Nothing can be heard except the uncanny drone of a helicopter circling over the town. Apart from that, all is quiet. Twelve activists are monitoring the sky from behind barred windows, ready to take cover. Like many of the buildings in the neighbourhood, the school has taken numerous hits from shells and rockets. No classes have been held for a long time. The last of the teachers fled two weeks ago, along with the schoolchildren and their parents, and indeed almost all the inhabitants of Azaz. Only a very few remain: those who are too poor to travel, plus a handful of activists. Nobody here knows where the next shells will land, when the helicopters will next come hovering over the town ready to blitz rebel positions, when tanks will roll into the streets in an effort to drive out the insurgents. The question the remaining inhabitants of Azaz are asking themselves is not whether but when the next round of shelling will begin.
The school building, a flat yellow structure, is being used as a media centre by the twelve rebels. A giant antenna is sticking up into the sky from the roof. With its help they are able to access the internet via satellite and upload photos and videos of the fighting and casualties to Facebook and Youtube. It's a desperate attempt to get the world to play its part in the civil war; desperate because there is no question the regime knows what the building is being used for. For the helicopter pilots circling over Azaz hour after hour every day, the antenna is an easily recognisable target. But the school possesses a crucial advantage; it lies in the lee of a hill, and is thus out of range of the snipers who have lodged themselves in the minarets of a mosque and spend their time firing on anything that moves.
"This place is as good as any for our purpose," says Ahmed Sayed Ali, 31, a slight man with partially bald head. He has a revolver in the holster slung over his shoulder. On the wall hangs the revolutionary flag: three stripes – green, black and white – with three red stars in the middle. Next to it stands a Kalashnikov. A few exhausted rebels are dozing on mattresses. All of them are students, but now that they are no longer able to study they are working round the clock for the revolution. Ahmed, a typical student-turned-rebel, incessantly roves the maze of backstreets filming skirmishes between the FSA and government troops.
It's eight in the morning and Ahmed is waiting for a laptop to free up so that he can upload his night's filming. He is watching the screen with weary eyes and smiling. His friend Jamal, a restless lad in a check shirt and bulletproof jacket (with an outsize helmet on his head that keeps slipping down over his face) filmed an FSA ambush yesterday. Wobbly footage shows a tank going over a mine and being engulfed in flames, and then a second tank being hit by a bazooka. The men all slap Jamal on the back, crying "Allahu Akbar!" and setting the clip to play on an endless loop.
While Ahmed and Jamal are uploading their films to the Internet, another activist is climbing a high rise building. Al Jazeera and the Orient TV network broadcast live footage from Azaz almost every day. From up top you can get a good view of the town, watch the tanks roll in and film the shelling. This building has been hit many times. Assad's troops watch television too.
In the afternoon another helicopter comes wheeling over Azaz; it does one round after another, then hovers over the school building like an angry insect. A moment later a rocket lands close to the school. Fragments and stones shower down on the roof. From somewhere nearby, a rebel 14.4mm artillery unit fires at the helicopter, which immediately veers away. The same evening, Ahmed, Jamal and the others dismantle the antenna from the roof, pack their computers and cameras in boxes and plastic bags and move to another building. "Evidently Assad's people know where we're broadcasting from," says Ahmed as he grabs his camera and puts on his helmet. He is about to accompany his friends on another FSA night operation.
It took awhile for the revolution to reach this part of Syria, only a few kilometres away from the Turkish frontier. News from the rebel strongholds of Homs, Hama, Damascus and Daraa only got here as second-hand reports. Government troops essentially ignored the towns and villages of the north. In the vacuum left while the crisis in other parts of the country dominated the news (and the attention of the Syrian army, more and more areas in the north were able to liberate themselves. Here, as elsewhere, it started with demonstrations against the regime. First a dozen or so people took to the streets, then hundreds, and finally thousands of them, demanding reforms and more freedom. In due course, the public managed to drive out the regime’s myriad agents: mayors, police chiefs, members of the Shabiha, government informants and hit-men.
