x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The mother feeding Syria's mountain rebels

The 53-year-old left her home and family to toil over pots and pans to cook for the area's rebel fighters.

RABIAA, Syria // At the age of 53, Um Omar has decided to wage her own type of "jihad" in Syria's northern Turkmen Mountains, toiling over pots and pans every day to cook for the area's rebel fighters.

"I wake up at 5 in the morning to prepare their meals, and I haven't missed a single day's work in almost a year," she says, ladling the diced potatoes she sliced earlier in the day out of a pan of simmering oil.

"In the snow, the rain, and even under a hail of rockets, she never once stopped cooking for us", says Assad, a young rebel from the Jabal Al Turkman area in Lattakia province, the cradle of president Bashar Al Assad's clan, which has ruled the country for more than 40 years.

Abu Khaled, a sniper from a nearby rebel unit, is also full of praise for Um Omar, who, he says, is like a mother or a sister to the fighters.

"She does the impossible to get what we want. Once, someone asked for rice pudding and although she struggled to find the ingredients, the next day he had his rice pudding," he says.

"Here, people who can't bring themselves to say that she cooks better than their own mothers still say, 'It's just as good as my mother's cooking,'" he adds, serving a group of young men the potatoes and seasoned rice that Um Omar made that morning.

However, her work does not give her any special sense of pride.

"Feeding the troops is just my way of helping the revolution," she says, heaping spoonfuls of salt into a pan. "And it keeps my mind occupied, so that I don't worry about the bombing and the humiliation we suffer at the hands of the regime every day."

Um Omar, who ends all her sentences with "God curse Bashar", made the decision herself to leave the western town of Lattakia, where she lived and which has largely been spared from fighting.

Much of Jabal Al Turkman is rebel-controlled. The area is bordered by Turkey to the north, which supports the uprising, and the mountains to the south largly inhabited by Alawites, the minority group the Assads belong to.

Intense fighting has been taking place in the southern limits of Jabal Al Turkman for nine months as rebels have tried to push towards the town of Lattakia, 50 kilometres away.

"I swore to myself that I wouldn't leave the mountains until the tyrant has fallen," says Um Omar, with conviction. "Then we can return to our homes as victors."

"To begin with, my children didn't understand, but I explained to them what I was doing and now even my husband has come round to the idea," she adds, moving from one bubbling pot to another. "Anyway, I make my own choices. I do what I want."

The feisty 53-year-old follows a strict routine every day in the mountains, rising to pray at dawn, before drinking coffee and getting down to work.

"I go and see the neighbours, and they each give me a little for the day's meal, which I hand out to the rebels and people living nearby," she explains.

In the garden of a Turkmen family, she uses a small knife to cut away a few stalks of mint, parsley and a few lettuce leaves. Then she heads back to her "kitchen" - a few breeze blocks stacked together with a canvas sheet as a roof.

This improvised chef has no toque or apron, but instead goes to work in a set of combat fatigues given to her by the rebels to wage what she calls her "jihad".

Shovelling branches and pine cones into the flames under her pots and pans in the middle of a field next to the headquarters of a local brigade, she says: "At home I had a gas stove in the kitchen, but here I have had to learn to cook over a wood fire."

Um Omar sometimes goes to cut the firewood for her mountain kitchen herself in the nearby woods.

"This revolution has really forced me to toughen up," she laughs.