x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A dangerous road trip reveals extent of the devastation in Syria

Amal Hanano travels with members of the Free Syrian Army along back roads deep into her war-ravaged homeland to witness the horrors the Assad regime is inflicting on her countrymen.

A Syrian family, on a three wheeled motorcycle, leave the northern Syrian town of Taftanaz, in the Idlib province, following heavy shelling by government forces. Philippe Desmazes / AFP
A Syrian family, on a three wheeled motorcycle, leave the northern Syrian town of Taftanaz, in the Idlib province, following heavy shelling by government forces. Philippe Desmazes / AFP

At the end of the muddy path that runs from the barbed wire fence on the Turkish border through the Olive Tree refugee camp is a dirt road that turns left and leads into Syria. Taking that road meant that you were "going in", entering a country that most of the world believes to be in the midst of an almost two-year-old civil war.

For me, as I paused at the beginning of the road and gazed at the village of Atmeh to our left and the thousands of olive trees to our right, the road meant only one thing: I was going home.

They were waiting as promised at the bottom of the hill where the camp ends, for myself and my companion (a journalist and fellow Syrian). The two young men from Idlib were responsible for our safety until we crossed back into Turkey the following day. The driver, Omar Abu Al-Huda, wore a khaki baseball cap and tight black jeans while his tall cousin Mohammed, in military fatigues, had a large black bandana wrapped around his head. Thick beards completed their look. After polite hellos (and internal prayers), I went against ingrained, decades-old parental advice and climbed into the back seat of a car with strangers. Armed strangers.

As they drove us through the back roads of Idlib province's countryside, I felt a sense of relief as I left the misery of the refugee camp behind and was taken by the picturesque landscape of shades of greens and blues sparkling in the sunlight. The rows of olive trees extended as far as I could see across undulating hills in the distance. Even though it was the end of December, it looked like spring.

After the initial small talk, Omar announced that we were riding in a martyr's car, formerly owned by his slain brother, Muayad Al-Ghafir, pointing to a bullet hole in the back of his seat. We stared in silence at the jagged hole in the beige vinyl as the reality of where we were began to sink in. Muayad, who was killed on June 6, 2012, was a well-known Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter in Idlib. His proud brother Omar often referred to Muayad when introducing himself to people in the street.

We spent the day driving south through Idlib's villages and towns, passing through Atmeh, Ad Dana, and Maaret Misreen. We wanted to go to Taftanaz, the town famous for its resistance against the regime, where men had faced tanks with their bare chests in peaceful protests earlier in the year. Those protests were quelled with massive air raids and shelling that had left the town in ruins. A fierce, drawn-out battle for Taftanaz's military airport was still being fought by the FSA and the Syrian army. That battle ended with the victorious FSA taking control of the strategically important military site. Before heading there we heard short, muted thuds in the distance. Omar said it was the sound of anti-aircraft missiles. We stopped on the side of a road overlooking Taftanaz and watched a thin line of white smoke that mushroomed and lingered over the village. No one said anything as our car changed direction. There would be no visiting Taftanaz that day.

In the liberated town of Maaret Misreen, we drove through the main street where revolution graffiti covered the walls. I got out of the car to take pictures of the slogans and painted flags. A man stopped us and asked angrily: "What are you taking pictures of? These flags? Come take pictures of my bombed home instead." He led us to a site a few blocks away where we saw a large crater in the street and three damaged residential buildings. I stood in front of the most severely destroyed one and began clicking, this time documenting myself instead of spreading other people's photographs across social media. I imagined it would feel different to face the destruction in person, to touch the wrecked concrete floor and the walls with iron rods breaking through them. But it didn't. It felt exactly the same as seeing hundreds of these images from across the ocean: like a deadening sense of dread deep inside. I should have known that we had moved beyond being moved by broken buildings.

As I walked away, I saw a tall, elderly man with a red-and-white scarf on his head speaking with men from the neighbourhood. He gestured with his hands and repeated over and over: "This is my home, did you see it? This is my home." They tried calming him, telling him to be grateful that none of his loved ones had been killed in the strike. He responded, crying: "This is my home." Our eyes met and I was ashamed that I had embarrassed him by meeting his tearful gaze. I looked down and walked away.

Sitting alone in the car for the first time that day, my own tears escalated into uncontrollable sobs. I thought I would have felt these emotions when I crossed the border, when I saw the graffiti, when I saw the destruction, but the old man was the missing connection. These primal expressions of despair are absent from the images and even the videos. You can't imagine them from a distance. You have to be close enough to see the tears.

