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Cats, Guns and Spoils of War in Rural Idlib, Syria

As part of our collaboration with Syria Deeply we are cross-posting a series of articles that capture civilian voices caught in the crossfire, along with perspectives on the conflict from writers around the world. 

Maaret Misreen, Syria–Omar, a former marketing student at a private university in Damascus, is living a life he never could have imagined. He’s originally from Idlib, one of Syria’s smaller cities in the heart of the northwest olive groves. Now he’s living in the line of fire as a media activist, documenting violence and escorting foreign journalists and human rights workers through Syrian terrain.

Citizen journalist Omar Abu Al Huda plays with his cat at his safe house in rural Idlib Credit:Mohammed Sergie

The role of media activists have bloomed in Syria. For scores of young revolutionaries, the most effective way to serve in the uprising is to essentially become an itinerant cameraman, capturing scenes in battle and uploading them to a global audience. Many become fixers for foreign news outlets as a source of income. Omar, for one, didn’t ask for money. He was just glad to have a professional journalist, especially one with Syrian roots, join him for the ride.

 

In Idlib province, where Omar does most of his work, the Assad regime has kept control of the major city, but lost the surrounding terrain. Its army, security forces and irregular militia members, or shabiha, have pulled back to the provincial capital. The city itself has swollen in number from 200,000 to 750,000, as rebels fighting for control of the towns and villages in Idlib have sent their families to relative safety. They can’t openly express themselves there, but they are free from the regime shelling and air strikes that pound the rebel held areas.

Omar, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Al Huda, has memorized the topography of Idlib province, charting its farm roads and villages during the revolution. A lively tour guide, he points out the landmark battles for military bases in the countryside and highlights the aftermath of MiG strikes and barrel bombs.

“You are riding in a martyr’s car,” he said, explaining that the hole in the driver’s seat was made by the bullet that killed his 27-year-old brother Mouayad Al Ghafeer in June. Omar used to have his own car, but it was stolen a few months ago by other rebels, or perhaps by a rogue armed gang. He’s constantly on the lookout for the vehicle, and his friends alert him when they see the same make and model on the road.

“It was my car from before the revolution that I paid for from the sweat of my brow,” he said.

Mouayad, his dead brother, is buried in his parent’s farm, located in a hamlet right outside of Idlib city. A few hundred meters away was the fresh grave of Abdullah Allawi, who was killed on December 27, hours before we arrived, after a firefight with Syrian army forces at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Idlib. The rebels said the army entered their stronghold in search of defectors and opened fire on Abdullah, who was 25 and had two children, and then retreated after the battle. The video of the fight is below

Omar documented the fight and compiled the footage later that evening, sharing the raw scenes with the rebels who huddled around his laptop – catching a glimpse of themselves in action. Moving from farm to farm along the same road where the deadly battle occurred hours earlier, the rebels had dinner at one of their family homes.  Their fathers were beaming with pride over their sons’ perceived glory in battle.

The fathers tried to pipe in their advice on battle formations, like football coaches on the sidelines, but the rebels largely ignored the older men. A power line was downed during the fight, and the fathers talked about fixing it themselves. But there was no urgency because power rarely came through those lines as of late and service was largely cut off.

Rebels said they captured this truck when the Syrian army attacked their stronghold in late December. Credit: Mohammed Sergie

Shifting to yet another house (this one belonged to an officer in the Syrian army but is now considered the spoils of war) they used a satellite Internet connection to upload the day’s videos. The connection was faster than most cable services in the U.S. Rifles were cleaned and magazines replenished as the fighters and activists relaxed and discussed the future.

Omar was pessimistic about the future, predicting a cycle of violence after the fall of the Assad regime. “I want to leave Syria when its over and finish my studies,” he said. But he was also torn because of his connection to the land and people, a bond that has become deeper through his work, which not only depicts violence but also focuses on softer stories such as humanitarian conditions and the state of Syria’s antiquities.

Away form the violence, life is hard for all Syrians. Rebels and media activists, much as the rest of the population, struggle to find food and fuel at reasonable prices. Bread is expensive, but available.

Gas stations have long been shuttered in northern Syria. Credit: Mohammed Sergie

Prices for petrol, used for transportation and to generate electricity, fluctuate between $12 and $15 per gallon over a 24-hour period. Gas stations no longer exist in much of Syria – the lack of electricity renders pumps useless, while supply lines to refill them are highly unreliable. Fuel is now sold by street vendors and shop owners who have no other wares to offer. Diesel, or fuel oil, which was mostly used to heat homes, is now a luxury that most Syrians can’t afford. Nights are cold and dark, and frequently interrupted by the sounds of artillery shells lobbed from Idlib city into the countryside.

Some fighters rose early to join a battle nearby while others who kept watch during the night slept in for bit. After drinking a small glass of tea and playing with the house cat (which all Syrian rebels seem to keep), Omar holstered his pistol and repeated his dangerous daily cycle: travel, battles and Internet videos.

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