Dodging Bullets with Syrian Rebels Who Love Soccer and Adolf Hitler
I spent a week living with the Free Syrian Army just north of Damascus.
The photographs in this article are a mixture of ones taken by the rebel fighters in this story and others taken by the author around Syria.
As he does every morning, Amir wakes me by asking if I would like to die with him. “I can take you to Damascus, but we won’t survive. We’ll go to Allah together, you and me, as martyrs,” he says, grinning as though we both had nothing better to do today, or any other day, than buy the farm.
“Forget it, Amir,” I say. “I’m not in a dying mood.” It was a long night of soccer—Dortmund vs. Malaga. I shake my head and try to shake the pins and needles from my limbs. “Not today!”
Sooner or later, I want to see Damascus. But I want to see it alive. Amir is 22 and hates waiting. He is always thinking of things to do. “I want to show you something!” he says, hopping excitedly from one foot to the other. “Get up! Get up!” A field trip? Why not? Almost anything beats spending the day in a semi-trance state on a mattress covered with stains.
It's a chilly morning in April but the sun is shining down and the fruit trees are in delicate bloom. For a moment I forget that a civil war has been raging here for two years. An estimated 80,000 people are dead. There is no end in sight.
Amir shoves a couple of extra cartridges into the magazine of his AK-47 before he shoulders it and jumps into the car. We drive up a mountain, higher and higher on a road made of rubble and scree. We arrive above the tree line. No shrubs, no bushes. Only an icy wind that scrubs the bald slopes clean. “Look down there. That’s Damascus airport. We’ll be taking it soon,” Amir says, his arm raised to point into the haze to the south. I try my best, but I can’t see what he’s talking about.
At that moment a helicopter looms into view over our heads.
For a week I have been stuck near the little town of Horsh Arab, about 20 miles north of Damascus. Surrounded by fields, orchards, and mountains, it’s a postcard idyll, about 4,600 feet above sea level. I share a one bedroom house in a tiny farmstead on the edge of town with five Islamists from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Three of them are named Muhammad—a convenience, since I’m bad with names. Then there’s Amir, my driver and translator, who thinks civil war is a video game, and Abu Ahmad, the preacher who knows the Koran by heart and never stops trying to convert me. All are hardened veterans of the battles for Homs, Qusair and Hama.
None is over 25, though they all have close-cropped hair and thick black beards. They’re nice kids, not the slavering, intolerant extremists that I had been led to expect. Of course they take offence at alcohol and drugs, discos and sex. Intercourse? Wives only, Abu Ahmad says. Since they are all unmarried, they move through life inviolate and frustrated. Which might explain why they stroke and caress their assault rifles like lovers.
Media reports about Syria often call its armed opposition “the rebels” but there is no single movement one could call “the rebels.” The rebellion is made up of heterogeneous groups with conflicting goals and hefty internal disagreements. Its fighters include anti-Islamists, university students, attorneys, physicians, deserters from the Syrian army and farm boys. Jihadis directly or indirectly inspired by al-Qaeda are increasingly taking the helm in Syria’s civil war, evident in movements like the Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They all have one thing in common: they want to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. As for how to go about it and what comes next, there is less unanimity. Free elections and an Islamic democracy based on the Turkish model? An Islamist califate with the Koran as constitution and Sharia law? It could go either way.
I found my way here using back roads to the Lebanese-Syrian border where I liaisoned with contacts who smuggled me into Syria illegally. My goal was the suburbs of Damascus, the war’s center of gravity, where the rebels have dug in and are locked in embittered trench warfare against the Syrian army. When I arrived, the army was in the process of tightening the noose, bombarding rebel strongholds nonstop with artillery and air raids. Mobile checkpoints blocked every road. For days the rebels have been cut off from all possibility of retreat, reinforcements or supplies.
A unit of Islamist rebels agreed to take care of me and bring me to Damascus, “inshallah”—God willing. I envision rabid maniacs waving kalashnikovs. But OK, Islamists. Why not.
“Are you a Muslim?” one of the Muhammads asks me at our first meeting with a fixed stare. For a Muslim believer only one thing is worse than serving God in the wrong way: not believing in Him at all. Unfortunately I happen to be an atheist. I shake my head. “Christian?” I shake my head again. Muhammad broods, fiddles with his beard, his eyes narrow to slits, and he draws very close, until I can feel his breath on my face. “Are you a Jew?”
My Adam’s apple quivers and I manage to croak: “No religion. No God.”
Suddenly everyone’s eyes go wide. “Al-hamdu li-lah!” they cry, lurching straight into a loud argument that sounds to me as though they aren’t quite sure which form of the death penalty applies in my case. I step towards the doorway and smoke a cigarette to calm my nerves.
At some point Amir joins me, silently blowing smoke rings into the night sky. My hands are shaking a bit. The discussion in the room behind me grows louder and louder. Finally Amir, seeing my worried look, translates. “They’re arguing about whether you would prefer lamb or chicken.”
