ZABADANI, SYRIA —
Mustafa al-Dahab, 58, drives past shuttered shops on a deserted street in Hara, a neighborhood in this picturesque resort town located 20 miles northwest of Damascus. His nephew, five year-old Adee Adalati, is next to him in the passenger seat. It's just after 11:00 on a Wednesday morning.
More than two miles away, hidden from view, a soldier overlooking the town from a tank on an eastern mountaintop opens fire, launching a shell into the sky that arcs towards them.
The car takes a direct hit, ripping apart from the force of the blast and bursting into flames. Mustafa's lifeless body lands aside the wreckage, his face smashed in beyond recognition. Adee's legs are crushed inside the car, his head is blown off entirely.
Moments later, two more shells follow. One crashes into the front porch of a neighboring house, sending shrapnel and debris into the living room, from which a pair of children emerge miraculously unharmed. The other strikes the first floor of an abandoned apartment building.
Local residents rush outside, carrying buckets of water and fire extinguishers to try and retrieve Mustafa and Adee's charring bodies. But the faint boom of a tank firing in the distance signals another coming shell, sending them scrambling for shelter before an ear-splitting explosion rips through the neighborhood seconds later. Indoors, young children huddle beside their mothers. Wide-eyed and afraid, their hands cover their ears as they wait for another strike.
Eight shells are fired within 45 minutes before the assault ends and the sound of chaos finally subsides, replaced by the rising wails of those mourning the dead.
This is life in Zabadani.
Seventeen months after the Syrian revolution began, the people living in this town have grown grimly accustomed to a daily routine of indiscriminate violence, of shelling from afar.
Unlike the raging street battles in the nearby capital or in Aleppo to the north, the armed struggle for strategic control of this town of 40,000 people has effectively reached a stalemate. The town is, by and large, controlled by residents and fighters with the Free Syrian Army — which in Zabadani are made up almost entirely of local volunteers and defecting soldiers hailing from the area.
"Zabadani is largely ours, we control it," says Khaled al-Tinnawi, a 65-year-old influential town elder. "Yes, they shell us but if they try and come in they know we are all prepared to die."
No longer interested in engaging on the ground, the regime has taken to assaulting the town from a distance, delivering a daily barrage of tank and artillery shells from the mountains above.
"Nowhere in the area is secure. Every time I hear shelling I think it could land on me and my family," says Abo Hakim, a 54 year-old father of three. "It comes in a completely random manner. They hardly target, they just fire."
Nestled in a valley in the Syrian countryside, Zabadani was once a popular summer destination for tourists from the Persian Gulf. Renowned for its water, cool climate and striking scenery, with mountains of rock and reddish earth towering over low-lying apartment blocks and villas that give way to lush green orchards. "Zabadani is heaven," says 21-year-old Ghazwan Rahmi, echoing a phrase favored by local residents.
It is now transformed into a city under siege. Many residents have fled, buildings bear the scars of shelling, and young men — many carrying walkie talkies and assault rifles — gather in houses largely without electricity or running water. The local economy, that relies primarily on tourism and the fruit harvest, is on the verge of collapse.
Characteristic of a revolution that began in the countryside, Zabadani was one of the earliest towns to stage demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with residents taking to the streets two weeks after the uprising in Deraa on March 15, 2011.
"We began demonstrating because we were choking," says Ghazwan. "Choking from corruption, injustice, the security forces."
As with other towns and cities at the outset of the Syrian revolution, the demonstrations were overwhelmingly nonviolent in the beginning. Men and women of all ages gathered in front of a mosque in the town square of Sahet el Jisr, what some here refer to as their own version of Egypt's Tahrir Square.
The regime responded with a swift crackdown, with security forces and government thugs — known as "shabbiha" — attacking protesters and conducting multiple neighborhood raids to detain those suspected of involvement.
On May 27, 2011, Hussein Sleekha, a 26-year-old protester, was shot in the stomach by security forces during a weekly Friday demonstration. He bled to death after being prevented medical care. His name is known throughout Zabadani as the town's first revolutionary martyr.
As the protests grew, so did the regime's violent response, and the death toll climbed. By August 2011, young men had begun to take up arms — primarily assault rifles — to defend against military attacks. In the weeks and months that followed, their ranks grew to include soldiers from Zabadani who had begun to defect from the regular army. They fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, though they had little coordination with armed rebels in other revolting Syrian cities or with the leadership of more senior defectors in southern Turkey.
"The revolution became militarized," says Mohammed Abo Khattab, a 24-year-old media activist. "People that were unarmed at first decided to arm themselves. The regime made this happen."
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.