Journey to Kafranbel

This account of my trip into Syria’s partially liberated Idlib province was published by the Guardian.

DSCI0172To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.

At Atmeh camp (where I’d been working, just inside Syria on the Turkish border) there’s no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, however, the Free Syrian Army and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, and so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.

We skirted a deserted shack which our escorts pretended was a policeman’s house. One disappeared for a while, pretending to pay an expensive bribe. Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.

There were no security cameras. The boys told me they’d taken Chechens across like this.

At wallside a whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – They wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.

I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.

“I don’t know. Talk to them some more.”

So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.

So I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped onto concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly-trimmed lawn with a nonchalant but entitled and entirely legal air. I strolled through the airconditioned duty free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s-land. (No private cars have been allowed here since a car bombing in February killed thirteen). Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with nogodbutgod printed on the beret.

On the Syrian side a fighter from the Farouq Battalion glanced at the passports. Behind him, unthreatening men milled about with kalashnikovs. They were of various militias, bearded and clean-shaven, wearing mix-and-match military, sports and farming gear. Behind them, a 6th-Century Byzantine triumphal arch announced in its own way our passage into Syria, a land which possesses an unbroken archeological heritage, from Sumerian times to the present.

But this was Syria as I’d never seen it. Something unthinkable a year and a half ago: a territory liberated and defended by poorly armed armed volunteers and defectors. Instead of Assad’s blue-eyed visage, therefore, the Free Syrian flag was painted on a barrier. Revolutionary grafitti flourished at the roadside, from Freedom Forever through Zero Hour Approaches, O You Dogs of Assad to Death to the Enemies of God. The triumphalism of the slogans was immediately crushed by the onrush of the small but shocking Bab al-Hawa camp, tents of bright blue flammable plastic planted direct on concrete, a surface which burns in the sun and floods under the merest shower.

Two ambulances whizzed past towards Turkey, both caked in mud as camouflage from airstrikes.

At this point we expatriate Syrians were squeezed into a car with friends from Kafranbel, our destination, a rural town in the south of Idlib province become famous for the witty English-language slogans on show at its weekly demonstration. Our driver was Ra’ed Fares of the town’s Revolution Committee. Following the logic of the mud-caked ambulances, we switched off our foreign phones.

At first the strangest sensation was the normality of the surrounds. A hot and breezy afternoon ran past the windows – stubbled wheat fields, rocky outcrops, smooth-topped tells. But the villages seemed much poorer than before, some of their roads gnarled up by tanks. In one hamlet, Jabhat an-Nusra’s logo was printed on the walls. Our secular hosts explained that the Jabha (designated a terrorist organisation by the US) had liberated this stretch.

We diverted to avoid al-Fu‘aa, a Shia village still held by the regime, and drove on towards Taftanaz, where the scale of the damage wrought by shelling and aerial bombardment became terribly apparent. We passed streets of crumpled buildings, long banks of debris, shopfront shutters buckled by the vacuum bombs which suck in and ignite the air to create fireballs.

White paint on the walls warned: Watch out – Taftanaz Airfield Ahead!

DSCI0146The airfield was liberated in January after two months of siege. The resistance lost many men here – the burnt and cratered fields around offer no cover whatsoever. Now ruined tanks and lopsided helicopters rest inside the perimeter, and Free Army militia sit guard at the entrance.

Next we drove into Saraqeb, a city of significant size, again notable for its war damage, and victim of a chemical attack in April. We stopped in the busy centre so one of us could vomit into roadside rubbish, while the others (one an uncovered woman) entered a café to eat Haytaliyeh, a local speciality. The Jabha runs a Sharee‘a court here. Its black flag flies atop the famous TV mast. Nevertheless, nobody looked twice at our friend’s unveiled hair. Saraqeb felt not like the Taliban’s Afghanistan but like Syria minus the regime: socially conservative but largely tolerant of difference.


The media image of the liberated areas suggests the regime has been replaced by heavy-handed militias. At least in Idlib province (Aleppo has suffered much more from thuggery, corruption and Islamist fanaticism, a fact much lamented by the activists and fighters I spoke to), it’s not like that at all. No checkpoint stopped us. The men with guns were locals, and were considered protectors, not oppressors.

Very many men have fought. They fight for a while, then take time off to visit their families in the camps or to harvest the fields (those which haven’t been burnt). Most have no political aim other than defending themselves by ending the regime. Some are Islamists, usually moderate and democratic. One such is Abu Abdullah, who, before his leg injury, fought with Liwa al-Islam in Douma in the Damascus suburbs. He shocked me with his statement, “We aren’t fighting for freedom, but for Islam,” but the follow-up was more reassuring. “Europe,” he said, “is implementing Islam without being aware of it. It educates its people, it respects their rights, there’s one law for all.”