I ask Amir when he’ll take me to Damascus, “Bukara, inshallah,” he replies. Tomorrow, God willing. But he said that yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that. The roads and cart tracks used by the rebels to get to Damascus are still controlled by the military. Skirmishes are taking place everywhere. Bombing raids, checkpoints. Heading toward Damascus now would be suicide. “I’ll be happy to take you to Damascus any time, no problem,” Amir offers. “But we will die together.”
For now I’m trapped with five strange men in a tiny space, watching them pray and pet their guns. There is no warm water and electricity for maybe two hours a day. It’s not really an issue, my Islamist buddies take great care of me, they cook hot meals twice a day and let me borrow their beloved guns for target practice. We shoot holes in pictures of Bashar al-Assad. In the hours that remain, the preacher Abu Ahmad and one of the Muhammads attempt to convert me to Islam. Still, time ticks on.
A group of fighters come by for a shared prayer service. Another delivers a shipment of smuggled guns and ammunition from Lebanon. On one occasion, a man appears with a donkey cart carrying an enormous satellite dish which with great ceremony is installed on the farmhouse roof. Of course it’s a nice amenity—the internet works now—but on the other hand, the parabolic antenna, glittering in the sun, seems an irresistible lure for passing Syrian jets and helicopters. That doesn’t seem to bother Amir, the Muhammads or Abu Ahmad; Facebook and Skype are welcome diversions in a life of prayer and weapon-stroking. One day a truck drives up loaded with medical equipment—Horsh Arab has repeatedly been subject to army attacks, but it has no hospital to care for the wounded. And every so often Mo drops by: a Syrian-American from the Bronx who joined the revolution. Mo has a plan for victory which revolves around an ingenious physical fitness program designed exclusively for rebels. Every day right around suppertime, we get a visit from Abdul, a police officer in the service of the Syrian government, who supplies the rebels with intelligence.
Strangely, each visitor harbors a deep-seated, urgent need to share his eerie fascination with Adolf Hitler the moment he finds out I’m German. “Adolf Hitler, strong man. Adolf Hitler, very good man. Ah, Germany! Adolf Hitler. Do you like Adolf Hitler?”
I try to dissuade them. No, no. Hitler was a bad man. Very bad. Unfortunately I speak no Arabic, and the debate soon falters. Comparing Hitler with Bashar al-Assad seems to provoke the desired effect, but it never lasts long. "Hitler not good?" they ask, a look of disappointment on their faces.
One night as Amir and I are standing outside smoking under the stars, a fireball roars through the sky over our heads. “Scud,” Amir says. For several weeks now, the regime has been trying to break the will of the rebels by deploying Scud missiles. Standing upright, they are as tall as townhouses. A single Scud can destroy an entire neighborhood and the launch ramps for the rockets are sited only a few miles from our hideout. Every day they race toward the rebel-liberated regions of the north: Aleppo, Azaz, Marea, Deir Ezzor, Idlib. Hundreds have died in the attacks.
In the evenings when the electricity blacks out, we sit wrapped in blankets around the glowing stove, drinking sweetened tea, and debating the future of Syria. Here, as well, I hear a question that is put to me whenever I travel to Syria: How come no one is helping us? Why does the world stand by and watch the killing? It's not until I leave—with the introduction of chemical weapons, and the farrago with the UN starts—that the West will finally threaten military intervention. Even Abu Ahmad, the preacher, puts down his Koran and takes part in the discussion.
Perhaps, I say, it has to do with the negative image the rebels have been acquiring since the fanatics began seeping into the country. Non-Syrians fighting for an inflexible world without grey areas, a world strictly divided between “halal” and “haram," permitted and forbidden, friend and foe, paradise and hell. Radical Islamists and Salafists who arrive from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Qatar to further their own holy wars. Many of them have united as the al-Nusra Front, a subsidiary of the Iraqi arm of al-Qaeda. “Nusra” actually means rescue and support. But the Nusra fighters feel nothing but contempt for those whose Koran interpretations differ from their own.
The reality looks grim. Syria has long since become a pawn in a game being played between more powerful entities: a proxy war between Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Europe, the US, Qatar, and Turkey on the other. The power vacuum has been filled by radicals whose luggage contains bread and money as well as weapons. Their status is rapidly eclipsing that of the money-strapped, poorly equipped FSA. The flags flying over Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa today are no longer those of the secularist rebel army but the black flag of the Islamists, with its profession of faith.
In the liberated zones of the north, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have taken responsibility for supplying the populace with the necessities of life, distributing food, medicines, blankets, heating oil—and of course their worldview, which the people there must accept whether they want it or not. In early June in Aleppo, foreign extremists murdered a 15-year-old boy. His crime was insulting the prophet. The sentence was carried out immediately, with multiple gunshots to the head. In the middle of the street, in full view of his parents. Who are the good guys in this war and who are the bad guys? President Assad gets help from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the extremists from Qatar and Islamic charities. The only rebels who get no help from anyone, and who are now trapped between the front lines, are the ones who started the revolution more than two years ago: the pro-democracy movement that sought equality and human rights.
“Yes, we are Islamists, because we believe in Islam. But we reject the Islam of the extremists! Those are crazy people,” Abu Ahmad says. After a moment he adds, “Of course they’re the only people who are helping us.” There is nodding on all sides.
