“To be honest, I still feel nothing,” this was Yara’s answer to me when I asked her how she felt about stepping on Syrian ground for the first time since last September, when she left her country after spending a short period of time in detention for her activism.
Very little changed in the landscape as we crossed the broken wired fence stepping into “Liberated Syria,” where our smuggler was expecting us in Berelias just a few kilometers away from the Turkish town of Rihaniyah.
Two small trucks and half a dozen guys were waiting for us under an olive tree.
A little bit earlier we had come across a trail of refugees walking in the direction of Turkish land, and now I was looking at two Syrian young men walking in the opposing direction crossing into Syria with gas barrels on their heads.
I had been walking next to Sobhi for most of the trip but it wasn’t until after I rid myself from my heavy equipment that I asked him about his injury.
If it weren’t for the little wound on his face, Sobhi could have passed for any 25 year old guy in a cap and a skate boarding T-shirt. The wound, however told another story. He got it a few days earlier, when he was fighting in Aleppo’s Salahedine neighborhood. He went to Turkey to try to remove the bullet now resting under his skin, right under his nose. He was told it can’t be removed. So he decided to go back to Salaheddine.
Sobhi’s cheerful mood was contagious, and in the van, I found myself humming to the tunes of the revolution and the songs of Ibrahim Qashoush and Abdel Basset Sarout. The lyrics were just hilarious.
Our companions drove us to a newly created security center where people crossing in both directions registered their names for documentation purposes and asked for help to be transferred on safe routes to their destinations, also in both directions.
We were supposed to meet Khal Zaz there. The man everyone was talking about took a little while to show up. When he did, and despite the beard and the gun, he was not at all what I was expecting. A small toothless man with long groomed silver hair, he looked much older than his 46 years.
“This beard, I will only cut when the revolution is over.” He says. The gun also will be deserted according to him.
The former carpenter and father of six, describes himself as a devout moderate Muslim and says he dreams of the day when Syria becomes an Islamic state but the priority for him is to topple the Assad regime. What he misses most is his name and the life of Abdel Rahman Jemaa al Hallak. His own life before it became what it is now.
As we waited, a debate entailed about the kind of states that will emerge after the regime falls. Religion seemed to be of meaningful relevance to every scenario proposed in this room that gathered a group of people coming from different backgrounds and sharing different levels of religiosity.
Abu Ahmad, a government employee in a pink shirt who came from Hama and who said he hates the Muslim Brotherhood joined Khal Zaza cheering for an Islamic state. A very young, very upset Soumar Hamady-- whom I mistook for a Salafist because of the frown and his style of beard until I saw him smoking during Ramadan fasting hours--agrees.
The logic uniting the group is quite simple. The Syrian people was left alone, and God alone is helping them, it is only normal that people become more religious according to them.
Hamady, a law student and the son of an English language and music teacher, who is now a member of the FSA explained in great emotions how frustrated he was to be on the frontlines with no weapon to fight with.
A look at the torn out guns that the group with us were carrying proved his argument. “Out of five bullets I get, one would actually work, and when I get to my last, I think I’d rather shoot myself with it, I’d rather die than be captured. The guns that have been sent to us so far, are barely enough for us to fight over, tanks can’t be beaten with rifles, and those who are pretending they are helping us know it very well,” he shouted.
As I looked at Hamady, I thought about the words of Ghaith, an activist from Homs I had met in Beirut months ago.
“Assad’s regime will fall, no question about it, but with every passing day, a beard is growing longer,” he had said.
Hamady suggests to takes us to Hama, and to show us what’s going on there. We decline the offer and stick to our plan heading towards Binesh, accompanied by Mustafa- a media activist who quit a PR job in Dubai to join the revolution when it was just starting-and Hassan an FSA member with his 9 years old brother, Bashar, who was now calling himself Abou Fahd.
Our companion’s main job was to secure a clear road for us as we drove to cities under the control of the Free Army on roads still to an extent controlled by the regime.
Taftanaz, Dana, Sarmadeh, and other cities we’ve heard about extensively in the news and that share pretty much the same story. They revolted, raised their voices, demonstrated, lost dozens of “martyrs” and hundred of detainees, carried guns in self defense, were targeted by an army that succeeded to kill and destroy but failed to regain control on the ground, and that in the recent months were considered “liberated.”
Upon arrival to our destination, we are greeted with a huge black banner on which the words ‘Free Benesh’ were written in both Arabic and English. On the other side, only in Arabic the words ‘Our leader for ever is God.’
The city of 50,000, located at about 50 km from Aleppo is almost deserted as we enter it around dawn, the hour for breaking the fast. A few hours later, in its souk we realize that despite the eminent threats and the sounds of bombs, life has found some relative normalcy. In the streets, now lost under pro-revolution slogans, we see people roaming the busy souk. Not too far away, young men were preparing the banners for the next day’s demonstration. ‘Free Binnesh’ is still demonstrating almost on daily basis we are told. Everyone here agrees, there is still a long way to go.
We spent a few hours there, before we moved to our next destination, Sarakeb, this time accompanied by armed men. It was very late when we were greeted in the house of a former army lieutenant who was now with the FSA and who was providing shelter for journalists. Under a grenadine tree planted in the central yard of a modest old Syrian style house we drank coffee and Metteh as we wrote, edited and filed our stories. It had been a long day. We were all very tired but it seemed that no one was able to sleep.
“Still nothing?” I asked Yara.
There was a short pause and then words.
“I am torn between the romantic feelings of returning home and between the regret of knowing for a fact that very little is left of the revolution we started a year and a half ago. With everyone I have met today, I had to dig to find it… There are too many guns, too much hatred, and too much extremism. I thought it was going to be a more poetic trip.”
She lights her cigarette, as she joins the others for Souhour. It is almost four in the morning. We’re having Souhour, and not too far from us someone was still busy bombing liberated cities.
Alia Ibrahim, Senior Correspondent for Al Arabiya TV in Beirut, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org