Syrian Notebooks

Jonathan Littell

‘They’ve been calling me Al-Ghadab, “Fury”, from the beginning,’ the smuggler said, his big beard split by a mischievous smile, ‘But I laugh all the time!’ A stocky man wearing a black tracksuit and carrying two mobile phones, Fury stood in a freezing apartment in Tripoli. Two men were with him, both Lebanese, smugglers apparently. But he wasn’t a professional. ‘When it began,’ he told us later, ‘I was just about to get married. I had a choice: revolution or marriage.’ In July, when the first units of the Free Syrian Army were formed, he began to shuttle back and forth for them: transporting all sorts of things, the wounded, medical supplies and journalists like us. His family is well-off: ‘I don’t do it for the money.’

Morning. Rain was falling hard. One of the two Lebanese, at the wheel of a people carrier, was driving us – Fury, the photographer Mani, and myself – down the small streets of Mount Lebanon, avoiding the Lebanese army posts, out onto a large rocky plain. Syria was right in front of us. At a bend in the road, three boys were waiting for us on motorbikes. They weren’t professionals either, just local farmers, their hands red and calloused. They took us through muddy paths between houses and fields; we passed ragged children, a few beehives, some horses, until we reached a house where smiling farmers served us coffee. A radio call: the road was free, so we left for another house, further on in the village. At that instant, a text message from the Ministry of Tourism appeared on the mobile phone: ‘Welcome to Syria.’ We had passed through to the other side of the mirror.

Unlike other hamlets a little deeper in, this village had remained calm: ‘There aren’t any demonstrations here,’ our host explained. ‘We don’t want to attract the mukhabarats and risk disturbing the traffic.’ But the FSA wasn’t far off. Fury returned with a pick-up truck, packed us into the front, and we set out. Fields, orchards, little rutted roads; an officer from the FSA was travelling in another truck, then we got to a checkpoint, on a bridge, held by fighters who controlled the endless stream of traffic, smugglers coming from Lebanon, carrying everything people here lack. A flag floated over the checkpoint, black, white and green with three red stars: the flag of the Syrian revolution.

Fury’s mobile rang constantly; the FSA has observers everywhere, to warn him in case of troop movement or – the most dangerous of all – mobile checkpoints. The next day, a friend of Fury’s, a deserter from the Syrian army, would be killed at such a checkpoint, not far from here, machine-gunned as he was trying to run away. Fury kept a grenade next to the steering wheel; if he got caught, it wouldn’t be alive.

On the road, visible a few hundred metres ahead, stood one of the fixed checkpoints that surrounded the small town of al-Qusayr; Fury veered off onto a dirt track to avoid driving through wasteland where a few Bedouin families were camping. Then we were in the hamlet, where we navigated through alleys between two-storey buildings made of crumbling concrete, glum-looking in the rain. ‘The FSA will liberate Homs before Qusayr. The regime will never let go of Qusayr. If they lose Qusayr, they lose the whole border,’a civilian activist would tell me two weeks later in Homs. But the Syrian army seemed already to have lost control of the town. Aside from the checkpoints at the outskirts and the tanks that were more or less concealed because of the agreement with the Arab League, it only controlled the town hall and the hospital, in the centre of town.

I would pass the town hall many times, a large four-storey building in the Soviet style, its windows smashed, sandbags on its roof to protect sniper nests. Until recently, the snipers fired regularly into the streets, especially at night. After an assault the FSA managed to enter it and signed an agreement with the commander; his men have remained quiet since then. In fact, the FSA travelled freely throughout the town, sometimes in pick-up trucks armed with heavy machine guns, with the insignia of the al-Faruk katiba, the unit in charge of the zone, on their doors. Every night, when civilians gathered in the street to protest against the regime, dozens of armed FSA soldiers positioned themselves at the crossroads to protect them. ‘We rarely intervene,’ an officer I met the next day, with a dozen of his men in a farm outside the hamlet, explained. ‘The checkpoints stay in place, and they don’t bother us. We only attack when the regular army attempts an operation.’