“I want a Syria in which everyone lives together in peace,” Amir says. “Sunnis, Shiites, Alavites, Kurds, Druze, Christians. And we don’t want to trade Assad for a new dictator. That’s not why we started the revolution.”
All three Muhammads add, “Allahu akbar!”
Still, while God is great, soccer is sometimes greater. One afternoon Amir comes into the room looking very excited, wearing a Barcelona jersey. Even one of the Muhammads has traded his long jalabiya for a Madrid shirt. It is Tuesday, Champions League, return match of the quarterfinals. “Do you like soccer?” Amir asks. I nod. “Great!” he cries, clapping his hands. “Real Madrid or Barcelona?”
“Bayern Munich,” I say, “and sometimes Dortmund.”
Amir looks disappointed. “Well, then I guess today we’ll watch Dortmund and tomorrow Bayern. You are our guest.”
Thanks to me, Amir must persuade the owner of the TV to show Dortmund instead of Madrid, and he must find a way to decrypt a premium channel’s signal. We also need a generator, which we find in a neighboring village but can only access via back roads, to get around an army checkpoint. “Mafi mushkillah,” a Muhammad says: No problem. No problem. The rest chorus “Allahu akbar,” and then five men in soccer jerseys pack into the car, carrying their Korans and AK-47s. When I show up with my bulletproof vest, all five are convulsed with thigh-slapping laughter and point to the sky. That means Allah will protect me. Then we speed away, headlights off, into the night.
Twenty minutes later we are sitting in the living room of a friend and rebel commander. The room is packed with chain-smoking Malaga fans. On the wall hangs the flag of the revolution: green, white and black with three stars. In place of beer, there is tea, and Olé Olé is replaced by the singsong of prayer. A few wounded fighters lie on mattresses. One raises his shirt to show with pride a wound inflicted by a sharpshooter. The bullet went straight through him. Halftime is an opportunity to pray. Goals are celebrated with cries of “Allahu akbar!”
The view of a government checkpoint from the mountain top, just before the helicopter turned up.
The next morning Amir takes me along to the mountaintop, and this is when the helicopter looms into view above us like an angry hornet.
I stand as still as a solitary grave on the mountain peak, my head craned back. Air raids and artillery fire are constant threats in Syria. This pilot seems to be flying a reconnaissance mission. He comes lower, watching us. We are slow-moving targets and there is nothing anywhere on this mountain that we could hide under. That doesn’t seem to bother Amir and Muhammad. They hop in circles, praising Allah and aiming their rifles at the helicopter. As it slowly flies away, they yell after it that Assad is a donkey.
“Cut the crap!” I say, deeply annoyed, putting on my bulletproof vest.
“You scared, Sahafi?” Amir asks.
“Shit, yes!” I say.
“You don’t need to be. Either God will protect you, or we will enter paradise together as martyrs.”
I remind him that I am not a Muslim, that I want to see the next quarterfinal match, and that my version of paradise is right here on earth.
Amir acknowledges my right to my own opinion, and we drive back to Horsh Arab. He wants to visit a family he is friends with, and while we sit in the front yard drinking coffee, the first shell hits. It cuts through the air with a whistling sound, landing very close. Then another one, and then another. Panicked, I spill coffee on my trousers. Wide-eyed women flee their homes, dragging crying children to shelter in vaulted cellars or the mosque. Amir’s readiness to be catapulted straight into heaven fades with every successive explosion. “Allah!” he cries out as we rush into a barbershop on the other side of the street. I squeeze into its tiny toilette with three other men while the world outside appears to be ending.
The explosions draw closer, the intervals ever shorter. A mortar round hits the house next door, and shards of rock and a cloud of dust surge through the open door. We cough, grasping each other for balance, wincing toward each other at each detonation. Whistle. Boom. Whistle. Boom. Five, six, seven mortar bombs, maybe 50 feet away. The barbershop’s walls tremble, and so do my knees. Strange thoughts rush through my head: Should I stay or should I go? Does lightning never strike twice? Is this the safest place to be, where the last projectile landed, or do they come in waves? Absurd pseudo-rational deliberations, saturated with fear that I will not live to see another day.
Suddenly, it is quiet. Amir’s hand comes seemingly out of nowhere, grabs my arm, and pulls me out of the bathroom and into the car. Time to get out. We speed out of the city, hearing behind us the renewed shelling of Horsh Arab by the Syrian army. We seek cover in a shed in the fields outside town. The attack lasts an hour. Miraculously, no one is hurt or killed. “Al-hamdu li-lah,” Amir says, sending a prayer skyward.
That night, Bayern slaughters Barcelona. After the broadcast, Amir zaps over to the news from Syrian state TV. Gruesome images of mutilated and dead people, mostly young men. Many have their hands tied behind their backs. Ruined houses. Jubilant soldiers. A voice-over explains that today the glorious Syrian forces killed many terrorists today in Horsh Arab. Then the generator runs out of fuel.
Two days later, I give up on trying to get to Damascus. There are rumors that Hezbollah is sending fighters into the war from Lebanon. There is talk of roadblocks. If I wait any longer, my escape route could be blocked off. I get out.
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Read more about Syria:
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