AKTARINE – It’s over. Bashar al-Assad has fallen. Not for real, of course; the Syrian regime is still holding on in the capital of Damascus, despite notable setbacks. But between Aleppo and Azaz, in this northern region, his downfall seems to be the only sure thing at a time when nothing else is.
In a farm, a dozen men are sitting in a circle -- simple people, who don't speak much and theorize even less. Trucks filled with potatoes noisily transport the day’s harvest, with clusters of women and children holding on to the trailer. Just behind them, a mortar shot goes off. The group seems surprised: usually, the shelling starts around 8 p.m. Then someone repeats: “It’s over for Bashar.” When? How? Who will still be alive? No one thinks it is important to answer these questions.
Here, the roads aren’t guarded by regime checkpoints: the army only controls the sky, a section of the border and Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
The rest, this 60-kilometer strip of land that goes all the way to Turkey, has completely escaped official rule. The schools, the train, the post office, the administrations and local authorities: all of them progressively stopped functioning these past months, as state employees retreated to Aleppo or Damascus one after the other. The last to leave were the policemen. “That’s when we understood there was no turning back,” says someone. “We’ve agreed to die for this.”
At the entrance of the village of Aktarine, someone has casually drawn a single word in white paint on a wooden plank: “Liberty.” This is one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints. In front, five surprisingly blond heavyweights share three Kalashnikovs that they respectfully manipulate with their thick hands of field laborers. The inhabitants sold their gold and their wedding jewelry to buy them in Turkey. If needed, they will pile up rocks to stop the tanks, but none have been spotted for two months.
The situation is all the more surprising that for a long time this area was one of the less turbulent in the country, as people busied with agriculture and commerce, staying out of the capital’s business, even when the wave of uprisings started in March 2011.
In Jibrine, a professor remembers the first demonstration in the village, about a year ago: five masked people, one holding a flashlight, stood in the middle of the night in the middle of a field. They dared to stay for exactly six minutes before bolting.
Around midnight, the announcement of the event struck the village like thunder. Many went out shouting: “The revolution is coming.” People were very divided, many fearing repression and torture. “I’ve already been arrested twice: once because I was suspected of being involved in politics. The other time, I wasn’t given a reason,” says a shopkeeper. He recalls these arrests calmly, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.
The inhabitants of Jibrine all asked the five to stop demonstrating. The next week, there were eight of them. To avoid being arrested, some started sleeping in the fields, one fled to London, the other closed up his shop. After a few months, the group risked appearing in broad daylight in the village. Who knows how things would have turned out if the police hadn’t started publicly beating a man who was smoking under a porch? To throw a woman to the ground? To fire on the crowd?
A mason was the first to die during a march in Marea, a large and prosperous town in the sector. In this town there have been 28 victims, 50 in Tal Rifat, almost 70 in Azzar. A computer scientist from the region who made videos of the events invites us to come see them.
The heat and the light crush everything, at what could be 50 degrees Celsius. At his home, the fan is stopped. The electricity doesn’t work several hours per day. There is no gas either. The computer scientist thinks these are punishments against the region: only Sunnis live here, like most of the population. There were a few members of the Alawite community, generally with important jobs. “As always,” says the computer scientist. “They’re the only ones who have a chance of succeeding, not us.” These Alawites are part of those who fled when the situation started turning.
In town, the exchange rate with the dollar has shot from 48 to 78 Syrian pounds. The price of meat and cigarettes has tripled. The computer scientist sold his mobile phone, one of the latest Nokias. He tries to remember what life was like before the revolution -- that’s the term used here -- but he can’t.
As he serves sodas, he brings up pictures of the bullet-riddled mason on his computer screen. “People radicalized when they saw that the police was killing people just for going out,” he says. Each village starting organizing ways to protect the demonstrators and those who were being threatened by the police. The shabiha thugs, the specialists of the regime’s dirty work, were kidnapped and beaten. Some were also killed. When the military convoys arrived short after, in May 2012, they were also attacked.
Other pictures of burned bodies or flogged people go by on the computer screen, a catalog of naked violence, all the harder to bear as the amateur footage shakes. It has almost become a ritual to greet guests with these films. Politely, the host asks: ?“And did you see the one of the seven members of the same family who were killed at their home by Bashar’s soldiers with knives, near Aleppo?” He offers to make copies.
We watch them again and again, until it becomes impossible to keep our eyes open. A year ago, these videos would have terrorized people. Today, they galvanize them, playing into the uprising and its dynamic. Deep in every village, kids brandish cell phones with no SIM card nor network, just to film this forbidden country where any picture taken publicly, even at your own wedding, can send you to prison.
Along the fields, separated by rows of sunflowers, half the houses are empty. Three helicopters circle in the sky. The other day, they machine-gunned a child, then a man on his motorbike and a combine harvester. Every day, the shelling starts again, here or there, sometimes in different places at once.
The strategy is both police-like and military: to scare people. Regularly, on the edge of a road, you can cross a father who is getting ready to flee, as he piles up furniture and children on the back of a truck. You also see political exiles who are going the other way, returning to their villages after thirty years in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. They cry, rejoice, swear they will never leave again.
“Guns, guns we need guns..”
Everywhere, Bashar al-Assad’s army itself has bombed institutional buildings. Hospitals, town or regional halls, military recruitment centers leave the strange impression that the regime is sinking itself.
“They are afraid we are going to take control,” says Youssef Châabane, one of the only who agrees to give his real identity. He was chosen to replace the head of the Tal Rifat municipality, who has fled. The important families who appointed him each designated a family member to govern with him, 20 overall. Like, Châabane, most of them are businessmen who work with Gulf countries or Turkey. He laughs: “You can make money everywhere, except in Syria. Al-Assad and his family take everything, the others have nothing.”
He wants a “simple country” where you could conduct business “normally” and go to the supermarket with your family, build your house without paying a bribe, say what you want in the street. Local services have started again, like a local court or the garbage collection, as though nothing were different.
Châabane hopes that all will get better quickly and that he will be able to retire from politics. He thinks it is too complicated. When you ask him what he thinks of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition force outside of the country, Châabane says nothing. He laughs. Most people have the same reaction. Others get mad. “We don’t need people like that, who only work for themselves. Where are they today? They aren’t even helping the Syrian refugees in the camps in Turkey. We don’t need them: we will do everything ourselves.” In the street, kids ask if someone has a camera. They shout: “Kofi Annan, look at us: we are dying on TV.”
Farther along the road, Commander Tarik, from the FSA, is set up with his men in one of the many schools. The children’s school report cards are all stacked up in the cupboards. They all have Bashar al-Assad’s picture on the cover. At 15 years old, each student has to sign for Ba’ath party membership. Commander Tarik was unemployed and became an accountant in a construction company before the revolution. He is a handsome man, with imposing bearing, and no doubt he has found in this tormented situation a place that suits him better: He leads one of the seven municipal groups of the FSA, which the electrician, the peasant and three of his own brothers.
Commander Tarik is happy to show pictures of himself in his uniform, the other one, from Bashar al-Assad’s army. That was back when he did his military service. Before the revolution, he would have been proud to serve his country. It would have been an honor. But only Alawites clinched the jobs, he says. They didn’t want him.
Today the government is accusing the FSA of receiving Qatari weapon shipments. Commander Tarik raises an eyebrow. He wishes it was the case, and from France and England too, wherever. He repeats: “Guns, guns, we need guns.” It is the only English sentence he knows.
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad announced he was going to severely get things under control. Ramadan has started, and for the first day of fasting, rockets fell on the region as early as dawn. The shelling continued all day.
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Photo - edbrambley