With the thud of heavy machine guns, the whipping sound of sniper rounds and the smell of cordite filling the midnight darkness, the rebels almost didn’t notice her veiled figure turning the corner.
They dragged her behind the thick limestone wall of a centuries-old house in Jdeideh, one of the most recent frontlines in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, and asked her for identification.
“What is a woman doing, walking by herself in the middle of the shelling at this time of night,” one of the rebels asked her.
Jdeideh is an old and rich neighborhood, home to part of the city’s Christian community and with straddling political allegiances. Rebels claim to have seized three quarters of the area since the weekend.
The woman’s body language was shifty and the story of her sick son unconvincing. Abu Mohamed, the local rebel unit leader, decided to take her back to base, barely one hundred yards down the street, for further interrogation.
Amira sat cross-legged, arms wrapped around her waist and compulsively twitching her foot as Abu Mohamed sent for residents who might recognize her.
When he found pictures and songs to the glory of President Bashar al-Assad in her phone, he had to restrain some of his men from insulting her.
She started crying but remained defensive and swore she was an opposition supporter.
Abu Mohamed dialed the last outgoing number on her phone and posed as a Syrian army officer who had stopped the young woman at a checkpoint because he suspected her of spying for the rebels.
The man who picked up was from state security. “No, that’s fine, let her go. She’s with us, she’s providing us with information on rebel positions.”
Amira was given a glass of water and taken to another room in the elegant early Ottoman era house where the unit had set up camp a day earlier.
Sitting on the wall of the fountain in the middle of the inner courtyard, Abu Mohamed, a balding 42-year-old, held his head in his hands.
“What can I do with this woman? She’s spying for the regime but we cannot keep her here. It’s against our religion, even if she is with the shabiha,” he said, referring to Syria’s loyalist militias.
“I cannot even search her. How do I know she is not planting electronic markers on our positions for the regime’s MiG fighters to bomb us? We received some intelligence that women were being used to do that.”
Hossam Amin, one of the fighters in the group, agreed: “She cannot sleep here, it’s not right. The honor of many families will be destroyed.”
Eventually, Amira was walked back to her sister’s nearby home and picked up the next morning for the interrogation to resume.
“Had she been arrested by Syrian regime soldiers, what do you think would have happened to her? Do you know many rebels who treat captured women like us?”
‘Why are you fighting for Bashar?’
Abu Mohamed was a military officer when he defected three years ago and found political asylum in Belgium.
“There was nothing for me in the army. If you are not connected for the right people, you can get nowhere. It’s sickening,” he said.
He decided to return to join the rebellion a year ago and his son Mohamed now fights alongside him in the same unit.
One of the nearest rebel positions is a stationery shop tucked under the arches of old fortifications and requisitioned after the owner fled the area.
Every time the fighters remove a light bulb to use elsewhere or take a pen for themselves, they drop change in a metal box set up for the owner which will also pay for the fractured front door.
“Bashar and his regime never respected anything. They have no rules. This revolution has to show the civilians that it stands for something,” Abu Mohamed said.
He said he was well aware that many civilians are starting to complain that the Free Syrian Army’s struggle in the city is exposing civilian lives to the regime’s air raids.
“If we don’t have the people’s support, we are nothing,” he said.
The veteran fighter has not completely given up on the regime’s soldiers either.
With the nearest army checkpoint just 50 yards down the street and bullets whizzing in all directions, Abu Mohamed wheeled out a speaker on to the street, leant with one hand against a wall and grabbed a microphone in the other.
“Assad army listen to me,” he said, his voice now blaring across the entire neighborhood. He smiled when a spurt of gunfire echoed his speech opening.
“Why are you fighting for Bashar? Do you think he cares about you? Why are you standing on the wrong side? Some of you are from Aleppo, it’s your own city you are destroying.”