We moved away from the villages as the sun faded, driving along rural backroads. We passed a grave on the side of the road marked with fresh, dark red soil. Omar mentioned in passing that they had buried their friend there that morning. He was killed in a confrontation they had with regime forces at a checkpoint less than a kilometre away. Omar pointed to our right and said: "Over there. It happened right over there." I asked if it was safe to be here and they laughed: "They wouldn't dare come here." I looked down the desolate street lined with shadowy olive trees and silently wondered, why not?

The olive groves were arranged in a grid of rectangular lots with simple summer homes used for harvesting season. The homes were now safe houses for FSA fighters from Idlib. We were one kilometre from the city, which has been under regime control for months. We would sleep here, like they did, moving from one home to another.

Our first stop was Omar's family home. The unkempt courtyard was strewn with leaves. Omar's father greeted us with coffee. He looked with pride at the men as they discussed the morning's battle with excitement. But he also lamented his son's interrupted education. Omar had been a second-year marketing student in Damascus when the revolution began. Now he simply introduced himself as "Idlib's media". Muayad was buried under the olive trees on the family's land, his grave marked with a simple grey stone.

One neighbouring family opens their home to the men in the evening. Omar and his cousins were more than FSA fighters to them, they were their sons' friends - a real band of brothers. The living room was heated with a gas stove and furnished with thick cushions along the walls that comfortably accommodated the 12 men and myself. Al Jazeera was on the small TV, powered along with a few lights by a small generator. This area had not had electricity for weeks. They offered us two kinds of meat pie (red and black), pickles and bread presented on a large silver tray in the middle of the room and passed us cups of yogurt to drink. They could tell we weren't used to eating pies cold and offered to warm them for us. We declined.

Warming my fingers with a hot glass of tea, I watched the group of men huddle together, reviewing the videos of that morning's battle on Omar's laptop. The screen cast a glow upon their faces, just like ours did over so many nights spent on the receiving end of YouTube for the last 22 months.

Our host's son, not an FSA fighter, was busy ordering pyjamas on the landline. The father saw that I was tired and asked his wife to show me to the other room where I could rest. I reluctantly obliged. She led me to the second room of the house, which functioned as both kitchen and bedroom. It was dark and not heated. She insisted I lie down on the large round bed. She covered me with a thick blanket and as she left the room I heard the click of the lock from the outside. She was protective of her guest, although I was a stranger. Later when we said goodbye, I hugged her, holding on to her more tightly than she did me, as if I was trying to absorb some essence from her body, resilience perhaps, maybe courage, even hope. She whispered into my ear: "We will never leave our land. Never."

Back in the car, Omar announced: "Now we go for internet." As we walked up the steps of a house a few groves down the street, one of them mentioned that this was an officer's home. "What exactly do you mean by officer?" I asked. "Spoils of war," he replied. Omar used the small plastic container of petrol he had purchased earlier to get the generator running. The small, messy room smelled of stale smoke and heating fuel. Electrical cords, adapters and plugs were piled in the corner. Soon we were connected to lightening-speed internet via satellite. The guys began uploading their videos and I watched over Omar's shoulder at his screen as he held several Facebook and Skype chats at once - completely absorbed and in his element. After over a year of being on the other side of these kinds of chats, I understood what the term "revolution media office" really meant.

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Opening Twitter on my phone, I felt, for once, at a loss for words, so instead I scrolled down the feed to find out what had happened in Syria that day. Due to lack of communications inside Syria, you have a myopic perspective on things rather than the bird's eye view you have when you are on the outside looking in. Satellite TV stations fill in the media gaps for most people, but with no electricity and petrol for generators being extremely expensive, many Syrians have been effectively disconnected from the world outside their immediate surroundings. The opposition media activists, however, are completely plugged in at night as they swap their daily videos, share stories, and chat on Facebook and Skype.

Our final stop of the night was the "guest house", a white stone building owned by an opposition supporter who feared the regime would occupy it and so left it to his neighbours' care. The swimming pool reminded me of Austin Tice, the American journalist who had been missing in Syria since August. His last tweets were about a pool party birthday celebration with FSA fighters.

Omar's cousin, Ammar, led us to the back room. It was large, clean and empty except for a table against one wall and a pile of mattresses and thick blankets against another. Before shutting the door, he said, "Don't worry about the shelling sounds. They are not directed here." He slept in the front room, guarding us.

Even though I was dressed in layers, with a thick blanket beneath me and another on top of me, and my coat, gloves and hat on, I was freezing. Sleepless and jet-lagged in Idlib, I thought about the thousands of refugees I had seen that morning experiencing the same cold as me but without concrete walls and floors, without half of my layers. The cold was the worst I had experienced in my life. It made my joints ache and as one man told me, "You carefully calculate before you move your body from one side to another."

The explosions sounded like distant fireworks, but for some irrational reason they didn't scare me.

