With just one hour to go before daybreak, the city emerges from between the mountain slopes. The sentry gives a hand signal and the rebels' couriers suddenly freeze. All that can be heard is the sound of exhausted breathing and a pebble rolling down the hill. The first man in the group surveys the landscape with night-vision goggles and speaks quietly into his radio set. "Everything quiet?" The answer crackles back that yes, everything's quiet, none of the enemy guards has stirred from their position. The army of dictator Bashar Assad can listen in on their radio communications, but they can't locate the devices. Another hand signal and the rebels gradually continue their descent into the valley, toward Zabadani.
Nestled between fruit orchards along a river, the city was once the summer getaway of Damascus residents who fled here on weekends to escape the brutal heat of the capital. Restaurants catering to day-trippers lined up alongside holiday apartments. The king of Saudi Arabia owns an estate on the city's outskirts. "We didn't take to the streets out of poverty," the bookkeeper of the underground city council says later of the uprising's beginning two years ago. The demonstrations were followed by gunfire, attacks perpetrated by the army, house-to-house combat, ceasefires and renewed fighting.
Today Zabadani is a large, almost completely black smudge in the night, framed by the lights of the military outposts on the mountain crests. The city has been completely surrounded for nearly 14 months, shot at by tanks from the 4th and 18th Divisions. It's reachable only on moonless nights after long marches through the mountains.
Zabadani is a singular arena in this war, with strange fronts and grotesque alliances. Yet the fight for control of the city in the valley shows how people are adapting to the horror of this seemingly endless war. It also shows how far both sides are from giving up.
'Light Isn't Good'
Cherry trees are blossoming in white, and the night wind blows their fragrance toward us. Suddenly, two shots from a military post ring out through the night. There's still no need for concern, the leader of the group says. "Sometimes the soldiers shoot just to let us know they're awake -- so no one attacks them."
A shadow appears amid the darkness of the first rows of houses, and murmured morning greetings are audible. The journey continues in a car with no windshield and no lights, a frighteningly speedy drive through complete darkness into the city of ruins. "Light isn't good," the driver says as he veers into black. It makes you bait for snipers, he says. "Ankar" introduces himself. He's a lawyer, but at the moment what's far more important is that he can see surprisingly well in the dark. We're heading for an alley between tall houses. A shimmer of light appears from a basement apartment.
In the morning, the men in the basement are awoken by the sounds of shell fire from the surrounding area. At first the city appears to be empty, with only cats crossing the streets. But then the occasional person scurries past outside, and a few shops even open up, albeit with a sparse range of goods. Three rebels lean against the wall of a house.
The city is being demolished floor by floor. The army shells Zabadani with a certain regularity, in the morning and in the late afternoon for one to two hours. A few people die every week.
Yet over time the city has developed a tough and sophisticated independent existence. More than a year ago, 50 representatives from the big Zabadani families met to elect a 15-person city council. It now organizes food deliveries, the underground hospital, law enforcement, courts and even the nighttime disposal of rubble. Only when the streets are clear can you drive through them in the dark.
'We Have Files for Everything'
The council has a budget and a Facebook profile where it registers the money, most of which comes from Syrians in exile. The profile also reports what it does with the money, which has to be carried in cash over the mountains. There's a basement prison where two soldiers and two burglars are sitting, and even an evidence room for the courts. In its door hangs a standard 21-by-30 centimeter paper listing everything that is required and prohibited: No member of the court may physically or verbally abuse people, and no one can make decisions without authorization.
The prison warden and the chairman of the justice committee, the first a farmer and the second an attorney, describe a new system of law under absurd circumstances. "We have files for every proceeding," says the attorney. "We inventory the stolen goods so that the owners can claim them. We investigated two cases of homicide." The murder cases occurred when two groups of rebels mistook each other for government troops and fired at each other.
"And we're planning to get uniforms for the police," the attorney continues, "and photo IDs!" It's preliminary, he concedes, adding that right now they are happy simply to survive until the next day. "That's exactly why we need institutions and rules, not just people. If one of us dies, the next one has to be able to take over without everything collapsing."
A few piles of rubble further, the council's bookkeeper sits at a computer in his basement quarters. He opens Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, pulls files with receipts from the shelves and explains his system, which takes care of more than 20,000 people with small donations. He's responsible for the most important task of the council: the financial administration and the humanitarian aid for residents and refugees in nearby villages. Around 150 middlemen were elected by their families and clans to safeguard distribution. Every family gets 3,000 lira, about 20, every one to two months. "It's not much, but they should know that we're there."