It took 25-year-old Usama, a former soldier with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who had injured his leg in battle, 12 hours to travel from the Syrian village of Ain al-Hour to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where he sought medical care.
Fighters routinely undergo the long, perilous foot journey to Lebanon’s impoverished northern valley to seek medical care, which is cheaper and more accessible than what they might find in Syria.
Usama’s journey to the Bekaa field hospital where he was treated began in al-Zabadani, in rural Damascus, the city where he became an activist, then an FSA fighter.
After a bomb destroyed his house, his family fled to the town of Serghaya. Usama chose to stay and defend his city. “Months passed before I got to see my family. So many checkpoints separated us,” he says. “When my brother Tariq was released after six months in the government’s prisons, I found hope when I started to use his ID card at the checkpoints on my way to Serghaya. I was able to see my family that way for three months.”
Finally, he says a government informant recognized him at a checkpoint while he was on his way to visit his family. He was arrested and held in the guards’ leisure room. One day, he noticed that heavy traffic had distracted them and decided to escape. When he climbed the wall, an officer saw him and started shooting. “I fell off the wall and started running between the sand barricades towards the orchards. The officers sprayed the orchards with bullets. A bullet hit my foot at the ankle and exited from my toe. I bled for 10 hours,” he says.
Looking for shelter, Usama found himself in the village of Ain al-Hour. He hid in the house of an old woman whose three children had been arrested by the government the year before. The woman treated his wounds, saving the leg. The next day, he left. Despite the injury, he says he walked for 12 hours before reaching the Beqaa through a road cutting through the border village of Maarboun (locally, it’s called the “smuggling road”). Safely in Lebanon, he went to a field hospital that treats Syrians and stayed there a month, until the leg had healed.
Usama was excited to go back to his city and to resume fighting with the FSA, and he took the same smuggling route back into Syria. On the way back, “I visited the old woman who welcomed me and the guys with me,” he says. “She was very happy to see me and I felt like I was one of her own children.”
Shortly after his return, in January 2012, the siege on al-Zabadani began and Usama was unable to see his family. Months later, he finally saw them when they were able to visit al-Zabadani. Though the moderate opposition’s stature on the battlefield has slipped as extremist groups consolidate their power, Usama still fights with the FSA and refuses to leave his city. “I will stay here to the very end, even if I have to pay my life as a price for that,” he says.