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."