'We are getting more organised and disciplined'

Tue, Jul 31, 2012, 01:00

While fear of Assad’s regime persists across the region, people are increasingly taking up arms to fight against government forces, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Maaret al-Numan, northern Syria

THE LAST thing Sami Uktar, a rangy 20 year old with a closely cropped beard, remembers from the most recent battle in his hometown was the burning sensation as large pieces of shrapnel flew at him, embedding in his chest, arms and leg.

That and the whirring of helicopters overhead interspersed with the sounds of mortars and shelling as he fell to the ground.

Uktar, who says he defected from the Syrian army to join rebel fighters months ago, now rests in a second-floor flat in Maaret al-Numan, a town in the northwestern province of Idlib, where opposition forces still battle pockets of Assad loyalists.

“This regime belittled us for years,” Uktar said. “Our fight is a fight for dignity.”

Uktar was injured during a 12-hour battle last Friday during which rebels overran a military post in the town and routed some 50 regime troops, capturing several.

About 10 people were killed, according to opposition fighters: seven soldiers and three civilians, including a mother and child.

Much of the fighting took place around Maaret al-Numan’s imposing early 16th-century khan. The shutters of neighbouring shops are now pocked and warped by artillery fire.

Red-painted rebel graffiti on the walls of the abandoned military post reads: “Damascus, we are coming!”

Hassan Barakat, a burly, bearded man who leads one of the town’s main rebel brigades, surveyed the scene.

“This area was an army post and they killed many of our fellow thowar [revolutionaries] in recent months. We decided to join forces to get rid of them for good.”

Barakat says his brigade took shape months ago after a group of his neighbours and friends decided to take up arms to defend themselves against government forces.

It has now joined with Liwa al-Umma, a conglomeration of brigades founded and overseen by Mehdi al-Harati, a Libyan-born Irish citizen who first came to Syria 10 months ago after leading one of the first rebel units into Tripoli during the Libyan revolution last year.

“We are getting more organised and more disciplined. We are starting to work together and it is making a difference to our revolution,” said Barakat.

Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 positioned on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo some 70km to the north, is predominantly Sunni and has experienced regular spasms of unrest during the 16-month uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The town has a storied and violent past. The Byzantines passed through here, as did the Fatimids, but Maaret al-Numan’s bloodiest chapter involved the Crusaders who halted here on their initial march to Jerusalem. They besieged the town and instigated a massacre, which resulted in the killing of thousands of its inhabitants.

In mid-June, Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships swept into Maaret al-Numan just days after laying siege to it, causing many of its residents to flee. Today, as in so many other towns and villages in Syria’s northern flank, normal life seems suspended.

Appearances can be deceptive: a massive mural in the colours of the green, white and black standard adopted by the Syrian opposition adorns the wall in front of the town’s municipality offices next to a defaced portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez.

The flag also flutters from several buildings but rebels here acknowledge that there remains a government security presence in the town.

Opposition fighters become jittery at intersections close to military posts, and they do not like to linger for long in certain locations. One fighter points out a white building several stories high which is known to house regime snipers who appreciate the vantage point it provides over a strategic bridge.

As we cross the bridge to leave Maaret al-Numan, a car travelling behind ours is strafed with bullets.

One rebel fighter who gives his name as Abu Mahmoud admits some ordinary residents of the town remain loyal to the regime and a number of them have taken up arms in its defence.

“They are afraid,” he says by way of explanation. “You must understand how this regime has shaped people’s mentalities over decades. They cannot believe the regime’s days are numbered.”

In a school-turned-makeshift detention centre on the other side of town, three men sit and mull their fate. They were captured during last Friday’s battle and insist they are just regular police officers, not more senior security officials, as the rebels holding them claim.

“We were not involved in military activities but we regret not joining the revolution earlier,” says one moustachioed man as he fingers prayer beads.

“We couldn’t move, they were watching us the whole time, the regime had its guns on us too.”

The men say they are being treated well in detention. The rebels insist the trio will be held until Assad falls.

The man who caught them, who goes by the name Abu Ali, is adamant: “They will get a proper trial in the new Syria.”