x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Journalist remembers a rebel friend killed in Syria's civil war

For an Islamist rebel who had once wanted to join the jihadist leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq, he was surprisingly friendly.

Anas, a witty, passionate, 32-year-old father of three, had been one of my favourite rebels.

We first met almost two years ago when I was reporting for The Telegraph newspaper from the city of Ramtha in Jordan, just across the Syrian border from Deraa.

For an Islamist rebel who had once wanted to join the jihadist leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq, he was surprisingly friendly. Although he never actually shook hands with me, he did occasionally give me a high-five, and I was pleasantly surprised when he phoned me on December 25 to wish me a happy Christmas.

Like most rebels, Anas was wanted in Syria for taking part in street protests in the early days of the country's revolution. He was imprisoned and tortured, and shortly after his release in May 2011, he escaped to Jordan.

A year later, he returned to Deraa and fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), serving as a field commander in the Mansour battalions. Then in September last year, he was wounded in the leg by a piece of shrapnel and returned to Ramtha to be with his wife, Aysha, who was ecstatic that he was still alive.

"I don't know what I will do if I lose him," she once told me. "I have nothing to live for if something happens to him."

On August 27, Anas was killed when a landmine exploded in Deraa, killing him instantly along with three other fighters.

"I didn't want to ask if his body was ripped apart," his friend Abu Ahmad told me. "I left the azza [wake] and walked outside with his father and we both cried."

Anas is yet another casualty of the 29-month-old civil conflict that has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths. Clinging to memories of her beloved, Anas's 28-year-old widow is left with nothing to live on except intermittent charity - a common fate for rebel widows.

I often used to visit the family in their sparsely furnished apartment in Ramtha, which now also houses Anas's parents and Aysha's father and brother. They often skipped meals because there was nothing to eat. But despite their extremely difficult circumstances, the atmosphere in their home was always warm and welcoming.

Last October, Anas showed me a video clip of him fighting government forces armed with a Kalashnikov AK-47. Minutes later, he turned away from his laptop and began applying nail polish to his daughters' toenails. When he was away, he often flirted with his wife via text messages. Last April, he went to Deraa again, although not fully recovered from his wound.

By chance, I'd seen him the month before he left in a tiny apartment in which he was staying in Irbid, about an hour's drive from Ramtha, with a group of FSA fighters. "I wanted my wife to get used to me being away from her," he explained.

After he left, Aysha told me how the war had changed him. "He was [once] very rigid, but he became more open-minded."

Anas was religiously conservative, but after spending some time in Ramtha, which is more liberal, his attitude towards gender changed. He became more open and easygoing, showing affection for his wife in front of me, for example. And unlike other conservative men who prefer that their wives stay at home all the time, he didn't mind if she took a taxi to see her sisters.

Although he was impressed with the insurgent group Jabhat Al Nusra's fighting capabilities, he did not share their values. "I met with them last year," he told me. "They protested when I lit a cigarette . These guys are killing civilians in the explosions."

Just two days before his death, we exchanged messages on Skype, and joked about how we would like to see a military attack that would rid the Syrians of the dictator Bashar Al Assad and Al Nusra at the same time. His last word to me was "Amen".

* Suha Philip Ma'ayeh