This is an Islamist who shakes hands with unveiled women and opines that Christians often have more self-respect than Muslims. He doesn’t fight for ‘freedom’ because to him the word means people doing anything they like, regardless of the rights of others. His vision of an Islamic state is one compatible with democracy; it wouldn’t enforce dress codes or ideological allegiances because (he quotes the Qur’an) “there is no compulsion in religion.” His idealist conception of the future is one free of crime. He illustrated this by example of today’s Douma, where, he assured me, nobody steals, despite the opportunities provided by bombing.

DSCI0202As for the foreign fighters, Abu Abdullah, like everybody I spoke to, views them with disdain. Syria has enough men, he told me. Syria needs weapons, not men. Foreigners only cause problems. They increase the sectarian element, as Assad and Iran want. They ruin the revolution’s reputation. In any case, most of them aren’t fighting but resting, waiting for ‘the next stage’.

He muttered against the Turks who, on the one hand, collaborate with the Americans to hold back the heavy weapons which the Free Army so desperately needs (this was certainly true until late June), yet on the other, do nothing to stop the flow of foreign jihadists. “It’s a plot so America can do to us what it did to Afghanistan.” It wasn’t difficult to sympathise with his conspiracy theory. I’d seen how easy it was to cross the border illegally.


After Saraqeb comes Ebla, an excavated city of the third millenium BC, and after Ebla the once beautiful town of Ma‘arat an-Nou‘man. Here the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism, and here Assad’s forces engage in savage bombardment. Abutting the ongoing battle for control of the Hama-Aleppo motorway, many of Ma‘ara’s apartment blocks are sheared into ragged slices. Shelling resumed shortly after we passed back through the next day.

The town used to house one of Syria’s finest museums, a collection of Byzantine mosaics in an Ottoman caravanserai. For months the museum stood between the regime barrier and the resistance, and was looted and bombarded by both. Ma‘ara was also once home to Abu Ala’a al-Ma‘ari, the 11th-century atheist and poet, one of the most important of the classical tradition, whose statue was beheaded – to great popular outrage – by Salafist militiamen last February.

We turned west over heights where fir trees are bent by the wind, and through villages built of breezeblock or local white stone, some depopulated, some overcrowded, according to the vicissitudes of battle.

DSCI0157We slowed when we reached Kafranbel to note the walls almost everywhere cratered by bullets, a pancaked mosque, and the blasted remains of a secondary school which the regime had used as a barracks until its forces were expelled. Ra’ed pointed out two sites of mass slaughter and a list of martyrs engraved on a plinth at the central roundabout (this reminded me of similar memorials in Palestine). Since the regime was driven out last August, a central stretch of wall has been painted in revolutionary murals. Perhaps the cleverest is a cartoon heart reading ReLOVEution.

Evening passed pleasantly, surreally, in the Revolution Committee building, on a terrace studded with potted plants overlooking olive trees and a jostle of fat-tailed sheep. There was a waxing midsummer moon, a cool breeze, and the usual Syrian night sounds: animated conversation, laughter, tunes from the ’oud, and a noise like thunder which was the regime launching missiles from Wadi Deif, twelve kilometres away. A safe distance. Kafranbel hadn’t been bombed in all June.

We ate apples and deliciously sweet plums. Food still tastes better in Syria than anywhere else, at least when you can get it. Manar Ankeer, a young Syrian who refuses to join his family in the Gulf, with kind, sad eyes, and energetic to the point of tension, runs a free bakery which feeds 40 villages. Without this aid (the bakery is funded by expatriate Syrians), some families would starve. (In Turkey I met an activist from Selemiyyeh, a solidly revolutionary Ismaili town, who showed me a photograph of his last meal in Syria – a trapped hedgehog.)

As we talked, chewed and smoked, Kafranbel’s activists uploaded films, updated Facebook statuses, and planned and painted slogans for the next day’s demonstration. The Free Army’s local commander dropped by for tea and conversation. The woman who drives the Karama (Dignity) Bus from school to shell-shocked school decided which cartoons to screen the following week, which stories to read aloud.

People are doing what they can. On the ground the revolution continues, not only the fight against the regime but also the protests against Salafist militias in Raqqa and the Kurdish PYD militia in Amouda, as well as the daily effort to self-organise and survive. In the absence of government, not the militias, not the absent Syrian National Coalition, but civil society has stepped into the breach. Not many inside have even heard of the Coalition, whose representatives spend their time in Istanbul hotels instead of with their people on the ground.

