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Crossing into Syria

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A reporter describes her visit under fire to rebel-held villages near the symbolic homeland of President Bashar al-Assad

By Clare Morgana Gillis

January 24, 2013


 

In October 2012, reporter Clare Morgana Gillis crossed the border from Turkey into Syria and spent several days visiting towns and villages in the Jebel Akrad region of far northwest Syria. The Free Syrian Army had recently pushed the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad out of the region, which was still being shelled by the regime from the air and with rockets and mortars. Gillis has reported from Libya for the SCHOLAR, The Atlantic, and USA Today.

 

One

“Put out the cigarettes, put them out!” With the new moon barely a sliver above, these tiny embers bob along with our straggling group, giving away our position to the regime checkpoints a kilometer away in the valley below. Shells and rockets regularly come from that checkpoint and other regime strongholds in the valley, aimed at cars, people, anything that moves, so we hastily grind out the butts as we inch along the steep, narrow road carved into the side of Jebel Akrad, “Kurdish mountain” (though there are no Kurds here). Electricity is occasional. At night, drivers cut headlights and crane their necks to look for oncoming traffic as they make their way through countless gear-grinding switchbacks. These zigzag through brush that will shred you in moments if you should fall into its brambles, nettles, thorns, and sharp-edged leaves.

This is what the Syrian civil war looks like on Jebel Akrad. Anti-regime fighters have taken over the mountain slowly and steadily over the last months, making progress from the Turkish border toward the heart of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite support network, Latakia, barely 40 kilometers away as the crow flies. Of the 70 villages on the mountain, most are in Latakia province. The forward march has left in its wake dozens of nearly abandoned villages on the mountainside, the few remaining residents shelled each night by rockets, mortars, airplanes, and helicopters. The long-standing coexistence between sects has begun to fragment along geographical lines—Sunnis have fled to Turkey, Christians to Latakia or Aleppo; Alawites stay put. This region is famed for its olive groves, but everywhere in the countryside tree branches are weighed down by unpicked fruit. It’s time for the harvest, but no one is there to do it.

 

Two

Latakia is Syria’s fifth-largest city, the birthplace of former president Hafez al-Assad, and the homeland and symbolic capital of the al-Assads’ sect, the Alawites. While they are only 10 percent of the Syrian population, they make up 40 percent of Latakia’s 400,000 inhabitants. Ethnic and religious diversity has been a hallmark of the province, where Christians, Sunnis, Shia, and ethnic Turkomans make their home. Some say that once the fate of Damascus is settled, the battle for Latakia will be the fiercest of the war, and its final act.

A strategic Mediterranean harbor with a fertile hinterland, Latakia has over the course of two millennia passed through the hands of the Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans, and finally the French Mandate in the wake of the First World War. Latakia sat uneasily in the Mandate, seceding several times to become the capital of an independent Alawite State.

Here, the odd Roman ruin pops up between rows of olive trees; larger late Roman and Byzantine settlements, known as the “Dead Cities,” drew busloads of tourists before the war. The more famous medieval Crusaders’ castle Crac des Chevaliers is in Hama province slightly to the south, but Saladin, the Muslim warlord who retook Jerusalem from Frankish crusaders in 1187, hewed a magnificent fortress for himself deep in the forested mountains a short bus ride from Latakia city. The regime army currently holds it, and is reported to have scorched the surrounding forests to the earth.

More recently, while flashpoint cities such as Homs, Deir el-Zour, and Deraa have had antigovernment protests since the early days of the uprising in March 2011, Latakia has seen some of the most enthusiastic pro-Assad demonstrations throughout the conflict.

Only two weeks before we arrived, trees carpeted the mountains at the Turkish-Syrian border close to Jebel Akrad. A fight between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime army for control of the area stripped the mountainside, leaving brittle trunks carbonized and crumbling, charred pinecones the only clue to what kind of trees they had been.

At the border, a small band of fighters had used flashlights and lanterns to scan the new arrivals. Wood burned in a small pit. We got picked up in a massive truck, appropriated from al-Assad’s army only a few days before—extended cab, room for at least 40 in the flatbed. The driver sported a long beard with his cowboy hat and, punch-drunk with the recent victory, laughed all the way to the village where we were headed. “He’s a mujahid!” said one fighter, who spoke of his own wife and children—one only 15 days old—in a refugee camp in Turkey.