Abu Anas is the commanding officer of one of the three rebel units in Azaz. He is a thin man, 24 years old, with long curls and a full beard. He is convinced that Azaz will soon be liberated. Every day, rebel detachments mount attacks on the last remaining government stronghold, blasting holes in their walls with home made bombs comprising TNT and steel screws. At night, they lob hand grenades into the soldiers' barracks, fire bazookas and machine guns and wreck tanks. Patting his Kalashnikov, Abu Anas says he reckons no more than sixty soldiers and a handful of officers are left holed up in the building. The rebels have surrounded the base and cut off any escape route. For weeks, Assad's loyalist troops have been without electricity, water or food supplies. They are gradually running out of ammunition. "Victory is nigh, insha’allah," he says. At stake is a security corridor from Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, and the Turkish frontier.
Abu Anas is a conservative, religious young man. "I have no fear of death. If I fall in battle I'll die a martyr. That will fill me with pride," he says. Like many here, he cannot comprehend how the world can sit watching Syrians die without doing anything about it, while expressing fury at Russian and Chinese intransigence in the United Nations Security Council. “Why don't America and Europe do something to end the massacre?” he asks. "We need help, and we’ll accept anything we're offered, no matter from whom. Anybody who is willing to assist us with weapons or fighters is welcome. The west is scared that ‘Islamists’ may support us, yet they do nothing to help us."
As we talk, Abu Anas is watching a video showing him and his men blowing up a tank, causing the death of its crew. "I feel sorry when soldiers are killed," he says, his eyes expressionless, his head resting on his hands. He knows there are many conscripts in the army who have no desire to fight for Assad, but are forced to do so. "Most of them would like to desert, and I'm always ready to help them do so. But they have to make up their own minds. If they stay put, they'll get killed."
Assad’s army is patently breaking down. It isn't the poorly equipped rebel army or the thousands of demonstrators who pose the real danger to the regime, but rather mass desertion from the Syrian army by regular soldiers and conscripts. Meanwhile, government helicopter pilots and infantrymen often shoot wide of their targets intentionally. Some officers get in touch with the rebels by phone and let them know in advance their locations and plans of attack.
In the first part of July alone, twenty-five soldiers fled from their barracks in Azaz and joined Abu Anas and his band. More than forty deserters are now fighting for the FSA against their erstwhile colleagues in the town. Two of them are former lance corporals Fawaz, 21 and Faris, 20. They spoke of sense of despair among government troops. They had served sixteen of their eighteen months of conscription before managing to escape. "They told us we were fighting against terrorists," says Fawaz. I notice Faris, sitting next to him, staring at his hands, clenching them into fists.
"At first I really believed it," Faraz continues. He describes how his unit was transferred from Daraa in the south to the northern part of the country, and how his mind began to change. They moved from village to village and town to town: First Daret Ezzeh, then Anadan, Marea, Telreffat, and finally Azaz. There, Fawaz says, he saw officers shooting civilians, raping women and plundering houses. Residential areas were targeted indiscriminately by artillery, tanks and helicopters. "We loaded fridges, TV sets, furniture, anything we could carry, onto tanks and lorries." Then they burned the houses down.
Faris then describes seeing an officer shoot and kill a colleague of his who had refused to fire at civilians.
"From then on, we knew we were not fighting terrorists at all," says Fawaz. He insists that he always aimed wide to avoid hitting people.
Many others would like to abandon the army, the two deserters say, but they dare not, for fear of being followed and shot, or having reprisals taken against their families. More than forty thousand soldiers are said to have deserted so far, and these now form the backbone of the FSA. The number is growing day by day. In an effort to compensate, the regime is now concentrating on helicopter raids, artillery barrages and the use of tanks, relying less on regular conscripts.
Fawaz and Faris say they had been waiting a long time for a chance to desert, but it took months before they saw an opportunity. It arose when they got to Azaz. Soldiers who had deserted earlier had given Abu Anas, the young rebel leader, most of the mobile phone numbers of their mates in the Azaz barracks (although soldiers are forbidden to carry or use mobile phones, many risk punishment to stay in touch with their families). Abu Anas could thus dial directly into the barracks, convincing many of them to flee. Two of those he reached were Fawaz and Faris.
