ZABADANI, SYRIA —
Abu Amer sits among strangers in the courtyard of a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain spanning the Lebanese-Syrian border. It's just after sunset. Young children scamper around a mother and grandmother as they clear plates of food off a plastic sheet spread on the concrete floor. The men smoke and drink tea.
The mood is relaxed, but Abu Amer is getting anxious. He has been away from Syria for six months and tonight he will journey back in on foot under the cover of darkness. The fighting has reached Damascus and he's headed to rejoin his family there. His response to why he left Syria is curt: "circumstances."
A friend of Abu Amer's in the Syrian town of Zabadani, twenty miles northwest of the capital, has helped to organize his return trip through a smuggling route used by the Free Syrian Army to ferry in weapons and supplies from Lebanon. As night falls, a car pulls up with its headlights off. Four men hop out and join the group. They are all Syrian, between 20 and 24 years old, and they crack jokes as they prepare for the trip. Three of them are from a small Syrian town across the border that has a long tradition of aiding smugglers. Its residents pride themselves on their knowledge of the surrounding mountains and their ability to traverse them unnoticed by army soldiers or border guards. The fourth, 21-year-old Ghazwan, is returning home to Zabadani.
Everyone is dressed in dark colors, except for Abu Amer, who wears a white T-shirt that practically glows in the moonlight. "You have something darker?" Mohamed, the 24-year-old lead guide, asks. Abu Amer nods, pulls out a black T-shirt from his backpack, and slips it on.
The group walks back to the car and the driver opens the trunk. Inside are two assault rifles, an AK-47 and a German-made H&K model G3, fitted with a scope. Mohamed's face breaks into a wide grin. "Ya Allah," he says with appreciation. Everyone piles into the car. Two of the men hold assault rifles on their laps. Cellphones are turned off.
The car stops some 200 yards away from a Lebanese army checkpoint. "Hurry, hurry!" says the driver. The group scrambles out and walks quickly to the foot of the mountain, where they begin the ascent. Mohamed leads. Abu Amer follows the group at the back. They climb straight up for ten minutes, then start to cross. The terrain is rugged, filled with loose rock, thorny bushes and steep inclines. They keep a fast pace. When the Lebanese soldiers are out of view they stop for a break. Everyone lights cigarettes.
Ghazwan introduces himself and talks about life in Zabadani, which has been under constant shelling by the Syrian army for months. He recounts being detained by security forces three months ago, casually describing how he was hung from the ceiling by his wrists and repeatedly beaten and electrocuted. After two days he was let go.
The two carrying the assault rifles are 20-year-old Rashad and 22-year-old Hassan. Ghazwan asks if they are fighters with the Free Syrian Army. "We're support," Rashad says.
Abu Amer says he is returning to Damascus to be with his family, though he's ambivalent when the others ask whether he will take up arms against the regime. Like nearly all Syrian men his age, Abu Amer, 25, had done mandatory military service. To change the subject, he asks where the Syrian border is. Mohamed points westward in the direction of the Lebanese capital. "The Syrian border is over there at Beirut," he says, laughing.
They stamp out their cigarettes and continue up the mountain. It's an arduous climb and Mohamed stops the group often for short rests; everyone is pouring with sweat. After about an hour they reach the top. From there, a flat, treeless expanse leads to another stretch of mountainous terrain.
They are entering Syria.
Mohamed stops and gathers everyone around in a huddle; the joking is over and his tone is serious. He whispers for everyone to walk single-file behind him and to tread as lightly as possible. He tells Rashad to take up the rear to make sure no one lags behind.
They walk in silence, betrayed only by the sound of their shoes crunching on the ground. The half-full moon bathes the mountainside in a monochrome of pale silver. They continue for hours, rarely stopping. No cigarettes are lit. Every so often someone loses his footing, sending a stream of loose rock tumbling down and earning a glare of disapproval from Mohamed.
Finally, they reach a dirt and gravel path that winds along the side of the mountain. After a few minutes, the lights of a small town come into view. Mohamed stops to make a call, shielding the glow of his cellphone screen with his hand. There is an army base and several checkpoints on the outskirts of the town. He continues forward, weaving his way across its perimeter, along dirt paths and through fruit orchards, in a giant zig-zag to avoid the unseen soldiers.
Mohamed and Rashad disappear into a fruit orchard and come back with handfuls of apples. They are small and green and sweet. "Those apples saved me," Abu Amer says after eating three. He is visibly exhausted.
A little more than five hours after they left, they finally reach their destination for the night. It's 2:30 in the morning.
A Free Syrian Army soldier in a black jacket and camouflage pants, with a pistol strapped to his belt, greets them warmly. Shortly afterwards, a pickup truck with its lights off pulls up along a nearby dirt road. The group clambers into the back and is driven to a small house in town.
Everyone is ushered into a green-carpeted room with cushions on the floor. (Gatherings with tables and chairs are a rare phenomenon in the Syrian countryside.) A jug of water is passed around and food is spread out on a plastic sheet: sliced tomatoes, white cheese, French fries, olives, hummus and a hot pan of scrambled eggs. No utensils; instead, everyone is handed a sheet of the large, circular flat bread that is a staple of every meal in Syria.
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."