Welcome to free Syria: Meeting the rebel government of an embattled country
October 1, 2012
Abu Malek was pacing back and forth in the hospital parking lot, muttering to himself and firing off phone calls. “Don’t say ‘How are you’ to me,” he told one caller, “because I am not fine, I am very, very, very, very bad.” The hospital was in the Turkish town of Antakya, and the staff was treating several rebels who had been wounded in the fighting across the border in Syria, about ten miles away. The Syrian army was in the midst of a major offensive, sweeping through one northern town after another with tanks and heavy artillery, trying to kill as many rebel fighters as possible before April 12, when a ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan would go into effect. The revolution had been grinding on for more than a year, and as many as 10,000 people had died already.
From Turkey, Malek had followed events closely and stayed in contact with his family in the northern town of Taftanaz. (Malek’s name and those of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.) Soon after he learned that the army had surrounded Taftanaz, phone lines were cut, so he sent a friend to retrieve his family. The friend returned with the news that Malek’s mother was missing, his cousins were missing, and his house had been razed.
The government had lost control of Taftanaz near the start of the revolution, and an intricate system of popularly elected councils called tansiqiyyat had been created over the past year—“like miniparliaments, a government for us,” as Malek put it. He had been chosen to represent Taftanaz in Turkey, where he raised funds and cultivated contacts with the international community. He was proud of the rebel councils—they were proof that Syria did not need President Bashar al-Assad—but he worried that the other council members had been captured or killed.
Malek agreed to help me get to Taftanaz, but he demanded information in return: “I want to know if my family survived—and I want to know if my revolution survived.”
Traveling with me from the Turkish border to Taftanaz was Wassim Omar, an acquaintance of Malek’s whom I would see several times during the week I spent in Syria. He had access to a network of revolutionaries along the way, almost all of them friends he had made during the uprising. Our driver avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads; with the mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.
Omar had been studying Arabic literature at Aleppo University before the revolution began. Now he traveled between Turkey and Syria often, smuggling rebel propaganda and supplies. This was his first trip back over the border since reports of the army’s campaign in Taftanaz had reached Antakya.
The roads were empty, and in the tiny mountain towns the shops stood shuttered and padlocked. The rebels once maintained checkpoints openly in daylight, but now they confined their activity to the nighttime. “If you could have seen this place before the fighting,” Omar told me. “It was alive.”
We had yet to come across any villages touched by violence. But then, as we pulled into the town of Killi, about ten miles south of the border, we saw a multistory granite house with a collapsed roof, yawning holes in its façade, and rubble everywhere. Omar gasped.
According to locals, Syrian aircraft had circled overhead for days, taking reconnaissance photos as almost all civilians and rebels fled the village. Then, on April 6—four days before we arrived—tanks came and fired from close range at this house and more than a dozen others. Soldiers had a list of those who had gone to protests or were involved in the rebel movement, and they went from house to house hunting them. Because most of the townspeople had left, however, there were very few arrests or casualties.
On the outskirts of Killi, I found one of those who had stayed behind. Nizar Abdo lived in a housing complex built around a central courtyard. When the soldiers arrived, Abdo hid in a neighbor’s house. He watched through the shutters as a tank wheeled in front of his property, took aim, and fired. Afterward soldiers bulldozed the remains.
Standing where his house had once been, Abdo admitted that he had attended a few protests during the start of the revolution. He said he had never been political; more basic frustrations drove him: “You have to pay money to get a job, otherwise the government won’t help. . . . You have to pay bribes.”
Now homeless, he was unsure where he would go. But, embittered as he was, he still tried to see an upside. “At least,” he said, “we aren’t Taftanaz.”…