 

Three

Our base is our translator’s family home in a village I cannot name for the safety of those involved. His cousins are all in the FSA, in the Sheikh al-Islam brigade. One, Nouras, whose shaved head and mustache set off his full black beard, used to be in the Special Military Police, a commando unit. He proudly shows videos of himself sprinting up a wall into a full-body somersault, a Parkour military training move worthy of the special forces. Adham, a soft-skinned, soft-spoken former officer in the military who has studied in Iran, now fights for the rebel side and awaits the end of the war so that he can resume his studies in marine biology.

Rifaat, our translator, was studying English literature at the university in Damascus until it closed because of the war. He has a notebook of words he finds useful: “ambush, ammunition, anarchy, annihilate, arms, assault, asylum.” “Tyrant, tyranny, treason, torture, trigger, target.” “Vulnerable, victimize, vandalize.” It took him six months to compile, and he carries it with him everywhere.

“Take my picture, I am not afraid!” says Yaseen Mohammed Bajiko, a friend of the family who comes by for coffee in the morning and explains the military situation in the mountains. He commands an FSA unit now fighting at the front line west of Salma, which is northeast of Latakia. He has been with the revolution for 18 months, his wife and five children tucked away safely in Kilis camp on the other side of the border. About the regime army, Bajiko says, “They are afraid to come out of the checkpoint. There are only a couple of soldiers there, so they shell from a distance. The regime is afraid their soldiers will defect if they are ordered to advance.” Most of his men are defectors, but arranging a defection is difficult and takes time. He speeds off on his motorcycle, beckoning us to follow.

 

Four

An FSA checkpoint on the road at the entrance to the village of Sirmaniya: a bedframe with mattress, two AK-47s and some cigarettes lying on it, a teapot on the ground. This gently terraced village with stone houses used to be home to 3,000 to 4,000 people. Most fled to Turkey two months ago, when the FSA took over and the shelling began from two regime checkpoints a kilometer away in the valley below. Anything they couldn’t sell, they abandoned. Through rocket holes in abandoned houses you can see graceful terraces under grapevine trellises, brocade-covered chairs, gilt teacups. Ploughshares and tractors are parked overlooking the valley.

An elderly farmer, Abdul el-Moati Silmawi, or “Abu Ali,” sleeps in a cave nearby to stay safe from the nightly shelling. He shakes in the air two AKs borrowed from FSA fighters and spits with rage. “My blood is burning with this shelling!” he shouts. “Nobody outside is hearing us! We need help! From foreign armies, the U.S., Israel, France, whoever. We don’t care. We just want to get rid of this regime.”

“People all through the Muslim world made demonstrations about this Muhammad video. This is junk! God will protect Muhammad–who is protecting us?”

 

Five

Two FSA fighters materialize next to an army depot between the burnt-out APCs and hulls of supply vans with their beds spilling over with empty 7.62mm and 50mm shells, and tell how they took this town 10 days earlier. Zaini is at the Turkish border, and its capture by the FSA allows access to the main east-west road, which had been off-limits to the rebels for a year and a half.

“We coordinated four brigades and made an ambush. Inside the Syrian army there were some soldiers who were on our side, and they let us know the movements of the troops,” explain Mohammed el-Wazir and Ahmed Bashpilo, both 32 years old and in the same Omar Mukhtar unit. Mohammed holds up his Kalashnikov and notes with pride, “I got it here.”

“We were three or four hundred altogether and started firing at the checkpoint with Kalashnikovs, RPGs, and machine guns. There were about 800 regime soldiers and officers, and 50 or 60 of them died in the attack.” Mohammed and Ahmed said 500 others were captured—some have been claimed by their families, some have joined the Free Army, some have fled to Turkey. Others are still in jail.

The numbers are surely exaggerated, but discarded camouflage uniforms, officers’ caps, and military boots lying amidst the wreckage speak to some truth in their claims. “The battle lasted half an hour, and we saw the Syrian army break down. The regime has refused to give vacation for a year and a half, and they take away the soldiers’ IDs. There is no TV, no media, no mobile phones—just brainwashing.”

Al-Assad’s soldiers left an ominous gift before they fled: green graffiti on the wall warn: “The day is coming” and “We will be back, but with airplanes.”