The trip from Qusayr to Homs, about thirty kilometres, was made in the same way: by going from one house to another, from one vehicle to another, from one hand to another. A wide network of civilians helps the FSA and the revolution. At every stage, a car or a truck or a motorbike goes in front to check if the road is free. And when we moved, there were always people in front, around, behind us; mobiles were continually ringing in with the latest news. Everything happens as if a grid has been put in place to counter the police and security grid of the Ba’ath Party and the mukhabarats that has dominated the life of the country for decades, and in which the entire population, in one way or another, is caught. The counter grid, almost as effective, is made of civilian activists, notables, religious figures and, more and more, armed forces – the deserters who form the FSA. The counter grid resists the other one, circumvents it, and is even starting to absorb it in part. When you travel between the Lebanese border and Homs, it becomes visible. There has, of course, always been passive resistance to the regime’s grid, but now this second grid has completely broken away. As if Syrian society, since the spring, had split in two, and parallel societies were coexisting in the country, in mortal conflict.

What is especially striking is the political intelligence of ordinary Syrians involved in the revolt. Abu Abdo, one of our drivers, asked us, ‘So, have you seen the Salafi here, as Bashar says?’ ‘That depends,’ Mani replied. ‘What do you mean by “Salafi”?’ ‘Exactly. The word means two things. The Muslims of Syria follow the way of moderation, and to live correctly they have to follow the example of a pious ancestor. That is the original meaning of the word. The other, which implies the Takfiri, jihadist, terrorist movement, is a creation of the Americans and Israelis. That has nothing to do with us.’ Later on, during a long break at a farm, he would show himself to be very critical of the opposition parties: ‘Today, unlike Hama in 1982, it’s the people that’s rising up. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, the Salafi and the other political movements are running to catch up with it and climb up on its shoulders. But the Syrians in the street refuse the politicisation of the movement. They accept help from wherever it comes, but that help can’t have strings attached. The streets reacted to reaction to oppression and humiliation; they didn’t demand any particular political option. The Syrian people were raised as if in a hen house: you have the right to eat, sleep, lay eggs, and that’s it. There’s no room for thought. It’s the North Korea of the Middle East.’

The conversation continued for most of the journey. We skirted round a vast chemical factory, from which a foul stench emanated; further on lay the Homs lake, a thin blue tongue; clouds covered the horizon, but the sun shone beneath them, illuminating the muddy, chaotic countryside, dominated by that industrial dinosaur with its immense heaps of yellow powder. In front of us the Damascus-Homs highway was already visible, elevated and full of traffic, just like in normal times. This was the last obstacle we had to pass, closely surveyed by the regular army. But here too the FSA had its means, which must be kept secret. Behind the highway we waited for another car, with two young fighters from the FSA. In no time we had reached the first of the city’s suburbs. A little further on, in the middle of a wide avenue, an FSA checkpoint controlled a crossroads. The liberated neighbourhood of Baba Amro was just beyond it.

*

‘Baba Amro is a state within a state.’ B., the soldier who was talking to me, is a handsome man with a thin, mobile face and keen eyes, lit up as much by his faith as by the fast he had been keeping since he joined the Free Army in December. He was not a deserter, like most of his comrades, but a civilian from Aleppo who, shocked by the regime’s crimes, decided to take up arms. His words, though, were spoken before 4 February, the day the Syrian army — Jaysh-e-Assadi, members of the opposition call it, ‘Assad’s Army’ — began intensive shelling of the neighbourhood, causing several hundred deaths. Until then, Baba Amro was considered a ‘liberated neighbourhood’.

It’s the sort of working-class neighbourhood at the outskirts of the city where the middle classes normally never set foot, a neighbourhood of four or five-storey concrete buildings, sometimes covered in sheets of polished stone and usually unfinished, each squeezed up next to the other along alleyways where two vehicles could barely scrape past each other, and populated with workers and veiled women we only catch glimpses of. At streetcorners, roving vendors offered bowls of ful to eat with your fingers; the kids wore scarves and caps knitted by their mothers in either black, white and green or else blue and orange: the colours of the revolution or of Al-Karama, the Homs football team. In front of the Gilani mosque, empty coffins were piled up, ready for use; behind it, two graves had already been dug, in case sniper shots made the cemetery inaccessible. It was ice-cold, damp, bone-chilling; the sky was grey, drowned in a fog through which you could just see façades of buildings and outlines of minarets, and hear gunfire, the sudden explosions of shells, and calls to prayer resounding.

The FSA held the perimeter of the neighbourhood. There, you were on a real front line, which passed through crumbling apartments, riddled with holes from exploding bullets and shells, full of mud and debris, beautiful overturned sofas, burned television sets, beds torn apart. In the west, opposite the orchards and the stadium, was Haqura, where Mani and I had been living for almost a week with a unit from the FSA. Aside from two or three stubborn individuals, the civilians had all fled. The streets that lead to no-man’s-land are defended by sandbags, laughable obstacles against tanks. The walls of apartments and gardens had been drilled through so that the fighters could move from one building to another without going into the street. The HQ of Hassan, the unit commander, looked out onto a wide street, and we would take tea on the pavement, huddled around a fire despite the risk of mortar shells: ‘Inshallah,’ the men laughed.

