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.
In peacetime, 40,000 people lived in Zabadani, Muslims and Christians. Only 3,000 remain -- out of defiance, fear or because they're defending the city. Anyone left stays in the basements or on the ground floors. All buildings are abandoned above the first floor. Land was expensive in the valley, so property developed upward. And the fact that many buildings are five stories high has become a life-saving circumstance. "A direct hit from a tank shell destroys about one floor," says one of the rebels, who as a construction engineer is familiar with such calculations. "Since they almost always attack from above, we just hide out underground for a while."
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."
Local Councils Become Syria's Third Power
Everywhere in Syria where the government has lost control, these kinds of councils have been emerging over the past year. Their strength of working locally is also their weakness, though. They are splitting the country up into hundreds of autonomous zones. But between the fighting rebels and the desolate opposition in exile, they're growing to be the third power in the equation. More than a hundred delegates from all over Syria came to a conference in Ankara last December, planning to organize themselves across the country. They receive support from the US State Department.
Yet theirs is a battle against time. There are four floors to Zabadani's underground hospital, located in a former furniture warehouse. The top two levels have already been reduced to rubble, and a few days ago a shell penetrated the next level down. Two floors are all that separate the doctors and patients in their sick bay from destruction. "We have to move again soon," says dentist Mohammed Chair Charita. "But where to? We've already moved three times."
In the operating room, a surgeon and a nurse attend to a man who can only whisper that he was lucky. Twenty-two days ago, he was pulled from his taxi at a military checkpoint near the neighboring city of Bludan and interrogated by security officers. Why did he work for the terrorists? Was he conspiring with Israel and al-Qaida? "Absurd," he murmurs. "If I was wanted by the regime, I'd never have come to their checkpoint."
Assad's henchmen tortured him for days with electrical shocks until they bound him up and threw him out on the street. Farmers took him in and brought him to Zabadani last night. The electrodes left pitch-black, dead tissue on his toes and the backs of his hands.
There are seven doctors, including a neurosurgeon. Anyone who is too gravely injured to be treated here has to be carried on foot across the border into Lebanon. "Many don't survive," says the surgeon as he takes his lunch break in a neighboring cellar.
Others join the conversation, talking about their urgent needs. The debate ends with the apathy of the West and the recent oath of allegiance the radical group al-Nusra swore to al-Qaida. "Crazy," a young anesthesiologist says. "We are completely against that kind of madness. But they fight against Assad -- and they die. The United States has declared them terrorists, but…." He walks to the next room and comes back with a first-aid backpack for combat missions. "This here is all of America's aid to Zabadani. A backpack. It arrived three days ago. What right does America have to judge?"
Ceasefire with State Security
They can't win the war against the tanks, confesses Abu Adnan, commander of the Hamsa battalion, Zabadani's largest rebel group. "We're down here. They are above." Nonetheless, they have won themselves a few life-saving seconds of time. At every position where army tanks are stationed, rebel scouts hide among the trees and bushes. At the most important positions, the rebels have installed cameras that transmit to an underground control room in Zabadani. All it takes is the sound of the tank's motor starting up for an alarm to sound: "Kassif! Kassif! Kassif!" Grenades! The shrill warning cry from the radio drives everyone to the nearest doorway within seconds.
A tank has blasted away half of the tower of the orthodox St. Mark's Church. The roof of a mosque more than a thousand years old collapsed after several shellings. The Catholic church, the convent, the train station and the cultural center have also been laid to waste. At the cemetery, men were up half the night collecting skulls and bones from the street to order to bury them back in a pit between the graves. Only one building in the middle of the city remains untouched by the shelling: the regime's General State Security center, where 20 men are holding out under the command of one Colonel Assam. State security is actually part of the system of government-sanctioned terror in Syria. But in Zabadani, Colonel Assam and his troops stay clear of battle. They didn't imprison or kill demonstrators, nor did they defect. They simply held their ground.
"They do nothing to us, we do nothing to them," as rebel commander Abu Adnan describes the arrangement. Officially, of course, he would rather see them defect to their side. But, he says, "as long as they're here, the regime doesn't shut off the power or shoot scud missiles or poison gas at us." The location of Zabadani's telecommunications office in a basement directly next to the state security center allows them, for the time being, to maintain its phone line.
The rebels have posted guards in front of the building so no one tries to get to Colonel Assam's men. In pairs and unarmed -- as per the deal they made with the city council -- they are permitted to shop in the morning for groceries at the remaining shops. And the colonel can relay to Damascus that he has everything under control as usual.
Neither Side Wants Complete War
This continuation of war by other means sounds more unusual than it really is. In some places there are even ceasefires. The army is so thinned out that it can send troops only if they're withdrawn from somewhere else. The city council in Zabadani has also been using intermediaries to negotiate a ceasefire with the commander of the 4th Division. The fruit trees are blossoming and the beekeepers have to bring their bee colonies outside without being shot at.
But something else is crucial -- both sides need the mountain passes. Near Zabadani in the village of Ain Hur run the paths and tunnels used by Hezbollah, which is allied with Assad's regime. Through these channels, they transport missiles and other weapons from their depots in Damascus to Lebanon and send convoys of fighters back to Syria. Further south runs the highway that connects Damascus and Beirut, the regime's last secure route out of the country. If the rebels were to attack here, the entire territory would become a war zone.
No one is interested in that. After all, the trapped residents of Zabadani need their paths to transport medicine, weapons and food through the snow-capped mountains to the beleaguered city. None of Zabadani's courier squads set off alone. Each is followed by at least one man on rearguard to make sure they are not being followed by soldiers.
On one of these nights, the departure of a rebel group is suddenly called off when they learn the army has planned an ambush. The rebel scouts saw the soldiers hiding. Both sides are simultaneously hunters and prey. Over the radio rebels warn incoming couriers to hide for a while between the rocks. They wait for hours until the soldiers retreat and the incoming group of rebels can continue. They arrive in the city just in time, before day breaks again in Zabadani.