The fighting in Zabadani culminated in a major assault by the regime in mid-January. The armed rebels mounted a fierce resistance, destroying a couple of tanks, and forced the regime to negotiate a temporary ceasefire five days later. It marked the first time in the Syrian uprising that rebels had forced the army to abandon a major offensive. The ceasefire may also have been partly attributable to an Arab League mission deployed in the country to monitor the violence, and which appeared to have pressured the regime to back down.
The military retreated about five miles but remained surrounding the town. Nevertheless, locals speak proudly of when they "liberated" Zabadani. "We were a step ahead of the revolution," says Hakim al-Tinnawi, a 21 year-old army defector.
It turned out to be a brief respite. Less than three weeks after the negotiated ceasefire, the regime mounted a massive offensive, launching a week-long tank and artillery bombardment that left over 100 people dead. The rebels surrendered the town on February 11 and Syrian army forces reentered Zabadani.
The army set up a number of isolated checkpoints with tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers manned by a small number of soldiers at various intervals in the town. While the checkpoints remain, the military presence on the streets is largely confined.
"The army only controls certain areas," says Abo Khattab. "You could say that more than 70 percent of Zabadani is liberated."
The once feared security services and mukhabarat still have some offices in town, but residents say they are fearful of being attacked and have tried to strike a more conciliatory tone. Last month, a local security official called a meeting with the town elders and militia leaders to negotiate.
"We told him: 'For forty years we carried you. Your corruption and brutality and oppression. All we asked for was some freedoms and reform. You could have given us something, instead you shot at us. Now there is no going back, you brought this on yourselves,'" recounts Khaled al-Tinnawi.
While the street fighting in Zabadani has stopped, with local Free Syrian Army fighters refraining from attacking any of the checkpoints, the regime has proceeded to shell the town on an almost daily basis. Most of the attacks come from tanks and artillery guns stationed in the eastern mountains, primarily targeting the western neighborhood of Hara, seen as the heart of the resistance. Nearly all the residents of Hara have been displaced, many of them moving to the east side of town, staying with relatives or squatting in empty villas and apartments owned by summer vacationers predominantly from the Gulf. Others have left Zabadani altogether, crossing the border into nearby Lebanon.
Hara is now largely desolate and eerily quiet. The crackle of ever-present walkie talkies carried by the few residents and fighters that refuse to leave is punctuated by the booms of the shelling. During heavy assaults, people gather in small, ground-floor rooms lined with sandbags that serve as makeshift bunkers. They argue over the sounds of war: "That was a tank shell." "No it was a Howitzer, trust me."
Electricity is brought in using generators or wires strung along buildings from other parts of town that still have power. Water is pumped from wells and stored on rooftop tanks. It is a life of chores, of uncertainty, and of waiting.
After a rare two-day lull in the shelling, 25 year-old Kenaan al-Tinnawi decides to return to his home in Hara with his parents and younger brother, after having taken refuge at his uncle's apartment in a safer part of town. That night, they sit sipping tea in the third-floor family living room after finishing iftar, the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Kenaan recalls his imprisonment a year earlier, when he was held for thirty-three days in a suffocating, overcrowded cell after being detained by security forces in a random sweep of the neighborhood.
His story is interrupted in mid-sentence by the deafening blast of a shell landing nearby. The lights go out, leaving the room in utter darkness. Seconds later, another shell lands, this time on an adjacent rooftop no more than 15 yards away. The house shakes with the ferocity of the blast. Shrapnel punctures the outer walls and shatters the balcony windows. The family rushes downstairs in a panic, guided by the dim glow of cell phone screens. They huddle on the ground floor. The shock of the attack quickly gives away to anger. "May God break their hands," Kenaan's mother says, tilting her head back and looking upwards at the ceiling.
The following morning, the family packs their belongings into a car and returns back to the safer part of town on the eastern bank of the valley. Their neighbor, 23 year-old Emad Khareeta, waves them off as they drive away. He is among the few who refuse to leave Hara, despite the continuous shelling by the regime.
"Either we leave victorious or we leave to the graveyard," he says with a smile, before going back into his house.
This is the first in a three-part series on Syria. Check out our slideshow, Zabadani: A City Under Siege.
Editor's Note: Some of the names of people have been changed to protect their identity.