DSCI0201Much more relevant than those outsiders are the grassroots activists, both the locals and those – a photographer and a writer – who’ve escaped from regime-held Damascus. (One of our party had just left the capital, where everyone is off the streets by 8pm. Here people were out walking and playing in pool halls at one in the morning.) The expatriate presence was bolstered by a group of young Syrian American women, Muslim and Christian, so much braver than the elites of the external opposition. I slept in Hamood’s house. One wall is raggedly punctured where a rocket struck, and the interior walls, still pitted by shrapnel, have been scrubbed back to the concrete after being blackened by fire. He shows me the damage, then shows off his radishes and parsley, newly planted and vigorously flourishing. The sight of a child’s toy bike on a shelf in the kitchen made me sadder than the rocket damage. Hamood’s wife, children and parents are in a camp inside Turkey.

Next door a family of ten, displaced from a worse place, share a doorless, windowless building with snakes and rats.


Before the liberation, the residents held their demonstrations in the fig orchards outside town. After the liberation, the post-Friday prayer gathering became a target for shelling. So this Friday Ra’ed scheduled the protest for 11am, before prayers, and in a sidestreet, so as not to draw a crowd. (He was stopped later by a townsman angry that he’d missed the demonstration). “What’s the point of attracting disaster?” Ra’ed asked. “At this stage, the most important aspect of the protest is the media aspect.”

It’s this canny media awareness that has made obscure Kafranbel one of the unlikely focal points of the revolution. Each week produces witty and topical slogans in English as well as Arabic. The first, in April 2011, declared Freedom Emerged From Under the Fingernails of Dera‘a’s Children. One threatened to “spank” Kim Jong-Un for his “childish attempt” to deflect attention from Syria. One punned on a Shakespeare quote (O Judgment! Thou Art Fled Brutish Beasts, And UN and Annan Have Lost Their Reason). One, which went viral, offered condolences to the people of Boston after the bombing there, and reminded the world that such things happen in Syria every day.

This week the slogans read:

Obama! You Send Us “Weapons” To Only Continue This Conflict?! Send Us Weapons To Win Our Revolution Once And For All!

DSCI0169And, referring to the sudden death of actor James Gandolfini: We Are So Sorry That Tony Soprano Is Dead. We Wish Assad, the Syrian Mafia Boss, Had Died Instead. A cartoon entitled Negotiations Forever depicted the Regime and Free Syria flags hanging above Israeli and Palestinian versions. Another, alluding to the media popularity of the rebel liver-eater video, showed Putin and Assad stirring a pot of blood, and Putin saying, Let’s say…. FSA are cannibals.


After the protest an activist drove me outside town. Standing on a red pile of rocks, he traced a frontline in the blue distance between the Alawi mountains and the liberated Ghab valley. In the absence of a serious effort to arm the Free Army, it’s likely that the line will remain static for the forseeable future.

Despite Kafranbel’s stirling efforts, the larger media war has been lost. The Western narrative is that this is no longer a revolution but a civil war, a conflict with its roots not in Assad’s repression but in the theological disputes of the ninth Century. Since the regime and Hizbullah’s joint conquest of al-Qusair, the Syrian people are struggling against the odds.

The regime probably will eventually fall. If it had fallen a year ago there might have been a happy ending. But by now over a quarter of the population is displaced and far more have been traumatised. The social fabric is torn. If Syria remains one nation, it will be a nation of orphans and widows, of the maimed, the raped, the tormented. How does a country return from this?


DSCI0161We ate a quick lunch before Ra’ed drove us back north. We stopped in Hass to talk to a pharmacist about Leishmaniasis, a disease spread by sand flies now rampant in the country. Abu Farouq complained that he had the syringes (treatment involves injections into the skin ulcers caused by the disease) but not the medicine to fill the syringes.

Mercifully, Atmeh was open, which saved us from climbing that wall once again. As we approached the camp through the olive groves, we asked Ra’ed a final, uncomfortable question. “If you’d known what would happen, would you have still joined the revolution?”

“No,” he said, matter-of-fact. “The price was too high. Just in Kafranbel we’ve had 150 martyrs. As many as that are missing; they’re probably dead too.”

He rubbed his massive nose.

“As for me, I can’t cry anymore. I don’t feel properly. I’ve taken pictures of too many battles. I’ve photographed the martyrs.”

Hands on the wheel, he shrugged his shoulders.

“But it’s too late now. There’s no going back. We have to finish what we started.”

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