Hajji Zaki crept along the partially destroyed unpainted walls in the hallway of the single-storey house, ducking to stay out of sight of regime snipers stationed at a large outpost some 500 m away. Two of the rebels he commands in his unit of the Farouq Brigades moved ahead of him.
The father of five had his left arm outstretched in a gesture that indicated he wanted his men to stay low. His right hand clutched a Kalashnikov. Dusty chunks of smashed cinder blocks, the detritus of what was once walls, littered the floors of the unfurnished house, crunching underfoot. “We use this place to snipe from,” Hajji Zaki, 38, said as he crouched in a doorway. “You see these doors,” he said, gesturing to a pale gray metal door still in good condition. “That’s my work.” Before he was a local Farouq commander, Hajji Zaki was a local metalsmith.
There are 23 men in his Farouq unit stationed along the eastern flank of the Wadi Deif military base, one of the few remaining loyalist outposts in the northern Syrian province of Idlib in late January. His men are all from this front-line town of Marshamsheh, a desolate, devastated area that was once home to some 4,000 people but is now populated almost solely by a handful of diverse rebel groups. There’s nothing between it and Wadi Deif except an olive grove.
The forces ranged against the regime of President Bashar Assad are a varied crew: there are foreign fighters; Islamic extremists, both Syrian and from other countries; as well as criminal elements who kidnap for ransom or loot homes, exploiting the general lawlessness of war. There is a kinetic nature to the rebellion — of multiple pieces moving at once. In Aleppo further north, many of the rebels fighting there don’t know their way around the metropolis. They’re from the towns and villages around it.
But in many smaller places like Marshamsheh, it is still mainly local men like Hajji Zaki who are fighting in their hometowns. It is their homes that are being destroyed, their families displaced or killed. On the other side of this conflict’s increasingly intractable divide, there are also men loyal to Assad who are just as grounded in their local communities, fighting for what they believe is right and just, and also losing their lives and livelihoods. This is the nature of civil war.
It’s easy to get caught up in talk of weapons, of geostrategic interests and diplomatic maneuvers, but war, at its most basic level, is more intimate than that. It’s about people, mainly the terrible things they see and do or have done to them, but also the bonds they forge, the attempts to cling to the normalcy of their old lives and what they think about their new ones.
(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
The loss these men feel hits close to home, because they are at home. Hajji Zaki checks on his men daily, traveling either on foot or in a white Mitsubishi pick-up truck smeared in red mud presumably to make it less visible, its driver and passenger windows blown out and replaced with plastic sheets that rustle as he drives. In addition to the sniper’s position in the partially destroyed home, the Farouq mans six other positions along this front line. They are on rotating 12-hour shifts.
As Hajji Zaki moves through the empty streets between his outposts he points out the landmarks of his life: the primary school he attended (whose outer wall now has a meters-long tri-starred revolutionary flag painted across it), his workshop along the town’s main road (its metal shutter blown off by the force of a blast and tossed askew like a crumpled piece of paper), his home — or what’s left of it.
“That’s my house, this is my brother’s house, this is my parent’s house,” he says as we walk across a flat grassy area carpeted with lumps of rubble. He is so soft-spoken it’s often hard to hear him. Half of the flat roof of the home he lived in for 12 years has tipped down to the ground in a solid sheet, like a folded napkin. The stonework on the outside was his handiwork; so too was the intricate metalwork covering the windows.
It is surprising how porcelain can sometimes survive what concrete does not. Several coffee cups lie under an olive tree near the stainless steel tray on which they were carried when the first MiG warplane struck Hajji Zaki’s neighborhood in October. The meters-deep crater left by the first rocket is just outside the remains of his parents’ home. The home of his younger brother Abu Sami (who is also part of his battalion) has been completely flattened. “We used to need a 4-m ladder to climb up here,” he says as we step onto the roof. It’s a step off the ground. “The most important thing that I removed from the house were my family photos,” Hajji Zaki said, “everything else can be replaced. My memories, my thoughts,” he says sighing, “are often of the past.”
His family, like that of all of his men, has joined the several million internally displaced Syrians who have sought refuge elsewhere. He says he tries to see them every few weeks. As we head back to the Farouq headquarters, one of Hajji Zaki’s men in the backseat, Ali Abu Jumaa, 25, suddenly asks him to stop. “My grandmother!” Abu Jumaa says. He quickly gets out of the car with his Kalashnikov, rushes to an elderly woman in a long black dress, red cardigan and a pale pink hijab who is carrying a walking stick. He hugs her and kisses her right hand.
“I’ve been gone for four months,” his grandmother says before rattling off the names of several nearby towns she’s been staying in. “We’ve been moving from place to place.”
“How did you get here, who is with you?” Abu Jumaa asks his grandmother, before adding, “Don’t stay here long.”
“No, I just came here to see …,” she says, her voice trailing off as she gestures to the rubble around her. “Not one of our houses is O.K.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll stay with her,” his cousin (also part of the Farouq) says as Abu Jumaa plants several kisses on his grandmother’s cheek and gets back into the car.
It’s getting dark as we head back to the Farouq headquarters in a house close to the front. Hajji Zaki turns off his headlights to avoid detection by loyalist forces. Inside the vast main room, several of his men are milling about, including his brother Abu Sami, 31.