I dozed for minutes at a time before waking again to gunfire, shelling and the cold. I waited, like millions of Syrians, for the warm sun to rise once more.

The next morning we headed to the town of Salqeen for the Friday protest. It was the Friday of Bloodied Bread, in honour of the victims of the Hilfaya massacre in Hama the previous week. Salqeen is one of the liberated Syrian towns that was not heavily targeted by the regime. The residents suffer from the usual problems: no gas, no fuel, no electricity, but in general, life seemed normal. The people walked freely on the clean streets. Groups of women browsed at the Friday market and children holding hands stood in front of a nearby shop.

Journalists have a habit of placing the word "liberated" in quotation marks, as in "so-called-liberated", or "not-really-liberated-but-they-say-so" liberated. This is far from the truth. On the ground, liberation is an important part of daily life. The town is free of street warfare, snipers, and shabiha (pro-regime militia). Free of arrest and intimidation. In Salqeen, citizens are able to focus on other aspects of civic life, such as forming the civil counsels and local committees that are dedicated to cleaning the streets and organising local elections. Liberated means that you can live almost without fear. Your only fear is that bombs will drop on you. As one activist told me, "If you're killed by a bomb falling from the sky, you must be very unlucky." Another popular belief was the indisputable, "No one dies before his time."

The main street was blocked by a black FSA jeep. I waited in the car with Ammar until the prayers were over. Ammar, 20, was a construction worker before he became a FSA fighter. He said there was a family in Idlib who had 55 martyrs, explaining the reason why they try not to fight in the same battles together so the mothers don't lose all their sons at once.

I watched anxiously from the car, waiting for the prayers to end, waiting for what I never dreamed I would see before March 15, 2011. The men walked from the mosque to the central circle and began chanting and waving flags. They sang song after song, both ones I knew and ones I didn't, but I was standing with them this time - the only woman in the circle - on the other side of the lens, calling for freedom in the land of the oppressed, chanting "We will die so Syria can live."

The crowd of around 200 was much smaller than the protests that took place before. Some people lined the pavement, watching silently and not joining in. Many believe the time of peaceful protests is over. The threat of air raids targeting large crowds and the towns' dwindling population have made it more difficult to fill the public squares. Yet they continue every week.

Afterwards, at a nearby cafe, Salqeen's famous protest singer, a thin, blond young man, pulled out a small handwritten page and sang his latest variation of the "Free, free, freedom" song. The lyrics are sarcastic, expressing regret for the uprising that had made a "litre of heating fuel cost 200 Syrian pounds and a bag of bread 100 Syrian pounds". We laughed and sang with him. We were happy. But at the end of the song he pulled out another handwritten note, a carefully folded tissue on which verses are written in blue ink, "If you live, then live for your country, and if you die, then know, Syria is the most beautiful shroud." His tissue was signed "a martyr's project, Ibrahim Mohammed Izzo". Even in moments of happiness and relative safety, death lurked.

In the front of the smoky cafe, a group of men sat playing cards. They barely glanced at us when we entered. They were clean-shaven and wearing outdated suits, looking like relics from another era. The oblivious men continued their Friday card games as if nothing was happening as a revolution raged outside. But now they shared their cafe with young bearded men with guns.

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The town of Harem was visibly different from Salqeen. It had also been liberated, but this happened only days before our visit. The town bore the scars of war: many of its citizens are regime loyalists and they had put up a fierce fight. Checkpoints blocked the empty streets. Rows of destroyed shops lined the street. But the citadel was still standing high above the town, majestic and intact.

As Omar drove us north through the border towns - Kafar Takharim, Isqat, Armanaz, Sarmada — the lush green landscape slowly turned into stony hills with meandering man-made stone walls. The olive trees dwindled in number, with only the strongest gnarled trunks randomly puncturing the rough terrain. Remains of ancient fortress walls rose from the bare stone hill.

There were signs of war at the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing. Rusty tanks spray-painted with FSA slogans were lined up in a row. The green revolution flags and signs welcoming visitors to a "Free Syria" covered the walls. FSA guards smiled with pride as we passed through security checkpoints without paying a single bribe.

We said goodbye to the men who guided and protected us for two days. Mohammed said he would miss us, but I'm sure they were as relieved as we were when we got out of the car. We walked across no-man's-land, a line of people in front of us and a line behind, trekking back and forth between Turkey and Syria. I missed riding in the martyr's car, missed the guys, missed Idlib, and missed this Syria I had never known.

Standing in Turkey, I looked back towards my country. It no longer felt as far away as it did before. For a few moments, the gap between inside and outside, between experiencing and witnessing, was closed. I decided to cross over again. And the day after the next, I did.

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer. On Twitter @amalhanano.