Mohamed, Rashad and Hassan are glad to be back in their hometown and are in high spirits as they greet people. For them, this is routine. They make the grueling trek nearly every night, ferrying people and supplies back and forth.
The soldier, 32-year-old Abu Riad, inspects one of the rifles, taking it apart then quickly reassembling it. He served in the army for five years and says he defected in June 2011, while stationed in Deraa. The conversation turns to the escalating fighting in Aleppo and Damascus. "We have hope, of course," Abu Riad says. "We help each other, so they will lose. But when Bashar goes we will have fifteen years of chaos. This is his fault."
Sunrise is approaching and everyone gets up to leave. Abu Amer is taken to a nearby house to sleep. Shalaan, a short, rail-thin 24-year-old, is hosting him in his family home and leads him indoors to a similar-looking carpeted room with cushions lining the floor and walls.
When Abu Amer wakes up late the following day, Shalaan is already up. He instructs Abu Amer to stay in the room until nightfall, at which point he will start the second leg of his journey, over another mountain, to reach Zabadani.
Shalaan stays in the room to keep him company; he is talkative. "It's calm in this town. We didn't go out and demonstrate here," Shalaan says. "But we support the revolution this way. We can be more helpful like this."
Shalaan has three younger brothers. Two of them, twins, are currently in the army completing their mandatory service. One is serving in Aleppo, the other in Raqqa, both hundreds of miles to the north. The brother in Aleppo has tried to defect, but problems arose with the meeting point he had arranged with his contacts. Shalaan worries he has been captured by the regime. "His phone is off. I haven't heard from him in five days," he says with a forlorn expression. "My whole family is opposed to Bashar al-Assad."
The day goes by slowly and both Shalaan and Abu Amer are fasting. Sunset finally approaches and the call to prayer rings out across the town. After they eat, they pray together, with Abu Amer leading the prayer after much insistence from Shalaan. As Abu Amer recites the fatiha, the opening lines of the Koran, he is interrupted by the crackle of gunfire in the distance. As soon as they finish praying, Shalaan steps outside.
A short while later, his mother bursts into the room, a look of deep alarm on her face. Abu Amer has not met her until now. "Where's Shalaan?" she asks. "He left," says Abu Amer. "The army is raiding houses, get your things together, it's not safe," she says. Shalaan returns minutes later, slightly out of breath and looking worried. He explains that a group of soldiers stationed on the edge of town was caught trying to defect and a firefight broke out. An officer was reportedly killed.
"We have to move you to another house, a safer one. Yallah, quickly," Shalaan says. They exit through the back of the house, where a friend is waiting. Shalaan tells his mother to turn the kitchen lights off. Tensions are running high. Shalaan leads them in a semi-jog through a small farmyard and over a low-lying wire fence to a secluded house atop a hill.
Shalaan's friend unlocks the door and they enter in silence. The house is pitch-black; they dare not use even their cellphone screens for fear the light will be seen. They feel their way to a bedroom, where they sit on the floor and whisper. Shalaan goes to the window and peers out, his motionless silhouette the only visible shape in the room. They stay there for hours.
Life in this Syrian town had become a cat-and-mouse game, a daily regimen of hiding from the army. The local community has provided a network of support, without which the opposition could not have survived. The players have been brought together by the camaraderie of joint resistance.
Shalaan leaves and returns with food for sohour — the pre-sunrise meal to prepare for the next day's fast. There will be no walk to Zabadani that night. It is far too dangerous. Abu Amer will have to wait another day in the safe house. With nothing to do, he sleeps through most of the next day.
Finally, night falls and it's time to go. Abu Amer steps outside with Shalaan to find Ghazwan standing waiting for them. Shalaan leads them behind the house up a steep hill. Two men are waiting for them at the top, carrying the assault rifles brought in from Lebanon two nights before. Shalaan quickly greets them and introduces Abu Amer and Ghazwan before bidding farewell and heading home.
The men lead Abu Amer and Ghazwan on another grueling ascent. The terrain is easier but the incline is very steep. In two hours they reach the summit, where they are met by two youths, 16 and 18, both from Zabadani. They offer canteens of water and walking sticks to Abu Amer and Ghazwan, before setting off with them. As they cross the mountain peak, the lights of Zabadani come into view in the picturesque valley below, a peaceful scene that is shattered almost immediately by the deep booms of shelling that fill the night sky.
As they descend, the only sounds are of the intermittent shelling and a dog barking in the distance. One of the youths points out an army checkpoint jutting out on the side of the mountain. He pauses to talk into a walkie-talkie before continuing down. After an hour and a half, they reach level ground, where they are greeted by an older resident holding a walkie-talkie. He leads them along a path to a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Inside, they are offered fruits and tea. Abu Amer is exhausted but happy to have arrived; the journey from Lebanon has taken two days.
"I'll rest tomorrow," he says. "Then I need to see about getting to Damascus."