It’s time for evening prayers, led by Hajji Zaki, who stands on a blue prayer mat laid out over the room’s red carpet, a step in front of his men who are lined up behind him. A walkie-talkie screeches in the background, relaying information about the ongoing fight around Wadi Deif and in other places.
Thin mattresses line the walls of the room. In one corner, neatly folded blankets are stacked atop each other. There’s an assortment of weapons lined up near the entrance, mainly Kalashnikovs, a few sniper rifles, a BKC machine gun, a few rocket-propelled grenades. Two Farouq flags, emblazoned with the brigade’s black insignia, hang from a wall.
The Farouq is among the largest, best organized and most well-known of Syria’s many military units. They take the name Farouq from Omar bin al-Khatab al-Farouq, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and, historically, the second Caliph.
Hajji Zaki sticks to civilian clothes and doesn’t wear a uniform. But most of his men are dressed in matching military fatigues emblazoned with the brigade’s black insignia. Each man’s uniform also displays his assigned number. The Farouq look more like a professional fighting force than the many hodgepodge groups outfitted in mismatched items of military and civilian clothing.
In the kitchen, Abu Hamzi, a former rocket-propelled-grenade specialist in Assad’s army, is preparing a meal in honor of his guests. As required by the Arab custom of hospitality, it’s a feast, laid out in the main room on a pale beige plastic mat. Lentil and rice soup, dry biscuits dipped in molasses and tahini, yogurt, saffron rice, fresh lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sardines and canned mortadella. “Don’t put out the mortadella,” Hajji Zaki jokes, “they’ll think we eat like this all the time.”
Later that night, the men gathered around a sobya, a heater in a corner of the room, drinking sweet tea from hourglass-shaped cups and smoking local al-Hamraa cigarettes. There’s no electricity and hasn’t been for months, no cell-phone coverage, no Internet. Six large plastic bags of warm flat Arabic bread containing 48 loaves in total were placed near the sobya. Abu Ibrahim, a former construction worker turned sniper, reached for a bag and started splitting the loaves (it is easier to do when the bread is still warm). Others, including Abu Sami, joined him in the task. An old army-green wooden box once containing 60-mm mortar shells served as the bread box for the split loaves. “I have three wives at home,” Abu Ibrahim complained in a joking manner as he split the bread. He had made the same joke earlier as he served the tea. Both are domestic duties usually done by women.
The place was powered by a car, its battery hooked up to an electrical converter that is wired to a few lightbulbs and the television, converting the battery power into electricity. Some of the men gather around a Toshiba laptop, to watch snippets of battle scenes or to see pictures of friends killed in battle. They’ve lost some 20 men from this area. Abu Sami pulls up photos of his 7-month-old son Sami on the computer. Most of the men carry photos of themselves in their wallets from the days of their compulsory military conscription, images of themselves in uniform posing near tanks, carrying RPGs or a rifle.
The talk turns to several key commanders in the area, how the men believe they are more interested in making quick trips to a battlefield to upload a few photo-ops to YouTube rather than staying and fighting. “The revolution was better before. Some commanders have forgotten the early days when we had nothing,” Abu Sami says. “Now they have money, cars, they have forgotten when they only had a motorbike. They are more interested in their five- or six-car entourage. After the regime falls, will they keep their tanks? What will they do with their 14.5-mm [antiaircraft guns]?”
“Why do men join him?” one of the men says of one of these commanders.
“Ammunition is low. People want a leader who can supply them. What matters to a fighter is that his ammunition vest is full,” Abu Sami says. “But after the fall of the regime, I tell you, even his cousins will leave him, they won’t stay with him.”
Abu Ibrahim, who served his military conscription in 1987 and ’88 with Division 11, the same unit he says is now stationed in Wadi Deif, says the fight among rebels after the fall of the regime will likely be harder than this one. That struggle would be to unseat the warlords who are now setting up minifiefdoms as well as against religious extremists. Those fledgling tyrants — whether local or national — will not be tolerated. “They won’t have as many men or weapons as Bashar, and we are going to remove him, so we will also be able to remove a small group that thinks of these things,” he said.
“We know that this is a long fight, a difficult fight,” Abu Sami says, “but I am fighting for my son. We are all fighting for our sons. God willing, our children will live good lives.” Mortar strikes and other explosions continued outside, some so close that the doors and windows shook.
Abu Sami unwrapped the small pickled hot pepper he kept in his wallet. Some of the men laughed as they recounted how Abu Sami ran the pepper around the rim of another man’s coffee cup, and the man’s reaction to the unexpected spiciness. He’s thinking about doing it again, but soon changes his mind and puts the pepper away.
Over in the kitchen, Abu Hamzi was preparing a dessert called sayanee. It’s a long process, involving making thin pancakes, smothering them with melted cinnamon butter and then piling them atop each other until they reach a 3-cm or so stack. It’s taking so long the men have dubbed it the “operation of the sayanee.”
Finally, after several hours it is ready. “Do we have forks?” somebody asks Hajji Zaki. He laughs. “Yes,” he says. “Praise be to God, we have received support and assistance in the form of forks.” The men all laugh. Tomorrow, Hajji Zaki would do the rounds on the front line, try and secure ammunition and meet with other commanders to discuss unseating the loyalists from Wadi Deif. But tonight, on this front line in this Syrian town, there was dessert, and he was with his men.