In 1915 under Ottoman occupation, villages and towns across Syria suffered from one of the harshest famines in its history. Death and grief overwhelmed the country. The precarious political situation in the region: the First World War, locust invasion and drought all came together at this juncture in space and time – and it seemed things must continue to go from bad to worse.
According to my grandmother, in one of the villages to the east of Hama city by the encroaching desert, little grew in this barren land save a poisonous plant called "loof" – a local variety of wild arum. On the brink of starvation, loof was the remaining glimmer of hope for the embattled villagers. Boiling loof for ten hours removes the toxins, and the people of that village survived to tell the story. Nowadays, loof cooked with hummus and sumac is considered a popular dish in this part of Syria, where it is prepared by households as part of a collective rite – a remembrance of how previous generations survived death and famine.
Today, Syria is experiencing a much harsher situation than that of a century ago. Today, in Syria, the causes of death are numerous and difficult to predict.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, "the black stone" neighbourhood to the south of Damascus, has been under siege for more than five months. No food or medication is allowed to enter. FSA fighters have been able to find ways to bring in supplies, but getting aid into al-Hajar al-Aswad still remains an arduous and dangerous task – taking weeks to reach the besieged. Under these difficult conditions, a group of journalists and reporters were trapped in a building in the reach of the regime’s mortars. After three days with not a morsel to put in their mouths, it was the loof plant growing weed-like at the entrance to the building which saved them from starving, as it did so many years ago in Hama.
An addiction to war and fear of life
Matar was once a promising poet, but now he is a media spokesperson for the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade in al-Hajar al-Aswad. Although he was seriously injured by mortar fragments in the midst of this siege, he refused to leave his place with the fighters for treatment:
"I don't want to hear the pulse of normal life while we are getting killed; I don't want to feel grief for seeing markets full of all kinds of food while we eat poisonous herbs to keep alive. I don't want to get back to ‘a normal’ life, because this will just weaken [my resolve] and make me take a cowardly decision not to go back to the front line once more. It is very difficult for those of us who have lived the harsh and difficult life of an FSA soldier to make this choice – it’s not a real choice ".
Matar is no exception. Lots of FSA members suffer from this same deep sorrow. The majority of them have lost their jobs, families and way of life, until nothing is left but a gun and a bloody battle which has no end in sight. At this point, the reader might say that this was the fighter's choice and this is the nature of wars and armed conflicts. However, I would like to highlight here the tense and delicate moment in which a fighter may decide to desert from their post with the FSA and abandon the war to come back to life.
A prolonged conflict
Most Syrians never expected that the conflict would last this long. Those opposing the regime have been taken aback by the regime's steadfastness and this has frustrated them – particularly the continuous support from Iran and Russia. The media-war continues to be stoked by announcements of victorious battles and the liberation of towns by both sides of the conflict.
However, the reality is that opposition militias and the official army have reached a military stalemate – one step forward and one step back as progress on one front is checked by loss and retreat on another. While the FSA celebrated taking control of Raqqa in the North, the regime was consolidating its hold over Damascus and Homs. This tug of war reflects the battle on the international stage where America, Europe, Russia and regional players are jostling for influence in Syria, with no-one willing to find a solution to the crisis.
A fighter's story
Adam volunteered to fight for the FSA with the Mujahidi Harasta battalion in the east of the capital a year ago. After being seriously hit in the leg, he came to Damascus city carrying fake ID to get treatment and recover. My concern when I visited him was not his physical injury, but the extent to which he was clearly suffering from a severe depression – having spent a year in an environment wholly foreign to him:
"I was killing people and watching others die. I couldn't make friendships and this was driving me crazy. I wasn't even able to talk about my sexual desires and I even had to pretend to pray in front of the other fighters - I’m not religious - because I didn't want to be an outsider", he told me.
As a fighter in an Islamist brigade it is difficult – almost impossible – for young men to do what young men like doing most: thinking about girls. Propriety around gender relations means that voicing such thoughts is viewed as unbecoming for a fighter ‘in the way of the faith’.
Adam stayed in Damascus to recuperate and decided not to go back to his battalion. He wanted to start his life once again, but picking up from where one has left off is never as simple as that. A fear of being followed, being arrested and tortured has marked his every living moment to the extent that he can’t help but look nervously around him while walking or talking in public – even when conversations are of the mundane variety.
This feeling of dread wasn't only fear of the regime's security forces, but more of the battalion members themselves! Each battalion has an intelligence section entrusted with the mission of watching fighters and ensuring that they are not spies or collaborating with the regime. Adam told me anecdotal stories concerning incidents of some FSA members being executed because they wanted to quit. The reason cited by the militia hierarchy was that they represented a ‘security risk’ and could divulge sensitive information.
The FSA is largely made up of civilian combatants with no military experience and a smaller number of soldiers who defected from the official army. Few of them have sufficient training to deal with being in the type of guerrilla war being waged by battalions up and down Syria, thus their complicated psychological status has pushed some of them to thinking about leaving their positions and abandoning the FSA for a new life or an attempt at piecing together what remains of their old life.
Nour al-Din is a field commander in the Ali Bin Abi Talib battalion fighting in the southern districts of Damascus. I asked him about the phenomenon of fighters deserting the FSA:
"a real fighter, a true believer in the revolution and Islam never leaves the battle ground. Only opportunists and chancers who joined the FSA to steal and get benefits may do this. Whoever volunteered in the FSA for the sake of a free Syria and any real Muslim will stay steadfast until the end – for the Syria he dreams of".
In the midst of this harsh war, Syrians have found themselves at a crossroads: obliged to choose between either their personal interest and life or the country's freedom. A question occurs to me here – Is it possible for fighters who quit the FSA to go back to their old lives? It seems highly improbable, given that Syria has been ripped into so many different pieces with different authorities holding sway over particular areas – here the regime, there such and such battalion.
The country is now a hotch-potch of hot and cool areas. Families have been displaced across the country in their millions. Most fighters are wanted by intelligence forces and they can't go back to their original villages and towns, nor can they meet their families who were forced to flee. This is how our lives – and not just that of FSA fighters – have been trapped, in the eye of a tornado that is hurtling at breakneck speed. Where and how we get off is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure – it won’t be an emerald city.
Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.