Inside the Idlib Province: Losing Hope In Syria's Devastated Countryside

The world is still hoping that the efforts of United Nations envoy Kofi Annan will succeed in Syria, but regime forces have inflicted such brutal destruction in the country's northwest Idlib province that no one there believes peace is possible anymore. A SPIEGEL journalist reports from the embattled countryside.

The fresh, shimmering leaves of olive trees stretch to the horizon. Thyme grows wild here, but the air is filled with the stench of decay. "They even shot the cows," the farmer says. Their corpses, crawling with maggots, now lie outside the village. "They shot at everything: people, animals, houses," he says. "They even flattened the potato fields with their tank treads."

For months, it had remained quiet in the village of Bashiriya, located high up in Syria's Tuscany-like northwest, with its endless groves of olive and fruit trees. The village was proud of the fact that the Al-Jazeera news channel had mentioned the demonstrations that had taken place there. A few soldiers who had defected to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had returned to protect their native village with Kalashnikovs. For a while, they even believed that it was possible.

But when the helicopters appeared over the top of the hill shortly after 9 a.m. on April 9, they too could do nothing but flee. A volley of rockets incinerated the first houses, while the gunners pursued the fleeing villagers with their machine guns and shot those who didn't manage to take shelter under the trees. They even mowed down a herd of sheep.

The tanks arrived minutes later, already firing indiscriminately into the village from hundreds of meters away. Then came the soldiers, who went from house to house, first looting and then burning down more than 100 houses. "They came in and dragged us outside," recalls Adiba Yusif, who is about 70. "Then they poured something inside and lit it on fire." She is the only member of her family of 10 who hasn't fled. "I don't want to die someplace else," she says. All she has left is one room, which contains a mattress, blankets, dishes and a jar of olives people from a nearby village brought to her. When the army moved into the village once before, in November, it only attacked the houses of defectors' families. But now its attacks are much more indiscriminate. "What did they want from us? We never had anything to do with politics!" says Yusif.

They had threatened to set the entire country on fire, says a neighbor. He serves water in a glass that was deformed by the heat. "And they're really doing it," he adds, noting that the soldiers had shouted that this was only the beginning. "Wait until we come back," they allegedly said. "There is no god but Bashar Assad!"

No Longer Controlled By Regime

They stayed for one-and-a-half days, and after burning down the houses, they incinerated the farmers' delivery vans and motorcycles, the dovecotes and the shops. They also shot holes into the water tanks on the roofs of houses, and when they pulled out, they left behind their calling card, written in meter-high letters on the wall of a house: "Liwa al-Maut" -- the Brigade of Death. It was the name the 76th brigade of the Syrian armed forces had given itself, written in huge letters as if the sheer size of the writing could also intimidate residents.

Twenty-eight masonry stones with the names of the dead inscribed on them surround a fresh mound of earth outside the village. "We only buried the bodies we could recover," a man who lives next to the cemetery, and hid during the attack with his family in an ancient underground burial vault, says apologetically.

It's been quiet in Bashiriya since the attack. Half of the 7,000 residents have fled, and the rest are making do in the peculiar state of limbo of a country whose own regime has declared war on its people. In some ways, it's a war that the regime has already lost. A trip through the villages in northwest Idlib Province leads through a world in which the inhabitants are being kept in check but are no longer under the government's control.

The regime controls the cities, and the world's attention is focused on what is happening there. The peace plan devised by United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to withdraw his troops from Homs, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus, which the regime has not done yet. There are daily reports of skirmishes and murderous attacks. Apparently it will take a few more weeks until all 300 of the observers the UN plans to deploy have taken up their posts in Syria. But what can 300 people do in the embattled cities? What can they achieve in the countryside, and to which of the thousands of Syrian villages should they travel first?

The fear of the once omnipresent government informants has disappeared in the villages, where everyone now speaks his mind and the drivers for the FSA write "Free Army" on their dusty rear windows. Guards keep watch at access points to the villages, and scouts are positioned on the hilltops. The FSA is a strange bunch. In the countryside, about two-thirds of the rebel army consists of defectors who have returned to their native villages. Outsiders from Damascus or Aleppo are a rarity, and there is no evidence of the presence of foreign jihadists. When it comes to heavy weapons, each village has no more than a few machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and there is no command structure extending beyond the range of a radio. Nevertheless, this seemingly anarchic force has not disintegrated into competing militias. The rebels are united in their resistance to a regime that only stirs up more hatred where it aims to achieve subjugation.

Ordinary Life Goes On

Village councils everywhere are hard at work attending to electricity needs, maintaining the water supply and upholding the rule of law. Committees organize supplies of gasoline and food, as well as transporting the injured to nearby Turkey. The mobile telephone network that was cut off in most areas here months ago has been replaced by radios and satellite phones smuggled in across the border, in addition to carrier pigeons. The regular telephone network still works, but hardly anyone has a land line. Although the humanitarian corridor along the Turkish border that has been proposed repeatedly doesn't exist, there is at least a telephone corridor, with the Turkish mobile wireless networks extending up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) into Syria.

