately crushed by the reality of the small but shocking Bab al-Hawa camp, tents of bright blue flammable plastic planted direct on concrete, a surface that burns in the sun and floods under the merest shower.
Two ambulances whizzed past towards Turkey, both caked in mud as camouflage from airstrikes.
At this point we expatriate Syrians were squeezed into a car with friends from Kafranbel, our destination, a rural town in the south of Idlib province that has become famous for the witty English-language slogans on show at its weekly demonstrations. Our driver was Ra’ed Fares of the town’s Revolution Committee. Following the logic of the mud-caked ambulances, we switched off our foreign phones.
At first the strangest sensation was the normality of the surroundings. A hot and breezy afternoon ran past the windows – stubbled wheat fields, rocky outcrops, smooth-topped tells. But the villages seemed much poorer here, some of their roads gnarled up by tanks. In one hamlet, the Jabhat al-Nusra logo was printed on the walls. Our secular hosts explained that the Islamist group, designated a terrorist organisation by the UK and US, had liberated this stretch of land.
We diverted to avoid al-Fu’aa, a Shia village still held by the regime, and drove on towards Taftanaz, where the scale of the damage wrought by shelling and aerial bombardment became terribly apparent. We passed streets of crumpled buildings, long banks of debris, shopfront shutters buckled by the vacuum bombs that suck in and ignite the air to create fireballs.
White paint on the walls warned: “Watch out – Taftanaz airfield ahead!” The airfield was liberated in January after two months of siege. The resistance lost many men here – the burnt and cratered fields around offer no cover whatsoever. Now ruined tanks and lopsided helicopters rest inside the perimeter, and Free Army militia sit guard at the entrance.
Next we drove into Saraqeb, a city of significant size, again notable for its war damage, and victim of a chemical attack in April. We stopped in the busy centre so one of us could vomit into roadside rubbish, while the others (one an uncovered woman) entered a cafe to eat haytalya, a local speciality. Jabhat al-Nusra runs a sharia court here. Its black flag flies atop the famous TV mast. Nevertheless, nobody looked twice at our friend’s unveiled hair. Saraqeb felt not like the Taliban’s Afghanistan but like Syria minus the regime: socially conservative but largely tolerant of difference.
The media image of the liberated areas suggests the regime has been replaced by heavy-handed militias. At least in Idlib province (Aleppo has suffered much more from thuggery, corruption and Islamist fanaticism, a fact much lamented by the activists and fighters I spoke to), it is not like that at all. No checkpoint stopped us. The men with guns were locals and were considered protectors, not oppressors.
Many men have fought. They fight for a while, then take time off to visit their families in the camps or to harvest the fields (those that haven’t been burned). Most have no political aim other than defending themselves by ending the regime. Some are Islamists, usually moderate and democratic. One such is Abu Abdullah who, before his leg injury, fought with the rebel group Liwa al-Islam in Douma in the Damascus suburbs. He shocked me with his statement: “We aren’t fighting for freedom, but for Islam.” But the follow-up was more reassuring. “Europe,” he said, “is implementing Islam without being aware of it. It educates its people, it respects their rights, there’s one law for all.”
This is an Islamist who shakes hands with unveiled women and opines that Christians often have more self-respect than Muslims. He doesn’t fight for “freedom” because to him the word means people doing anything they like, regardless of the rights of others. His vision of an Islamic state is one compatible with democracy; it wouldn’t enforce dress codes or ideological allegiances because (he quotes the Qur’an) “there is no compulsion in religion”.
As for the foreign fighters, Abu Abdullah, like everybody I spoke to, views them with disdain. Syria has enough men, he told me. Syria needs weapons, not men. Foreigners only cause problems. They increase the sectarian element, as Assad and Iran want. They ruin the revolution’s reputation. In any case, most of them aren’t fighting but resting, waiting for “the next stage”.
He muttered against the Turks who on the one hand collaborate with the Americans to hold back the heavy weapons that the FSA so desperately needs (this was certainly true until late June), yet on the other do nothing to stop the flow of foreign jihadists. “It’s a plot so America can do to us what it did to Afghanistan.” It wasn’t difficult to sympathise with his conspiracy theory. I’d seen how easy it was to cross the border illegally.
After Saraqeb comes Ebla, an excavated city of the third millennium BC, and after Ebla the once beautiful town of Maarat al-Nu’man. Here the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism, and now Assad’s forces engage in savage bombardment. Abutting the ongoing battle for control of the Hama-Aleppo motorway, many of Maarat’s apartment blocks are sheared into ragged slices. Shelling resumed shortly after we passed back through the next day.
The town used to house one of Syria’s finest museums, a collection of Byzantine mosaics in an Ottoman caravanserai. For months the museum stood between the regime and the resistance, and was looted and bombarded by both. Maarat was also once home to Abu Ala’a al-Ma’ari, the 11th-century atheist and poet, one of the most important of the classical tradition, whose statue was beheaded – to great popular outrage – by Salafist militiamen last February.
We slowed when we reached Kafranbel to note the walls almost everywhere cratered by bullets, a flattened mosque and the blasted remains of a secondary school that the regime had used as a barracks until its forces were expelled. Ra’ed pointed out two sites of mass slaughter and a list of martyrs engraved on a plinth at the central roundabout. Since the regime was driven out last August, a central stretch of wall has been painted in revolutionary murals, including one of a cartoon heart titled ReLOVEution.
