Between Syria's Fronts A Two-Year Travelogue from Hell

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Part 2: Abandonded by the World


A few days later, we made our first attempt to reach Homs. We bought our tickets at the bus terminal, but they had to be stamped at a counter staffed by employees of the intelligence apparatus before we were allowed to board the bus.

"To Homs?" The woman at the counter stared at us silently for a long moment before writing "Aleppo" on our tickets. Aleppo, firmly in government hands, was still above suspicion at the time. If Aleppo were stamped on our tickets, no one would ask questions, and the long-distance bus to Aleppo stopped in Homs. It was a small gesture of subversion.

Homs, a dull industrial city in central Syria, would mark the turning point. In August 2011, we joined demonstrators who knew that security forces could open fire on them at any time.

There were still protests in the winter of 2011, but only in places out of range of the regime's snipers. The manhunt began in the afternoon, when they would shoot at anyone who tried to reach the other side. That winter, for the first time, we heard the question that consisted of only one word and affected everyone. It was shouted at us by a veiled woman on the street: "Ouen?" or "Where?"

Where, the Syrians wanted to know, were the Americans, the Europeans, their Arab brothers, the rest of the world? Why was everyone just watching?

After a funeral at a village cemetery, an old man stood in the winter wind as he laconically -- and accurately -- predicted what was going to happen. "It won't stop," he said. "Bashar will kill as many people as the world allows."

I wonder what happened to the old man. The neighborhoods we visited in the winter of 2011 are now in ruins, and the army has sealed off Homs. Those with whom we walked across the wintry fields, squeezing into entranceways and ducking to avoid snipers, are gone. There is a farewell photo, taken in Homs in January 2012, of SPIEGEL photographer Marcel Mittensiefen and three members of the local "media committee" who helped us. All three are dead.

Change Comes Slowly in the Villages

Omar Astalavista was the pseudonym used by the engineering student who accompanied us in the Homs neighborhood of Khalidiya in August, December and February. He established contacts and made sure we had food and places to sleep. Every few days, he would go back to the other side, the official side, to finish his final exams at the university. "It's crazy, I know, but I'm not going to let them destroy my degree," he said.

When he said goodbye to Marcel at dawn on Feb. 4, he told him: "I hope I can give you my real name next time." He was dead a few hours later. He was trying to film the recovery of victims from a mortar attack when another mortar struck. His real name was Mazhar Tayyara.

Abu Yassir and Abu Mohammed, the other two men in the photo, fled from Homs a few weeks later, with plans to go underground in Damascus. They were shot to death there during a raid in March.

Father Frans, the inscrutable Jesuit who, in the previous summer, had avoided aligning himself with either side, stayed in the monastery in the old section of Homs. About 50 Christian and Muslim families, who either couldn't or wouldn't flee, reportedly took refuge in the monastery.

The key shift in the Syrian balance of power didn't take place in the cities, but in thousands of villages in the countryside. Assad's army was massive and mobile. But it couldn't be everywhere. People weren't as afraid in the villages as they were in the cities because everyone knew everyone else. Slowly but steadily, people in the villages began to change sides.

Assad's troops couldn't prevent every village from joining the rebels. But, in early 2012, it could still punish every village for doing so. When we drove through Idlib in April, we followed in the tracks of the 76th Armored Brigade.

Fighting Fear with Laughter

The brigade barreled through the countryside like a medieval army with modern weaponry, attacking village after village with helicopters and tanks. Soldiers and hired militias looted the houses and then burned them down. People were tortured and shot to death, as were cattle, sheep and even pigeons. After a few hours, or sometimes as much as a day and a half, the marauding troops would disappear again, but not without leaving their calling card behind on building walls: "Liwa al-Maut," or "Brigade of Death," the name they had given their outfit.

We followed their trail through eight villages, where we saw fresh mass graves, putrid piles of dead animals and schools and mosques with meter-wide holes where tank shells had struck. We gazed at the blackened ruins of buildings and saw the graffiti on the walls, with the same words appearing again and again: "Assad forever! Or we'll burn the country down!"

All the survivors could do was flee, and many did. But others stayed behind. "We're farmers," said Khalid Abdul Kadir from Bashiriya. "What else are we supposed to live on? The cherries and apricots will be ripe soon."

Wreckage can be cleared away and people can overcome their grief, but what can they do against fear?

"Sarcasm," said Aziz Adjini, who taught English at the University of Idlib before returning to his village, Kurin. Laughter helps against the horrors, he said, "because the most important thing is for us to conquer our eternal fear." With his moustache and habit of rolling his eyes, Adjini, who was in his mid-40s, resembled Groucho Marx. He came up with the slogans used at the Friday demonstrations in Kurin, such as: "Bashar wants residents to withdraw from their cities to protect the tanks that are there."

Adjini believed in the power of reason and refused to shoot. But his cousin, Mahmoud Adjini, was a lieutenant in an armored infantry division before defecting to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), for whom he trained a small village militia. "If we ever have tanks," he said, "I'll be able to handle them."