One morning, we were woken up by more sustained gunfire than usual. Some soldiers rushed into the apartment, shook the men who were still sleeping, and took machine guns, cartridge belts and rocket-propelled grenades from the room that was being used as an arms store. We followed them at a run to HQ, then to a street lined with buildings. We climbed upstairs. In a devastated room, a fighter was firing machine gun volleys through a gap left by a shell; another, in the living room, was firing rounds from a rusi, the local name for a Kalashnikov; the burnt smell of cordite filled the apartment. Someone explained: a sniper had begun firing at civilians from the large building under construction opposite, wounding four. The FSA was firing back, trying to dislodge him. This lasted for about four hours, during which we wove our way from one apartment to another to watch. The positions of the regular army were not far away, 200, 400 metres; you could see the sandbags clearly if you risked an eye. When you were on the roofs, you could hear bullets whistling by or slamming into walls; from time to time, the explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade shook the air. The FSA is not trying to capture the enemy positions, just to force the snipers to withdraw and stop shooting at civilians.

Baba Amro wasn’t made secure at one fell swoop. In November, the last time Mani visited, a Syrian army checkpoint still controlled a central crossroads, and its snipers shot at all the streets around it, thus cutting the neighbourhood into slices. ‘We managed to surround them,’ an adjunct of Hassan’s explained, ‘and we cut off their supplies. Then, when observers from the Arab League came, we used them to negotiate their retreat, without any bloodshed. There’s still another checkpoint at the end of the avenue, but it’s much more vulnerable now, and they don’t shoot at people anymore, because they’re afraid of us counterattacking.’ For the fighters in the Free Army, the protection of civilians is an essential part of their mission. ‘In principle, the army should remain neutral,’ Lieutenant Abdel Razzak Atlas, one of the leaders of the Al-Faruk katiba, who takes pride in being the first Syrian officer to have defected last June, declared. ‘It is there to protect the people and the nation. But it has done the opposite.’ B., the volunteer from Aleppo, who, when night falls, recites magnificent poems in classical Arabic to his comrades, was more lyrical than his commander: ‘We are fighting for our religion, for our women, for our land, and only then to save our skin. They are fighting just to save their skin.’

Almost all the fighters in the FSA were forced, before they deserted, to take part in repressions. Very few were ready to admit to having killed people. ‘Me? I shot in the air,’ they almost all say. But their disgust at what they were made to do, their feelings of guilt, are palpable. It can be felt in their insistence, when you meet them, on exhibiting their military ID. The testimony of one former soldier I met a few days later in the centre of town was true for all of them: ‘They brought us into the streets to fight armed gangs. I didn’t see any armed gang. The officers told us: The ammunition isn’t there for nothing, shoot, shoot as much as you can.’

The deserters described a regular army falling quickly into decline. Many times, the FSA officers I found myself with received precise, detailed information from the officers who had remained in service; they also received, for money or for the cause, arms and ammunition from them. Lt Atlas tells me how he had tried, in May, to organise a mutiny of two brigades and a battalion along with other officers. ‘Everything was ready. But the others didn’t want to go through with it, because they were afraid of being crushed by the air force.’ Here is the real meaning of a no-fly zone, repeated at every demonstration – a demand that surprises the West, since, unlike Gaddafi, al-Assad has not yet deployed his air force against civilians. ‘If we get a no-fly zone,’ Atlas said, ‘half the Army will mutiny. The regime will be over.’

‘It’s an army of thieves,’ grumbled Abu Amar, a non-commissioned officer. ‘No one who can pay joins up, only the poor enlist. It’s an incompetent army that can’t function properly. Its only purpose is to line the pockets of the Alaouite community.’ This dissident Shiite sect, regarded as heretical by many Muslims, is the sect of al-Assad’s clan and of most of the leaders of the security forces. There aren’t many Alaouites in the FSA, but they exist. I met one, Fadel, at a checkpoint in Baba Amro: ‘When I saw the army killing civilians,’ he explained to me in front of his comrades, ‘I said to myself: “I am not with them, I am with the people.” Not: “I am Alaouite, so I am with the Alaouites.” No. If they are doing evil, I am trying to do good.’ Still, the immense majority of fighters in the Free Army are Sunni, and that can be seen in their symbols, the names of the katibas like ‘Khalid ibn Walid’ (the Prophet’s main companion) or else ‘Kawafil el-Shuhada’ (‘The caravans of the martyrs’). Many people are vehemently critical of this. ‘Why do they choose names like that?’ exclaimed M., also a Sunni, an activist who had taken refuge in Beirut. ‘It’s our revolution, not the Prophet’s! We have our own martyrs, they should use their names.’