 

Six

A statue of St. George slaying his dragon marks the entrance to a Christian village, population originally 2,500. Over the last few months, most residents have fled, half when the FSA took control two weeks ago, spurring a daily shelling campaign by the regime. Now 25 or 30 people remain, and one of the village priests says every one of them comes to church every day.

The priest asks that I do not name him, do not take a video or picture of him or the prominent silver crucifix around his neck (“no other priest wears this kind of robe”), that I do not even name the village (“the regime will immediately shell if they hear where we are”). The priest is a Roman Catholic who trained in a French monastery and has served the village, which is home to Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox as well, for “a long time.”

“People here were afraid of the FSA before they came,” the priest says, “but when they arrived the people weren’t afraid—they just left because of the shelling. Many women and children were hit.” He stays to serve his community, because “as a Christian, I am not allowed to leave my post.”

He says that many Christians have been forced to support the regime, and many are afraid. But many have also avoided the conflict. “This is not our war. It’s between Sunnis, Alawites, and Shia. Christian roots have been in this land since very ancient times, and even though we’re a minority here we have lived together for a long time without problems. Christians refuse to take arms—our weapon is to pray.”

Even so, when considering the possibility of future sectarian civil war, the priest concludes somberly that “we can live with everybody. … Not everybody can live with us.”

The few remaining villagers are elderly, sitting on their porches or strolling down the patchy road. Most affirm that the FSA are shebaab quayyiseen, “good guys.” But not all of them. “I stay here to protect my house from thieves,” says one round-cheeked man in a plaid shirt, who says someone stole five 200-liter barrels of diesel fuel from his house. Like most others, he is a farmer, and needs the diesel for his tractor. “Our FSA guys are good, some … I don’t know. We feel really sad to hear about thieves. We are all brothers and neighbors.”

Near the statue of St. George, a 60-year-old grandmother sits in a lightless shop, the only open game in town. Perishables are long gone, and what remains are countless sweets, a few cartons of cigarettes, bottles and bottles of wine and arak, and beer in the refrigerator. Her husband is dead, and her daughters moved away to live with their husbands, she says. She weeps as she speaks about her son, who left two weeks ago. Even though there is hardly any business, “I can’t leave. There is no safe place for me.”

We drink Amstels and ask what she thinks about the rebels and the regime. “I have no opinion.”

 

Seven

Our fixer comes to wake us up soon after we have gone to bed in our translator’s village. “The commander and the sheikh want to talk to you,” he said. In the living room the village commander sits, stern-faced and puffing on a narghile pipe, next to a surprisingly young sheikh with an equally somber countenance, long black beard, prayer robes, and prayer beads. “What are you doing here? Who do you work for? What kind of stories are you writing?” The phrase jewessus nizam came up once or twice: “spies for the regime.”

Paranoia suffuses any police state, and when that state starts fraying at the edges, people become doubly suspicious. Pro-rebel soldiers remain in the al-Assad army to inform for the FSA. Apparent defectors are in fact feeding information back to the regime. Shabiha, hired hit men whose civilian clothes often hide full-torso tattoos of al-Assad, lurk everywhere. The mountain roads are impossible terrain for tanks but ideal for ambushes. Turkish jandarma border guards may wave you through, or they may themselves be Alawites and sell you out to the regime; a friendly English speaker may simply want to help or he may want to make a trade to spring loved ones from prison in Damascus. Even family members suddenly become shady: “Who’s he calling now? I don’t know them. Who’s that on the road up ahead? We need to switch cars.”

Our conversation or our faces gradually convince the sheikh and the commander to break into wide grins, the sheikh suddenly looking his age (perhaps 26). They offer us more tea, but it is long past bedtime and once the shadow of suspicion is lifted, we can’t stop yawning.

 

Eight

Shelling hasn’t emptied all the villages of Jebel Akrad. Al-Najia, a village of several thousand, is one of a handful in the region where most shops are open and the streets burst with life. There are plenty of women, and children bound into the road, running after rebel fighters’ vehicles, chanting slogans in praise of the Free Army.

Before the FSA took control three weeks ago, regime forces periodically raided the village, residents say. They beat and arrested protesters, and “destroyed everything inside.” Now helicopters are the only problem. They drop bombs that open on impact and release something that looks “like spiderwebs.” No one has touched them, because they fear it could be poison.