Another cousin, Mohammed Adjini, the local school director, was once an enthusiastic supporter of the regime. But when everything gets confusing, where does that support go? He decided to ignore the fact that one institution of the regime fired on his school with tanks while classes were in session, and that the only reason no one died was that students were able to escape just minutes before.

Afterwards Adjini was on the phone with another regime institution, the school authority, negotiating over which forms were needed to request new teaching supplies to replace those that had been incinerated in the attack.

Destruction over Surrender

Together, the three Adjini cousins formed an image of conditions in the north. For the moment, Aziz seemed to be right. In Bashiriya, a village that was especially hard hit, men sat in the shade of a damaged building and, like Aziz, cracked bitter jokes about regime propaganda. "Why did the army shoot the cows?" Answer: "Because they were paid by people abroad." The men smiled. Then another man said: "Look at the sheep, with their dishevelled wool. It's obvious that they're Islamists!" The men snickered. "It's obvious that the pigeons worked as couriers for the Mossad!" said a third man, referring to Israel's foreign intelligence service. And they laughed again, trying to overcome their fear.

It was the calm between the storms. Around the same time, on the morning of April 10, all of the residents of the town of Maraa, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the northeast, had fled from the approaching army. They had received advance warning that they had one night to wall in the minarets at the mosques to prevent snipers from taking up positions there, as they had done elsewhere. Then they fled into the olive groves or to nearby Turkey.

When they returned, Yassir al-Hajji, the owner of a café, discovered that his refrigerator had been blown open with hand grenades and that his desk was perforated with bullets from a machine gun. He had emigrated 30 years ago and had an American passport, had worked in Maraa as a football coach and, most recently, had owned an antique shop in Athens, but returned in early 2011 when the first protests began. His dream was to represent Maraa in parliament one day. "That was our chance, we thought. We knew it would be tough," he said. "But so what?" He also found the omnipresent words written by the regime troops, which he photographed before they were whitewashed: "Assad forever! Or we'll burn the country down!"

Even for a dictator, it's unusual to threaten subjects with destruction of the entire country. Not even former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or his Libyan counterpart, Moammar Gadhafi, did that. It reveals the strange relationship the Assads have with their country. When Bashar's father Hafez Assad sent his brother Rifaat to Saudi Arabia after the 1982 Hama massacre, the Saudi king refused to see him. Rifaat sent the king his regards, coupled with an ominous threat: "If we ever get threatened again, we will be willing not only to wipe out Hama but also Damascus."

Despite the determination with which the Assads have retained their grip on the country for the last four decades, they seem disconnected from those they govern. They have treated Syria like loot to be held onto, to be destroyed rather than surrendered. Nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to the power of Assad and his Alawite minority. On the contrary, before the senior Assad came into power in the wake of a military coup, the Alawites, about 10 percent of the population, were the poorest people in the country, only coming to Damascus as servants. But then Hafez Assad, after rising through the ranks of the military, finally came to power in another coup, in 1970. His son is now determined to hold on to that power at all costs -- or else, as his soldiers' slogan goes, "we will burn the country down!"

Searching for Bearings

A confused calm prevailed in the villages in the early summer of 2012, as tank brigades devastated the cities where residents had rebelled: Homs, Rastan, Deir el-Zour, the northern suburbs of Damascus.

Yassir al-Hajji was caught between entirely personal fronts. He was the civilian leader of the uprising in Maraa. Aleppo, the large city in northern Syria, was still completely in the hands of the regime. Hajji's 14-year-old daughter still had final examinations to complete at the high school there, and she was determined to do so.

Every morning for almost a week, we anxiously looked on as his daughter traveled to Aleppo on back roads, accompanied by an aunt who would wait outside the school so that she could warn the girl if intelligence agents came to the school to arrest her. But nothing happened. The fighting in Aleppo started six weeks later.

Outside the small towns, Syria in the summer of 2012 felt like being transported back to the Middle Ages. No one knew what the situation was like behind the next row of hills. Our perceptions instinctively changed with the paths that we took. We went from village to village on tiny roads and paths, or across dusty fields, through tributary valleys and olive groves. We avoided cities and major roads.

Every trip across the horizon became an expedition, one that we mapped out with pebbles in the sand and detailed maps we had drawn. Where were the army guards posted? From which hills did their snipers have a view of which areas? Was the wireless network working? If not, did anyone have radios? And, most importantly, who was going to drive in front?

Despite the planning, there was little about these trips that could in fact be planned. As a result, there was no better way to see what was happening in the country than to take these trips, during which we were often stranded, listening to life stories, explanations of why a soldier had changed sides or how a bus driver had become a fighter.

We accompanied the wounded, deserters and refugees, and we sometimes ended up in the middle of battlefield discussions and even FSA arms deals. In December, we accidentally ran into one of the biggest arms traffickers in Idlib, who openly named the source of his supplies. "The regime army," he said. "The officers sell us whatever we can pay for. They know things are coming to an end, and they want to make some money first. They don't care if we use the weapons to shoot at their own soldiers. The system was always corrupt."

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