But the troops can return at any time. Many of those who were kidnapped are still gone, and unidentified corpses are constantly being found in dry creek beds and fields. On the outskirts of the village of Sarmin, only 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) from a government troop position, farmers found the bodies of eight men and one woman in an old cistern. They were bound and had been shot in the head. The farmers had hardly recovered the bodies before a helicopter turned up, and they fled. Bulldozers leveled the area the next day, and the fields are now littered with facemasks. There is no longer any trace of the bodies.

Long, freshly dug trenches constantly appear along the paths. Empty tombstone slabs are stacked next to the trenches -- in preparation for the dead the next attack will bring.

Nevertheless, life goes on in a surprisingly ordinary way. The world of the village population has shrunk to its closest surroundings, and residents even have to ask people what things are like behind the next hill. Still, farmers are cultivating their fields, even as they drive their tractors past the charred remains of cars. Old men sit in the shade of grape vines drinking sugary tea, while residents scrub burned-out stone houses and apply new coats of whitewash.

Their lives will continue in this fashion, at least until the "Brigade of Death" returns. Like members of some medieval campaign of devastation, but one equipped with modern weapons, the soldiers move through the province, attacking one town after the next, only to pull out two days later. They attacked Sarmin and Taftanas in the east at the end of March, Deir Sunbul in the south in early April, and Kastan and Ain Sauda in the west in mid-April. The attacks always unfold in much the same way, starting with helicopters, followed by tanks and, finally, soldiers setting fire to buildings. Sometimes the soldiers also take prisoners, but sometimes they simply kill people.

'An Iceberg That is Slowly Melting'

The deadly brigade attacked the village of Kurin south of the provincial capital in late February. In the morning hours, tanks fired on a school from which panic-stricken children had managed to escape only moments earlier. It took a long time before the parents felt comfortable enough to allow their children to return to the school. At the end of April, about 200 of the previous school body of "exactly 302" students returned to the half-destroyed building, presided over by Principal Mohammed Adjini.

What was intended to be a visit with a courageous principal comes at a completely inopportune moment for Adjini. He is sitting in his office with a stack of requisition forms, arguing with someone on the phone. "Who will approve it now?" he asks. He is caught in a confusing set of circumstances, because the very same government that ordered the attack on the school still pays the teachers' salaries and is now supposed to approve his requests for new schoolbooks and chalk. Adjini feels uncomfortable with the situation. Just as if it were the nail holding up the portrait of Assad on the wall behind him, the regime is still wedged inside the head of the fearfully smiling director, who doesn't want to be photographed and soon stops talking altogether.

This, in turn, is awkward for his cousin Aziz Adjini, a former English lecturer at the University of Idlib, one of the most respected figures in the village. Aziz, a chain-smoking cynic who, despite having been arrested twice, managed to escape and return to his village because many of the sons and daughters of the intelligence officers were his students, has collected the villagers' accounts of the day of the attack. "The soldiers were supposed to set an example. One group slit a man's throat, and then they tied another man to a car, then they burned down everything they couldn't loot," he says. "But then others came to the houses, apologized and acted as if they didn't see the Kalashnikovs hidden behind cushions. And two of them left this behind," he says, unfolding a page torn out of a notebook on which all the names and ranks of the officers in the Brigade of Death are carefully noted. "Assad's army is like an iceberg that is slowly melting," says Adjini.

He doesn't understand why the world is looking on without doing anything. "By taking this approach, they are merely encouraging something they fear just as much as we do," namely that a civil war will follow Assad's overthrow. The regime, he says, still seeks to justify its actions by claiming that bad elements within the population must be fought, and that the rest of the people are still its loyal subjects. This, according to Adjini, is why government forces are firing on schools and paying the teachers at the same time -- or attacking his village while still subsidizing the flour for the villagers' daily bread.

Watching and Waiting

Everyone says that no one wants civil war. But how can civil war be prevented if the officers and regime thugs are almost all Alawites, while their victims are all Sunnis and the undertow of revenge grows stronger with each new wave of murders? "If someone has lost a son he can still be stopped," says a pharmacist in the village of Martin. "If he has lost two, it becomes very difficult, and it's impossible if he's lost three. I read what Mahatma Gandhi managed to do in India. I admire that. But what would have happened to him here? He would have been lying dead in a field within a week."

On one of our trips along dusty paths, an FSA fighter sitting in the back seat bellows: "And once the regime is overthrown, the Alawites will all be killed!" The driver turns around immediately and says: "Don't listen to him! We don't want that!" He snaps at the fighter: "What about the Alawites, our neighbors, who haven't done anything to us? Do you want to kill them all?" The man falls silent.

No one knows what will happen, but few still believe in the success of Kofi Annan's peace plan. Nevertheless, the FSA has promised to abide by the cease-fire the plan calls for. There are RPGs and a machine gun stacked in Aziz Adjini's living room. "I rounded them up as a precaution, just in case some hothead has crazy ideas," he says. Meanwhile, the scouts are observing how Assad's army isn't moving its tanks back to the barracks, but instead is hiding them from the expected UN observers in olive groves and quarries, or between the buildings of the Idlib farming administration.

The last days of April were the quietest days in months. The Brigade of Death hasn't returned, and yet it feels like the calm before the storm for the villagers. With their limited weapons, they wait in their half-destroyed villages for help from abroad, help that will not arrive -- and hope for an end to the violence that they no longer believe will materialize.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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