Ahmed Hajj Mohammed invites us to his rooftop and tells his story without once losing the grin on his face. He’d been an Arabic teacher at the local secondary school until the government closed it when the students participated in anti-regime demonstrations a year ago. The students, 12 and 13 years old, were arrested, and he himself was imprisoned for a month. They pulled out his toenails, beat his leg, broke his nose. Even so, he has never carried a weapon. “I completely refuse violence. I want to keep the revolution peaceful.”

 

Nine

The mountains flatten out on the road to Salma, the biggest settlement between Jebel Akrad and Latakia city. This is the fertile heart of Syria’s farmland. Terraces of olive groves and apple and pomegranate orchards spread out to the horizon. Now is the harvest season, and ordinarily whole families would be working in the fields full time to pick fruit before the cold sets in.

But the branches hang heavy with olives, and apples are beginning to rot in piles under the trees. Salma itself used to be home to about 15,000 people, but has been a ghost town since rebels took it in June. It is several kilometers from the front line, and FSA vehicles in town show the hallmarks: one pickup-mounted Dushka machine gun, a flatbed with a dozen or so fighters, a civilian car bearing the logo of an FSA unit.

A dark-clad woman, young for a grandmother, gives her name as Umm Shaheed, “mother of a martyr.” She offers us pomegranates on her porch and then, in a sober and deliberate voice, tells of the death of one of her sons, a fighter in the FSA, six weeks earlier.

“He went to meet a friend of his, and his car got hit by a rocket on the road,” she says. Though she had left Salma for most of the summer, she came back at the end of August when the shelling was not too bad. She says that when she lost her son, she was not afraid to stay on. “My life is not more precious than his,” she says. “Death will find you anywhere. I’m not afraid of anything now.”

Her youngest son sits silently on the porch, sprouting the peach fuzz of a beard, a black band with the words in Arabic “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet” tied around his head. “I am proud of my brother, and I wish to be a martyr too,” he says. He explains that the headband he wears (the same slogan and black-and-white color scheme is favored by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban) is a sign of “being a real Muslim.”

His mother considers the prospect of losing another son. “I will be proud. I can’t stop fate. But all the men in Syria shooting each other down just so that one man can keep the power, it is haram (unholy).”

Some of the other neighbors gather and tell of the barrel bombs that drop from helicopters every day. “Today is a light day, there have only been two helicopters.” They said nine barrels of TNT had landed, and only six of those exploded. “Usually 15 or 20 land every day.”

 

Ten

Salma is on its third field hospital. Rockets hit the first, in the basement of the main mosque. Barrel bombs flattened the second. The third has already suffered some indirect hits, but its location looks concealed enough for the moment.

Rami, a doctor from Latakia city, had been working in the United Kingdom for eight years when he returned to his hometown for vacation a year and a half ago. When the uprising began, he stayed to contribute. Sitting in a basement pitched into darkness whenever power outages occur (planned to conserve diesel for the generator), he makes lists, confers with a steady stream of visitors, and speaks into a two-way radio and several mobile phones. Beyond overseeing hospital operations, he also helps transfer food and aid across the border from Turkey.

Rami says that even in Latakia, most residents are against the regime. “Security branches observe every movement, every whisper. Even if there are two or three people talking in the street they watch them. It’s amazing that some people there, in the center of power, spoke out and demanded the fall of the regime. Not everybody has the guts to speak out, but nobody likes him.”

An FSA fighter comes in, shouting, and Rami gathers himself to tend to the situation. “Relax, man!” he quips. “Everybody’s under stress … broaden your chest.”

 

Eleven

Mohammed Hamado, or “Abu Ahmed,” is one of the military commanders in charge of the Jebel Akrad region. He isn’t available until nearly midnight because of a military strategy meeting. The 41-year-old was a lieutenant colonel specializing in surface-to-surface rockets in the Assad army, but he was fired in 2009 for criticizing one of Assad’s speeches.

Abu Ahmed helped establish the Free Officers Movement for defectors, which is “in alliance with” the FSA, he says. In January of 2012 he began a campaign to take over the Jebel Akrad region, and since June most of the region has been taken.

The next plan is to push further west into Jebel Turkoman, and eventually perhaps to retake Hafi, a Sunni village on the road to Latakia City. Abu Ahmed expresses concern that no international assistance has come to the rebels except from more Islamist Gulf states, but adds that “if the international community leaves us by ourselves, we have no problem to rely on anyone who shows up—al-Qaeda, a group of mujahideen, a group of the devil.”

