Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
Interviews with a Commander and a Rebel Soldier in the FSA
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. The journalist with balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond) returned from Aleppo with 20 pages of reportage for our Syria Issue, which we’ll be doling out to you over the next few days. Yesterday, we featured an oral history of his experiences in the thick of the conflict between the Assad regime and the FSA. Today, we’re serving up two interviews he conducted in the field with Haji Mara, the commander of the largest FSA brigade in Aleppo, and Abu Turab, a carpenter turned FSA rebel from Homs.
VICE: Where were you in March 2011, when the 13 boys were arrested in Daraa for spraying anti-Assad graffiti?
Abu Turab: I was at work.
Were you involved in protests? If so, what was your experience at those protests?
I took part in the protests, where I took a bullet. But I was not arrested.
Was there one specific moment when you decided, I need to fight against Assad militarily?
I began thinking about joining the FSA during the occupation of my city when the shabiha swept through.
When did you first hear about the Free Syrian Army?
The first I heard about the FSA was on TV.
Do you have family who is also fighting?
My entire family is fighting.
How did you join? What is the name of your battalion, and how was it formed?|
I cannot mention the name of the battalion, but it was formed by neighborhood residents.
What qualifications does one need to fight as part of the FSA?
Anyone can join the FSA.
How is it organized? How are decisions made in your battalion?
We make decisions collectively.
Who decides where and when you will fight?
All of us decide, together, about the fighting.
What was the very first battle you participated in with the FSA?
My first battle with the FSA was liberating Az Zahrawi palace [a historic site in Homs].
Who exactly were you fighting against?
I was fighting the shabiha.
Who were you fighting with?
I was fighting with people from Homs.
Have you seen anyone killed? If so, what was the situation?
Every day I see many people getting killed by tanks and barrel bombs. These are filled with barameel [a mixture of TNT, oil, and other substances that explodes, burns, and destroys everything] and dropped from helicopters. People are torn into small pieces.
What has been the single worst personal moment for you since the civil war began?
Since the siege started around the old parts of Homs, many injured people cannot get medical help. We are forced to use primitive tools to amputate limbs when wounds become infected. I will fight again soon.
Have you changed since you began fighting?
Yes, I am a better person now.
Have any of your opinions changed since you began fighting with the FSA?
I am more confident in God now. It became clear during this conflict that the international community had lied.
After the war, what will you do?
After this, I will go back to my job.
I Left My Family For the Free Syrian Army
Loubna Mrie grew up in a high-profile Alawite family, but unlike most of the adherents to the Twelver school of Shia Islam, Loubna does not support the Assad regime. When civil war broke out last March and Assad’s troops began shooting civilian protesters, she was persuaded by friends to support the rebels of the nascent Free Syrian Army in Damascus, where in February she was assigned to a six-month ordnance-smuggling stint.
When the revolt began I was opposed to armed revolution. Then the cruelty of the Syrian Army forced me to change my opinions about the possibility of a peaceful resistance movement.
You should know that the FSA are not a strange army that just came to Syria. They are friends whom we were protesting and working with before any sort of rebel force was actualized. I knew they needed help, so I asked what I could do. One of them said they needed bullets, so I called my friend who took me to another area (it would be irresponsible for me to say exactly where) to buy them. I later smuggled them back. It’s not complicated, but it’s very dangerous.
At checkpoints, the Alawites, Christians, and Druze (followers of a branch of Shia Islam who also incorporate other beliefs into their religion) are always free to pass—the government and the shabiha (armed men in plain clothes who support the regime) think all the activists are Sunni. They don’t thoroughly search believers of these other faiths, so they can smuggle anything easily—even guns.
THE MAN WHO WAS THERE -
ROBERT KING HAS BEEN COVERING THE FSA SO LONG THEY NAMED HIM “HAJI MEMPHIS”
(Above) September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
Ibecame interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.
GUNRUNNING WITH THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY -
THEY SAID I’D BE YELLING “ALLAHU AKHBAR” IN NO TIME
In the past few months, Assad’s forces had launched a devastating aerial campaign on FSA-occupied towns in an attempt to stamp out the democratic experiments they had built—schools, postal services, and new public-works projects had all been targeted. In recent weeks, the FSA’s supply of munitions had been bottoming out. Opposition leaders had gone to Turkey and to Sunni financiers in the Gulf in hopes of securing antiaircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s jets, but turned up empty-handed. Rumors that heavy-arms shipments were coming in by boat from Libya and France turned out to be bogus. Meanwhile, the US reprimanded Gulf countries for sending arms to support the rebels, citing fears of a growing jihadi presence within the FSA. Saudi Arabia shrugged its shoulders along with Qatar, officially stating that private donors were funneling money and guns to Salafists and foreign fighters. They warned that the absence of meaningful intervention could result in a “popular jihad,” one that would run along dangerous sectarian lines.
Since the uprising began last year, the Turkish town of Kilis has been transformed into a Casablanca of sorts—a dusty border limbo for hustlers, spies, and arms dealers. At a backroom bar in Kilis, I had met Hassan, a used-car salesman turned FSA gunrunner, who offered to take me with him into Syria. “I’d rather sell cars than run guns, but the regime shelled my garage,” he said. “What am I supposed to do?” The regime had devastated his wife’s village the year before, and so Hassan, a father of eight, had decided to organize a local militia.
Ground Zero: Syria - Allepo Field Hospital
The atrocities and war crimes currently ripping Syria apart at the seams are evident at a field hospital in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Inside the hospital exhausted doctors indiscriminately treat civilians, members of the Free Syrian Army, and captured Syrian Army troops alike.
Ground Zero: Syria - Assad’s Child Victims
VICE commissioned renowned war photographer and videographer Robert King to embed with the ragtag troops of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, smack dab in the heart of a conflict that is ripping Syria apart. He returned with footage that has made us very scared and very sad for the future of the country.
This footage was shot inside a field hospital in al-Qusayr that serviced both civilians and FSA fighters. Warning: Some of the images are very graphic and unsettling. Watch the documentary here.
VICE commissioned renowned war photographer and videographer Robert King to embed with the ragtag troops of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, smack dab in the heart of a conflict that is ripping Syria apart. He returned with footage that has made us very scared and very sad for the future of the country. We’ve compiled Robert’s footage into a series of raw, largely unedited vignettes that present a snapshot of the ancient city as it crumbles and burns while its citizens are killed indiscriminately. Watch them on VICE.com over the next month and a half, culminating in the release of VICE’s Syria Issue in November. (photo: Robert King/Polaris)