For weeks, Fawaz and Faris they kept in touch with Abu Anas, telephoning him secretly at night, always in terror at the prospect of being caught. They would make a plan for an escape, then reject it, then start imagining another. Their first attempt failed – they were caught by a superior without an exit pass – but they managed to convince the officer who had spotted them that they had just been going to fetch some water. On the second attempt, they were able to stroll out of their base in the early morning unchallenged (the guards had fallen asleep from exhaustion after a long battle). Abu Anas was waiting for them behind the barracks and led them to the FSA headquarters.
A week later, the rebels carried the war into Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, units of the FSA took over the government's last bastion in Azaz. For days they had been blasting holes in walls and fighting from house to house, until they got to the mosque, where soldiers had been entrenched for several weeks. They then destroyed seven tanks. Abu Anas lost three men. A handful of government soldiers managed to escape; more than forty were killed. Their bodies were burned in the basement of the old headquarters of the secret police. FSA fighters blew up the minarets in which the government snipers had methodically picked off fellow Syrians. Azaz had been liberated, at least for now. People who had fled the town began to return. Now, the black flag of the Islamist faction flutters from the roof of the mosque.
The next stop is Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, which lies twenty kilometres away from Azaz. Rebels in an opposition hideout are preparing for the end of the Assad regime. A colourful medley of lawyers, journalists, students and businessmen have been gathering in secret. They sleep by day, and devote the night to the revolution. All of them are wanted by the police and dare not stay in one place for more than a few hours. They stay away from their own homes in order to avoid endangering their families. They sleep somewhere different every day.
Aleppo, with a population of two million, is home to many government supporters and wealthy businessmen who have done well under the Assad regime. There are police, army and Shabiha checkpoints all over the city. The rebels move from one hiding place to another in a roundabout way so as to avoid checkpoints. They put up with lengthy detours and frequent changes of vehicle as a matter of course. On the roof terrace of an unobtrusive apartment building off an arterial road in Salah Eddine, a dozen activists are having a meeting with fighters from the FSA. "We shall soon liberate Aleppo," says Abu Hamid, a 36-year old lawyer with bald forehead and light reddish frizzy hair who carries a pistol in his waistband. Like may here, he has lost several friends, shot by police or Shabiha militiamen during demonstrations or tortured to death in captivity, he says, and they are hardened for it. Mobile phones containing photos of those murdered by the regime are passed from hand to hand. Abu Kassim, a 19-year old FSA fighter, shows some videos he has stored in his phone. In one, some rebels cut off the heads of two living young men in cold blood and then lay them on their dead bodies like trophies in a big game hunt. The victims are said to have been members of the Shabiha and themselves responsible for a number of murders. The man who passed judgment on them was also the one who executed them.
Another video shows the mutilated bodies of twenty-five men who are likewise said to have belonged to the Shabiha. "We killed them. I was there. They deserved to die," says Abu Kassim, lighting a cigarette. "But we shouldn't have cut their heads off. That's what al-Qaeda does, and we don't want to have anything to do with that lot." A freedom fighter sitting beside Abu Kassim shakes his head. "Bullets cost money we don't have. Beheading is an economical process. Until somebody comes to our aid, any method is justifiable."
For hours, the group discuss what is the best way of smuggling weapons into the city; which areas should be liberated first; whether Assad should be put to death or brought to justice; what should be done with people loyal to the regime. Some are in favour of summary execution; others argue that execution hinders the goal of establishing a new state in which all Syrians can live together in peace.
"We must control our hatred. We have always lived alongside Christians and Alawites, and they too belong to Syria,” says Abu Tarb, one of the lawyers in the group. “Only those who have committed crimes should be brought to justice and punished accordingly. Insha’allah!"
While they talk of life and death, punishment or mercy, fighting exhaustion all the while with a steady flow of coffee, the dull whine of artillery can suddenly be heard from the army base nearby as troops fire mortar shells into a neighbouring area. The men are startled. "Fear is our constant companion," says Abu Hamid.
Shortly after midnight shots are fired close by. FSA fighters with Kalashnikovs take up positions behind the balustrade of the roof terrace. The owner of the building takes his wife and their five children to safety at a neighbour's house. Abu Hamid, the lawyer, flicks the safety catch of his pistol and stands on guard just inside the entrance in case the army or police come and storm the apartment. Not until early morning do the men finally fall asleep, exhausted.
