In the company of Syria’s armed ‘terrorist groups’

This is the revolution of rural dwellers. Urban dwellers are more calculating, it seems. But rural folks, inside and outside the city, are in revolt.

According to media institutions, Syria is currently the world’s most dangerous place for reporters. Reporters are monitored, escorted by certain people and only taken to places that the regime wants them to go to, rather than places they wish to visit.

Several people warn that the armed groups and the Free Syrian Army are not one bloc. They say they do not operate within a certain framework or under unified conditions, adding that some of the groups are war criminals or thieves. In addition, accompanying these fighters puts a reporter in danger of indiscriminate fire.

A retired top-ranking officer who was detained several times warned that the road to Ezaz, located in the north, is extremely dangerous. The retired officer said I should not try to go there, lest I fall in the hands of dangerous groups.

My civilian host offered to connect with the groups there before I went to them myself, but I rejected this because civilian intervention in battlegrounds only produces catastrophes and death. So I asked the retired officer for his best advice.

He told me to take a cab to the Turkish border crossing Bab al-Hawa, in the west. According to the officer, all roads leading to borders would eventually take us to rebel-held areas. The car would not drive through Atareb, which is besieged, but will take a safe route. He told me to beware of checkpoints, for they all look the same, and it may not be easy to distinguish between those set up by the revolutionaries, state security and the intelligence.

The early morning brings fresh air to Aleppo. A cab arrived and I loaded my bags into the trunk. We headed toward Atareb. The driver made a turn and I asked him where we were going.

“The main road is closed. We have to take another,” he answered.

As soon as we entered the first village, we started seeing anti-regime slogans on the walls. I saw all those mottoes I had seen before on TV. It was in the countryside, where the people can only ask God for help.

After driving a few hundred meters, we arrived at a checkpoint that raised the black and green Syrian flag. The car stopped and the driver got out of the car. I saw quiet, bearded men, one of whom carried a black rifle similar to the ones I saw in Libya’s revolution. Another carried an automatic rifle, and others carried Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifles that they said were Russian.

I went out of the car and opened my bag for the armed young man. I walked up to him and said, “Arrest me!”

The half-awake young man, who seemed not to have slept well, looked at me in astonishment.

“Arrest me!” I repeated, and he gave me an empty look.

“Why?” he asked.

“Arrest me and take me to your center to tell you.”

“But why?” he asked again, in total astonishment.

“Just arrest me and I will tell you. Go ahead!” I said sharply, presenting my ID so the driver would think the men were checking my papers and arresting me.

The armed young man grabbed me by the arm and took me into a partially-constructed house that the men were using as a night shelter. I told him that I am a reporter who wished to report from armed areas and that I needed to talk with his leaders. I asked him to pay the driver and to arrest me in front of him in order for my hosts in Aleppo not to be harmed, which he did.

We went to another village. I saw those whom the regime calls armed mobs and infiltrators, the people who revolted against the regime. The majority of them thought that I was under arrest and only two knew that I was a reporter.

Some of them took me to stay at a police station that had been turned into a center for revolutionaries. I was given a lot of tea, coffee and cigarettes — the usual Syrian gestures of generosity. They sat on the ground, some of them trying to sleep but failing.

Visitors came to the “police station,” and one old man asked, “Who’s the guy?” and pointed at me.

Half-smiling, a young man answered, “He is suspected of cooperating with state security. He’s from Lebanon.”

The old man started telling the desperate story of his life under the successive Syrian regimes. He talked about weakness, poverty and illiteracy.

I asked all present company about their education. None of them progressed beyond primary education. They were young men in their early 20s, carrying weapons and wearing pouches.

“You will not be oppressed, my son,” said the old man. “You will only be punished for what you did.”

“The area here is one of the best revolutionary places. There are no abductions or ransoms, no thefts or violations. You will only be held accountable for your actions. Do not be afraid. ‘And there is for you in legal retribution [saving of] life, O you [people] of understanding,’” he said, quoting the Quran.

I asked him if that meant I was going to be killed, and he said, “Do not be scared. God is forgiving and merciful. I just hope you are not involved in killing Syrians.”

A young blond man who was assigned to escort me smiled, holding my press card in his hand.

“You are safe in the hands of armed mobs and terrorists,” he said.

Outside we heard someone shouting, “Air force, air force,” as the sound of a helicopter flying near could be heard.■

Fidaa Itani is a Lebanese journalist. He blogs at http://journalismnl.wordpress.com.

Translated by Dina Zafer.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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