In this ‘Sunnification’ of the revolution, there is the temptation of Jihad. That is probably the greatest risk the Free Army faces, since it would play into al-Assad’s hands. But this argument doesn’t discourage the FSA officers, in Homs at least. ‘If it continues, we’ll really become like Al-Qaida. If the world abandons us and supports al-Assad, we’ll be forced to declare Jihad, to make the fighters from all over the Muslim world come and internationalise the conflict,’ Atlas told us explicitly. This wasn’t his personal vision, the Military Committee in Homs had discussed it, and they all approved. Other officers confirmed it. They stressed that this idea wasn’t the fruit of religious radicalisation, but it was a strategic calculation, naive as it may be. For Atlas, a declaration of Jihad could end up in Iraq-style chaos, perhaps even in civil war, and would force the hand of the West, which would finally be obliged to intervene. This young Syrian officer wasn’t familiar with the external world, its logic and constraints. But he expressed the call of the masses rebelling against the regime: ‘The people want NATO intervention!’ That wasn’t the case a month ago; despair has changed the rules.

*

For 11 months now, everyday life in Syria has been punctuated by demonstrations. The most important occur on Fridays. They follow an unwavering ritual, like the one I saw on 20 January in Baba Amro. As soon as the noon prayer ended, the men in the mosque shouted the takbir, ‘Allahu akbar!’, and poured out of the door. Outside, the activists, amid clusters of riotous children, were waiting with flags and banners. The procession formed, threaded through the streets, then walked up an avenue, chanting slogans and waving signs and photos of martyrs, below a building where sometimes snipers from the regime lie in wait. At the crossroads, armed soldiers from the FSA kept watch. The procession joined others on a wide street that crossed the neighbourhood. I climbed onto a roof with some activists who were filming the demonstration to get a full view of the spectacle: there were at least 2000 people, maybe even 3000. ‘If they didn’t shoot at the demonstrators,’ an old gentleman said to me, ‘all of Homs would be out in the street.’ In the city centre, hundreds of young people formed rows, arm in arm, shouted the takbir again and began to jump to the rhythm of the drums and the revolutionary songs struck up by the leaders, who were standing on a scaffold in the middle of a circle of dancers. At one side, a crowd of veiled women – a sea of white, pink and black scarves, with babies and balloons – ululated and took up the leaders’ chants along with the men. Around them, the balconies were crowded with people. The atmosphere was one of mad exhilaration, furious, desperate joy.

At the end of the demonstration, dozens of young people surrounded me, trying out their four words of English. They all showed me their scars, their bruises, their electrical burns, or where bullets or shrapnel had struck. The brother of one of them had been killed by a sniper as he was crossing the street, the mother of another by a shell; everyone wanted to tell everything, right away. They were waving their mobile phones: ‘Shouf, shouf, look!’ A corpse mottled with torture marks, another with its skull smashed in, in yet another the camera lingered on each wound, gaping holes in the groin, the leg, the chest, the throat. Wherever we went, it was the same. In an emergency clinic in al-Khaldiye, in the northern part of the city, the smartphone of a young nurse appeared even before tea did: on the screen, a man is dying in the hands of a doctor who is trying to intubate him on the ground, at the foot of the sofa I was sitting on. He was a taxi driver; he was hit in the face by a bullet and is lying in an immense pool of blood, his brain pouring onto the floor. ‘You see the hands, there?’ the nurse said. ‘That’s me.’ She went on to the next video, the tea arrived, I drank it without taking my eyes off the little screen. Every mobile phone in Homs is a museum of horrors.

