In Idlib

Sarah Birke

One evening on a recent trip to rural Idlib, in north-western Syria, where the opposition controls many of the villages, I sat up with Um Ali, a 32-year-old woman with four children. Her husband, a fighter in the local rebel group, comes home only to change his clothes; in his place on the bed there was a large gun with a string of bullets.

As the heat of the day faded and the children dozed off, Um Ali’s sister-in-law, Um Faisal, and Zeinab, another relative, came over. Zeinab was distressed. She had just fled Aleppo after her house was shelled, and could no longer get the medicine she needs because the pharmaceutical factories have closed. ‘Isn’t 40 years enough?’ she said (Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971). ‘Every four years, we want to have an election like you. There is no need to ruin the country like this.’

The regime cut the electricity for a whole week last month. It was hot and all the food in the fridge went bad. Prices are rising. Zeinab asked for sugar for her coffee; Um Ali pretended to be shocked. Everyone laughed. Sugar, once a staple in Syria, is now an expensive luxury. The women don’t know what they will do for fuel this winter. ‘My daughter burned clothes to heat the family last year,’ Um Faisal said. ‘This winter we’ll die from the cold.’ There are more premature births than there used to be, according to Um Ali. They mentioned a friend who gave birth at seven months, another at eight months.

Women have been involved in Syria’s uprising since the start, but as protesting got more dangerous, a lot of the men told them to stay at home. They continued to smuggle medicine around the country, and the women in Idlib cook, visit as many bakeries as possible to find enough bread for the fighters – in Um Ali's village they once took it to the army soldiers too after they promised not to shell them – and tend to the injured. But they don’t take part in decision-making, at least here. ‘No one asks us anything,’ one woman told me. Perhaps unexpectedly, many women are more vehement than the fighters about the need to go to war; many, like Um Ali, don’t want international intervention: ‘It will be like Iraq.’

The next day I watched Um Ali lead her children in prayer on the straw mat in her house; the youngest, three-year-old Hamoudi, banged his head on the floor as he tried to imitate his mother’s and siblings’ prostrations. The women worry most about the children, Um Ali said. ‘Is there shelling in your country too?’ her daughter Houla asked me. The mother of one of her friends was killed by a rocket that landed on her veranda. ‘It was bad because she said to my friend, if you are good, we will eat kebab today,’ Houla said. ‘And then she died, so they didn’t get kebab.’