Twenty-five kilometres west of Aleppo, in the courtyard of a house on the edge of the small town of Al Dana, a group of men in combat fatigues assemble. They carry assault rifles over their shoulders and grenades dangle from their belts. The warriors are painstakingly busy making lists of the contents of some sacks piled on the floor in front of them. There are brand new sniper rifles, masses of ammunition, bazookas, Belgian assault rifles and dozens of image intensifiers (for night vision) still wrapped in polythene. When the commanding officer holds one up, his men cheer and dance, crying "Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!" Nobody is willing to divulge the origin of the consignment to a foreign reporter. The officer just smiles and remarks that the rebels have certain friends who support them. Then they put everything back into the sacks, tie them up and load the munitions into the luggage compartments of various cars, taxis and minibuses. I watch them change from battledress into civilian clothes, pulling on jeans and shirts. Around thirty fighters squeeze into half a dozen vehicles. Their destination: Aleppo. Under cover of night, they get under way, using country lanes and long detours to avoid Syrian army checkpoints. Scouts on motorbikes ride ahead to reconnoitre and look for army roadblocks. They keep in continuous contact with the guerrillas, who follow a few kilometres behind.
It takes them more than three hours to cover the 45 kilometres into Aleppo. In the suburbs, fighters and activists take delivery of the weapons, ready to distribute them in various parts of the city that have been infiltrated by hundreds of FSA guerrillas over a period of weeks in preparation for the seizure of the metropolis.
Atarib, a town seven kilometres from Al Dana, shows signs of the fierce fighting in this area that has led the Syrian army largely to withdraw to its bases. In early July, FSA units drove the last detachments of the Syrian army out of the town. Whole streets have been destroyed. Everything is quiet; war has sucked the town dry of inhabitants, leaving nothing but a hot breeze blowing through the streets, swirling the dust. House fronts are disfigured by pockmarks from countless bullets and shells. Shops are burned out, scraps of steel and iron sheeting scattered in the ruins. Road surfaces have been ploughed through by shellfire, incinerated tanks and piles of smashed vehicles with caterpillar tracks lurking dead, looming over the few remaining signs of life. Nearby, an old woman sits dazed amid the ruins of her home. Like many Syrian villages, Ararib is a ghost town; the only people left are a few destitute villagers, peasants, the abandoned elderly and some rebels and activists. FSA guerrillas posted there to defend Atarib ride motorbikes through the battered streets, sounding their horns, celebrating good news of rebel attacks in the capital. A man is standing on top of a ruined tank in triumph. Holding his arms up high and making the victory sign with his fingers, he shouts, "Bashar is a donkey!"
The first shells hit Atarib as the sun sets. Two land near an FSA post. The rebels lie down flat on the floor of the basement or creep into corners and wrap their arms over their heads for protection. A shell has just missed the building; smoke is coming through the window and making everyone's eyes water. It smells of sulphur.
"The army shoots at us every day, but they aren't able to hit us," laughs an officer who, before the revolution, studied political science in Damascus. Two more shells land close to the house of the last remaining doctor in Atarib. Nobody is hurt, but it is the first indication that the army is starting to hit back. Only a small section of the rebel army has stayed behind to defend the town. As in many of the villages and small towns in the north of Syria, rebel units have gathered their weapons and moved to Aleppo to help expel the government troops from the city. Fighting has been going on there for days.
The general consensus among people in Atarib and Al Dana is that the regime is on its last legs. It's no longer a question of whether the end will come, but when, several told me. Some think it will only take days, others are of the opinion that it could still take weeks. But joy at the rebels' success mixes with deep anxiety. Many fear that the Assad regime will exact revenge for rebel attacks on Damascus and Aleppo. Hundreds of refugees from Atarib have taken refuge with friends and relatives in Al Dana. During the night, their foreboding turns into certainty: Shortly before eight, shells come whistling and hissing through the air. Explosions light up the night in bursts like a giant stroboscope and white plumes of smoke rise over Al Dana. Heavy artillery hammers the town from all sides. A young man points at a winking light in the sky, an aircraft humming quietly as it moves. It appears that a drone is flying over Al Dana. Seconds later, rockets slam into residential areas and FSA positions. Tracer bullets tinge the night with orange light. Fathers and mothers, holding their children by the hand, rush into their houses. Many residents try to flee from the town. Cars and minibuses crammed with people and their most essential belongings are driving in one direction, while in the opposite direction come Land Rovers and motorbikes packed with heavily armed rebels. A shell detonates. On the outskirts of the town, the rattling of rebel machine gun fire can be heard. Another shell slams down. Weapons converse with one another.