That same evening, still in al-Khaldiye, another demonstration. At the corner of the main square looms a wooden copy of the famous old clock of Homs, which dates back to the French colonial era. It is painted black and white and covered with photos of martyrs. (It’s on this same square that the 3 February massacre would take place, the day after I left, killing about 150.) A large banner proclaimed the demonstrators’ allegiance to the Syrian National Council: ‘No! To imaginary opposition, fabrications of Assad’s gangs. The SNC unites us, factions divide us.’ All around, mountains of rubbish cluttered the streets; ever the since the revolt started, refuse has no longer been collected from opposition neighbourhoods. Songs and dances, which take the form of zikr, the mystic dances of the Sufis, roused the crowd, while the leaders chanted slogans: ‘Idlib, we are with you! Teblisi, we are with you! Rastan, we are with you until death!’ This yearning for a union of communities, faced with the regime, was explicit: ‘We are not rebelling against Alaouites or Christians! The people are one!’ ‘Wahad, wahad, al-shaab al-suri wahad!’ shouts the crowd, ‘The Syrian people are one!’ Standing on a man’s shoulders, a red-headed boy of about 12 called Mahmoud led the crowd, chanting the cult poem by the murdered Ibrahim Qashoush, ‘Get out, Bashar!’

What is striking in these exuberant demonstrations is the power they produce. They serve not only as an outlet, a collective release for accumulated tension; they also give energy back to the participants, fill them with a little more vigour to endure. The group generates energy and then each individual reabsorbs it; that is also the point of the music and dancing. They’re not just provocations or slogans, they are also, like the Sufi zikr, ways to generate and receive strength. The Syrian revolution – a rare thing – survives not just because of the weapons of the FSA, or even the courage of the rebels; it keeps going because of joy, dance and song.

Mosques also play a key role. In one neighbourhood of the old city, on Friday, 27 January, the imam quoted from the companions of the Prophet, Abu Bakr in particular, to insist on solidarity. His sermon grew louder and more strident when he mentioned those who had died in the neighbourhood; ‘God is great!’ the congregation respond in unison. ‘All this blood that has been shed,’ cried the imam, ‘is our blood, all these souls killed are our children. But still, we say to our oppressors, to all those who are excessive: Whatever you do, victory will be ours!’ Ritual knits together and unifies the community. Its collective will, emerging from discussions during the week, is brought into focus by sermons; thanks to them, more than any other mechanism under this long dictatorship, it is possible to speak of ‘public opinion’. Since the mukhabarats made visits to Christian or Alaouite quarters impossible, I was unable to see how things were with them.

The final layer of this onion of civilian resistance is the activists. In al-Bayarda, a poor area next to al-Khaldiye, one activist, Abu Omar, showed us round, pointing out where shells had hit, the avenues where snipers lurked, the people cutting down olive trees to keep warm. In front of a shop selling almonds, a crowd of children surrounded us and a handsome 17-year-old in a blue tracksuit shouted at Mani: ‘They arrested my father, they arrested my brother, they beat my mother! They came to arrest me and if they find me, they will kill me! All that because I go out and say I don’t like Bashar!’ He was the leader of the local demonstration. He stretched out his neck and pinched his Adam’s apple: ‘My only weapon is my voice!’ He turned back, raised his arm and launched into a spontaneous demonstration of his art, by chanting a revolutionary song. Another teenager accompanied him with a drum held under his arm, and the children took up the refrain, clapping their hands; his voice was clear and beautiful. But he knew the danger. The day before, we had taken part in a demonstration in the old city; now its leader, Abu Annas, was close to death, seriously wounded in the chest by a shell from a tank.

The young man who had taken us to that demonstration, with the thwarted intention of bearing witness live on al-Jazeera, was called Abu Bilal. We lived for several days with him and his friends in a quiet house in the old city, barely a few hundred metres from the Homs citadel from which the forces of the regime were machine-gunning the streets. Every morning, we piled into a car with two or three members of this team who, braving the snipers, film funerals, the wounded, the dead. Omar Telaoui, from Bab Sbaa, is one of the most famous. He appears in his videos with his face uncovered, a scarf with the colours of the revolution around his neck, with each new victim giving an enraged speech on the circumstances, the place, the date. Every night, as soon as they get home, Omar, Abu Bilal and the others rush to their laptops. At the mercy of an intermittent internet connection, they upload their videos to YouTube, send the links via social networks, and give interviews to TV networks, almost all of them Arabic.

The Western media rarely use these sources, apparently thinking that in the absence of one of their own reporters, these videos of horror ‘cannot be verified’. But these images, sometimes shaky, taken as close as possible to the atrocities, constitute something precious, and those who film them risk their lives every day. As Abu Slimane, an activist from Baba Amro, told me one night, ‘Our parents were enslaved by fear. We have broken down the wall of fear. Either we conquer, or we die.’

13 February

These articles first appeared in Le Monde and were translated by Charlotte Mandell.