x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Syria’s rebel warrior queen dreams of reforming her brigade

Grandmother and leader of the Khowleh bint Al Azwar brigade – named after a female Arab warrior from the 7th century – wants to reform her band of 40 women fighters and rejoin Syria’s war against Bashar Al Assad. Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh report

A video showing half a dozen women concealed by black headscarves and sunglasses and holding assault rifles was posted on YouTube to mark the formation of the brigade. (Screen grab / Youtube)
A video showing half a dozen women concealed by black headscarves and sunglasses and holding assault rifles was posted on YouTube to mark the formation of the brigade. (Screen grab / Youtube)

IRBID, JORDAN // She is 35 years old and a grandmother, protest leader, armed rebel and refugee.

Khowleh, the name she adopted after the uprising began, may not be a typical Syrian woman but her story in many ways reflects that of her country and its uprising-turned-war.

When the revolt broke out in Deraa, a few kilometres from her home village of Hirak, Khowleh supported the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and dismissed the stories of unarmed protesters being shot dead in the streets.

It was a month after the rebellion started, at the funeral of a well-respected doctor who was killed while treating wounded civilians, that she realised the regime was gunning down innocent people for daring to question its right to rule.

“I saw the body in a coffin and from that moment I was with the revolution, I started taking part in protests that day,” she said in Irbid, Jordan, 20 kilometres from the Syrian border, a place home to thousands of refugees.

A tall, broad-shouldered and confident woman with clear hazel eyes and a knack for writing catchy poems, she was quickly adopted in Hirak as a talisman, marching at the head of demonstrations of hundreds of people. She led them in chants cursing Mr Al Assad as a coward and traitor, and demanding freedom and democracy.

While Khowleh won the admiration of many, including men who would become hard-bitten rebel fighters, her husband was not happy with his wife’s public role.

“He was a traditional man and wanted me at home, cooking, cleaning and looking after the children,” she said.

Like many women in rural parts of Syria, Khowleh married young, at 15, and was soon occupied raising seven children.

“I always thought that was boring and was relieved to be doing something else,” she said. “It’s as if I was only born when I joined the revolution, the years before that I was just sleepwalking through life.”

One day her husband demanded she choose between the revolution or him.

It was an easy decision, she said.

After their divorce, Khowleh continued marching, and filled an important role, trying to free local men arrested by the security forces. As a woman she was less likely to be detained on visits to nearby military bases and checkpoints to ask after the detainees.

She helped talk 15 men to freedom, but was herself arrested and held for several days on one of her forays.

By early 2012, the violence had increased. Khowleh had been at numerous protests in which civilians had been shot dead. Tanks entered her village, more than a dozen people from her extended family had been killed or wounded and Syria seemed to be at war.

Convinced that peaceful protests would not work and that civilians had no choice but to defend themselves, she began smuggling weapons through checkpoints, and decided to start an armed brigade with 40 of her female friends.

“We were taught how to use rifles at school as part of our military youth training,” she said. “We knew how to fire a Kalashnikov and had been instructed in how to properly throw hand grenades, so it wasn’t difficult for us.”

Her brigade, the Khowleh bint Al Azwar, named after a female Arab warrior from the 7th century, was born in February 2012. A video showing half a dozen women concealed by black headscarves and sunglasses and holding assault rifles was posted on YouTube to mark the occasion.

Rather than fighting alone, members of her unit would be attached to all-male brigades, often working to build bombs from gas canisters.

“At the time, everyone was prepared to fight, the men, women and children, we were defending ourselves and were proud to be defending our country from Assad,” she said.

Other fighters from the area recall the all-woman brigade as lifting their morale.

“Khowleh was famous, she inspired us all to keep going, she wasn’t afraid of hardship or the regime,” said Abu Khalid, a Free Syrian Army soldier from Deraa city. “Her brigade may not have been very strong militarily but she symbolised the defiance we all felt and our fight for dignity.”

The Khowleh bint Al Azwar brigade broke down by mid-2012, its members scattered as the warfare intensified and thousands of civilians fled Deraa province.

Khowleh was among those who crossed the border to safety in Jordan, arriving in the autumn of last year.

“I had no one to care for my children, and one of my daughters has children of her own so we didn’t seem to have much choice and we came here.”

Although not confined to a camp, life as a refugee is something Khowleh considers more difficult than marching with protesters towards a line of regime soldiers.

“I feel as though I die a little bit every day here. Really I’d like to reform the brigade and go back to fight but it’s hard to get the financial support and no one really wants the women over there fighting now.

“I’m sleepingwalking through life again. I miss the sense of purpose, the feeling of struggling for something worthwhile and the camaraderie; they were difficult days but also the best days of my life.”

Although a devout Muslim, Khowleh hinted that growing Islamist extremism has pushed her away from the revolution’s front lines, with male fighters more than ever unhappy with the idea of women dressed in combat fatigues, living in close quarters with men who are not their relatives.

“There are radical groups now that came to take part in the revolution but they do not represent me,” she said.

“After Bashar is gone I want a moderate country, I don’t want radical Islamist groups, they hate people like me. I want a normal life, where women are part of society and can go to work, get an education, where people can choose if they want to be religious or not.”

The death and destruction wrought by the Syrian war, a bitter conflict involving regional and international powers and now thick with sectarianism, has not shaken Khowleh’s belief in the struggle.

“We must have some patience, we are overthrowing a regime that has strangled us for 40 years, and then deliberately started a sectarian war. It is not going to be quick or easy,” she said.

“Freedom doesn’t come cheaply and we know we must win it at great cost. And we will win in the end.”

psands@thenational.ae