 

Twelve

Abu Ahmed’s forces captured a regime checkpoint a couple of weeks earlier and while most soldiers fled or gave up willingly, some fought longer and harder. The ones who never gave up “met their destiny,” but the rest were captured and now await trial in a temporary jail deep in the mountains. It holds nine captured regime soldiers, plus one FSA fighter who shrugs with a sheepish grin: “drugs.” Turkish Telecom jumpsuits serve as prison uniforms.

Windows are barred, but the doors do not lock. A couple of Alawite prisoners speak tentatively, despite Abu Ahmed’s assurances that “they can say anything they want, they will be safe.” They refuse to give their names, and one says that work in the military or security forces was the best way for an Alawite to advance and have “a good life, a good salary.” The other says the regime needs Alawites at every checkpoint to make sure that the Sunni soldiers do not defect or leave. “The regime was saying the FSA was organized foreign terrorist groups, and I thought I was on a national security mission,” said one of the two Alawites. “I was shocked to see that it was just Syrians, not foreigners.”

Outside the jail, FSA fighters roll out dough into thin leaves and flip them on an open-fire oven, passing them out to everyone. A guard relaxes on a couch in the front room, lazily puffing a water pipe.

None of the prisoners seem to have been beaten, and they look well enough, all things considered. There is a nurse on the premises and hospital access if necessary. People from a foreign medical NGO in Salma, who have visited FSA prisons in the region including this one, affirmed that the conditions they’ve seen are fair, “for the most part.”

 

Thirteen

Here in Ikhdeen, a normal autumn prevails: men and boys stack boxes of apples neatly on the back of a truck, and children play in the road. This is one of the few Alawite villages under FSA control. The regime does not shell here, and though its army has withdrawn, shabiha thugs reportedly still operate inside. Abu Ahmed said that even when the regime controlled Jebel Akrad, the FSA could cross through this village.

Women, most without headscarves in Alawite custom, and young girls are drawing water from a well nearby. They say that schools in the village have never closed, that there are no problems here, and that they are not afraid.

Even so, within moments all the doors that had been open have slammed shut. A man loading apples shouts that they don’t want to speak with journalists, and another says that generally things are all right, but that one of the villagers has been kidnapped by an unknown group. The women refuse to be photographed.

 

Fourteen

A toothless hajj, head wrapped in a red-checked keffiyeh, sits in the courtyard of our translator’s village and puffs on his cigarette. He is 85 and spent four years in his distant youth working for a German company in the valley. “Schwester … Bashar ist Scheisse! Schlecht, schlecht! Schreiben, Nichts gut! Haus kaputt! Alles kaputt! Nichts, nichts!” He trails off into Arabic, “mafi qaraba, mafi chubaz, mafi weled, mafi madame, mafi futuur” (no electricity, no bread, no kids, no women, no breakfast). To clarify his opinion of al-Assad, he throws his head back and brays like a donkey, causing all the men around him to burst into laughter as they slap his back in approval.

Shells that landed the night before have convinced several other elderly people to leave their homes and flee to Turkey. Another man of 80 or so, white prayer cap on his head, sits in the cab of a truck and dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief under a sign that says in English “I love.” He is headed for Turkey, and might never see his home again.

 

Fifteen

On our last night, a rocket lands 10 meters from the house, shrapnel spraying onto the terrace. The electricity crackles to a stop, and the men from the house gather in the tiny kitchen and light candles. Adham looks around, shakes his head and chuckles. “This is the whole village,” he says. “This is everyone that’s left.”

The day we pull out it starts to rain. The sun isn’t strong enough to burn off the cloud cover, and the thick chill in the air softens the sound of dropping shells. Chainsaws echo in the valleys as the few remaining residents there stockpile wood to burn in the months ahead. We cross the border at dusk. But for the people of Jebel Akrad, it is the beginning of a long, cold winter.

 

Note: In the months since our visit, rebels are reported to have pushed farther west into Jebel Turkoman, where they await the liberation of Aleppo before planning a final assault on Latakia City. They continue to suffer daily shelling campaigns from regime checkpoints and the airspace above, where the Syrian military flies with impunity.

 

Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East. She reported from the Libyan desert town of Kufra for the Summer 2012 issue of The American Scholar, and her report from inside Syria appeared on our website in early 2013.


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