Meanwhile chaos reigns in the hospital in Al Dana. Men are carrying wounded civilians and rebel soldiers into the waiting room, or dragging the dead and wounded across the tiled floor leaving a broad trail of red blood. A nurse is kneeling on the floor, mechanically mopping up a pool of blood with a cloth until nothing remains but a pink stain. There are people grieving for friends, colleagues, brothers, sons. In front of the hospital entrance, some angry rebels are firing into the air while an orderly begs them to stop, lest they attract shell fire towards the hospital. The clinic is short of both staff and medicine: There is a doctor, an anaesthetist, two nurses and two orderlies, and not a great deal they can do.
Amid the chaos, Dr Ibrahim, the hospital's only doctor, hurries from patient to patient. His white hair sticks up wildly from his scalp. His stethoscope swings from his neck as he moves, and his lab coat is smeared with blood. He attends to a man lying on a stretcher. Blood is drips from it, gathering in a large pool on the floor. The doctor shines a flashlight into the patient's eyes; his pupils are dilated. Dr Ibrahim turns the man onto his stomach. His back has been torn open by shrapnel. Dr Ibrahim shakes his head. The man is dead. The orderlies carry him away, his head lolling back on the stretcher.
The doctor fights his way through the crowd to the next patient, pushing aside a number of weeping and wailing bystanders. An FSA guerrilla is lying on the ground. He, too, is dead. At the same moment, yet another dead man is brought in. On the edge of a seat lies an unconscious man whose foot is dangling from his leg, attached only by a strip of skin. Orderlies carry him into the operating theatre. "What difference can these casualties make?" asks the doctor in broken English "Syrians like us are being murdered day by day all over the country, and nobody is taking any notice."
A few streets away, in the basement of Abu Mustafa's house, eight people are squatting on the floor listening to the shelling as it draws steadily closer. Abu Mustafa, a 54-year old man with a white crew cut and a rattling cough, is chain-smoking while he strokes the hair of his two small granddaughters, who cling to him in fear. "Mafi mushkila, mafi mushkila," he murmurs to them over and over again. No problem, no problem. His face is smiling, but his eyes are not. His hands are trembling. He's too old to fight, but he’s offered his basement as a field hospital for wounded FSA fighters. "This is my contribution to the revolution," he says, jumping every time there is an explosion.
Twenty-one-year-old Hassan Abid is lying on his sickbed nearby. During the battle for Atarib, a bullet shattered his right leg. His face ashen, he is saying a prayer. Every time a shell falls he presses a pillow over his head as if it were a shield from danger. In the course of the night, two FSA soldiers come to guard the wounded and the host family. The fear that army or Shabiha detachments might storm the town and carry out a massacre, as they did in Houla and Tremseh, is ever present.
A shell strikes very close to Abu Mustafa's house. The walls shiver, a window pane shatters. Those who are able to walk seek refuge under the well of the stairs. Abu Mustafa remains in his living room and unrolls a prayer mat. As the shells fall over Al Dana, Abu Mustafa and the FSA fighters say the dawn prayer together. Eyes closed, hands arrayed towards Mecca, they pray to God for protection.
The attack lasts nine hours. The final bomb falls at 4:35 in the morning. It kills two sisters in their home. Other family members, armed with a torch, search among the ruins for their bodies. They carefully gather what remains of the women – an arm, a foot, part of a head, a headless torso – and put them into a black bin bag.
And then the sun rises.
Carsten Stormer is a German Asian correspondent, writer and photographer based in Manila. In the past he has worked with the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Myanmar Times in Rangoon, Burma. His work appears regulary in German and international magazines including Stern, Focus, Rogue, FAZ, FR, Cicero, Playboy, Marie Claire, Amnesty International and Readers Digest. This is his first piece for Warscapes.