Evening passed pleasantly, surreally, in the Revolution Committee building, on a terrace studded with potted plants overlooking olive trees and a jostle of fat-tailed sheep. There was a waxing midsummer moon, a cool breeze, and the usual Syrian night sounds: animated conversation, laughter, tunes from the oud, and a noise like thunder that was the regime launching missiles from Wadi Deif, 12 kilometres away. A safe distance. Kafranbel hadn’t been bombed all month.
We ate apples and deliciously sweet plums. Food still tastes better in Syria than anywhere else, when you can get it. Manar Ankeer, an energetic young Syrian who refuses to join his family in the Gulf, runs a free bakery that feeds 40 villages. Without this aid (the bakery is funded by expatriate Syrians), some families would starve. (In Turkey I met an activist from Selemiyyeh, asolidly revolutionary town that is home to many members of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, who showed me a photograph of his last meal in Syria – a trapped hedgehog.)
As we talked, chewed and smoked, Kafranbel’s activists uploaded films, updated Facebook statuses, and planned and painted slogans for the next day’s demonstration. The FSA’s local commander dropped by for tea and conversation. The woman who drives the Karama (Dignity) bus from school to shell-shocked school decided which cartoons to screen the following week, which stories to read aloud.
People are doing what they can. In the absence of government, it is not the militias, nor the opposition groups making up the Syrian National Coalition, but civil society that has stepped into the breach. Not many inside have even heard of the coalition, whose representatives spend their time in Istanbul hotels instead of with their people on the ground.
Much more relevant are grassroots activists, both locals and those who have escaped from regime-held Damascus. (One of our party had just left the capital, where everyone is off the streets by 8pm. Here people were out walking and playing in pool halls at one in the morning.)
I slept in the home of Hamood, another activist. One wall was raggedly punctured where a rocket had struck and the interior walls, still pitted by shrapnel, had been scrubbed back to the concrete after being blackened by fire. He showed me the damage, then his radishes and parsley, newly planted and vigorously flourishing. The sight of a child’s toy bike on a shelf in the kitchen made me sadder than the rocket damage. Hamood’s wife, children and parents are in a camp inside Turkey. Next door a family of 10, displaced from a worse place, shared a doorless, windowless building with snakes and rats.
Before the area was liberated, the residents held their demonstrations in the fig orchards outside town. After the liberation, the post-Friday prayer gathering became a target for shelling. So this Friday Ra’ed scheduled the protest for 11am, before prayers, and in a side street, so as not to draw a crowd. He was stopped later by a townsman angry that he’d missed the demonstration. “What’s the point of attracting disaster?” Ra’ed asked. “At this stage, the most important aspect of the protest is the media aspect.”
It’s this canny media awareness that has made obscure Kafranbel one of the unlikely focal points of the revolution. Each week activists produce witty and topical slogans in English and Arabic. The first, in April 2011, declared: “Freedom emerged from under the fingernails of Dera’a’s children.” One threatened to “spank” Kim Jong-Un for his “childish attempt” to deflect attention from Syria. One punned on a Shakespeare quote (“O judgment! Thou art fled brutish beasts, and UN and Annan have lost their reason”). One that went viral offered condolences to the people of Boston after the bombing there, and reminded the world that such things happen in Syria every day.
This week the slogans read: “Obama! You send us ‘weapons’ to only continue this conflict?! Send us weapons to win our revolution once and for all!” And, referring to the sudden death of actor James Gandolfini: “We are so sorry that Tony Soprano is dead. We wish Assad, the Syrian mafia boss, had died instead”. A cartoon entitled “Negotiations forever” depicted the regime and Free Syria flags hanging above Israeli and Palestinian versions. Another, alluding to the infamous video in which a rebel fighter appears to take a bite from the heart of a dead soldier, showed Putin and Assad stirring a pot of blood, and Putin saying: “Let’s say … FSA are cannibals.”
After the protest an activist drove me outside town. Standing on a red pile of rocks, he traced a frontline in the blue distance between the Alawi mountains and the liberated Ghab valley. In the absence of a serious effort to arm the FSA, it’s likely that the line will remain static for the forseeable future.
Despite Kafranbel’s sterling efforts, the larger media war has been lost. The western narrative is that this is no longer a revolution but a civil war, a conflict with its roots not in Assad’s repression but in the theological disputes of the ninth century. Since the regime and Hezbollah’s joint conquest of al-Qusair in June, the Syrian people are struggling against the odds.
The regime probably will eventually fall. If it had fallen a year ago there might have been a happy ending. But by now more than a quarter of the population is displaced and far more have been traumatised. The social fabric is torn. If Syria remains one nation, it will be a nation of orphans and widows, of the maimed, the raped, the tormented. How does a country return from that?
We ate a quick lunch before Ra’ed drove us back north. We stopped in the town of Hass to talk to a pharmacist about leishmaniasis, a disease spread by sandflies that is now rampant in the country. Abu Farouq complained that he had syringes – treatment involves injections into the skin ulcers caused by the disease – but not the medicine to fill them.
Mercifully, Atmeh was open, which saved us from climbing that wall again. As we approached the camp through the olive groves, we asked Ra’ed a final, uncomfortable question. “If you’d known what would happen, would you have still joined the revolution?”
"No," he said, matter-of-fact. "The price was too high. Just in Kafranbel we’ve had 150 martyrs. As many as that are missing; they’re probably dead too."
He rubbed his nose.
"As for me, I can’t cry any more. I don’t feel properly. I’ve taken pictures of too many battles. I’ve photographed the martyrs."
Hands on the wheel, he shrugged his shoulders. “But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.”