It was my third trip to the Turkey-Syria border, the same trip on which I would enter Syria for the first time since leaving Aleppo in 2011. Next to me, Abu-Sayeed lit another cigarette and gave me an inquisitive look. What was her story, a female fighter going by a man’s name?
The first thing to know is that she is not a delicate flower. Before the revolution, Abu-Sayeed had a government job and taught karate on the side. Like many Syrians, she trained to use an AK-47 at school. Now she’s stationed in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, where most civilians have fled. Abu-Sayeed estimates that over the past nine months, 80 percent of her suburb has been destroyed from the unrelenting pounding of artillery.
We met in in a friend’s apartment in Gaziantep, Turkey, where I found myself in the midst of a small gathering of activists smoking cigarettes and drinking tea late into the night. On meeting Abu-Sayeed, our discussion started light, with little personal information being given away. Her cousin was also present, and together they are part of a battalion of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) located in the increasingly hard-hit suburbs of Damascus.
Abu-Sayeed is not just a fighter. Like her male counterparts in the FSA, she wears many hats. In the past two years, she says, she has slept very little. She is motivated by the adrenaline of the revolution’s early days and by a certainty that the opposition can rebuild a new, free Syria.
Abu-Sayeed’s journey from protester to fighter is complicated. Like so many other stories of this revolution, it all began with a protest. If asked, any Syrian activist can tell you about their first protest – exactly where they were, their feelings, and the sense of liberation experienced for the first time. “I screamed my first protest at the sky and it was the happiest day,” she told me. “No money in the world would make me give back this day.”
The protesters who lived in Damascus and Aleppo were initially spared the regime’s immediate violent response to the protests. Bashar al-Assad lashed out elsewhere. But war eventually came to Abu-Sayeed and her community. As the dead mounted, she and her fellow protesters were tasked with finding and notifying the families. In the early days, if protesters were not able to take the dead bodies with them while fleeing, regime soldiers would take the corpses and hold them before releasing them to their families for burial. This was in part an effort to cover up the killings, but also to prevent funeral protests from taking place.
Trust has been a problem from the outset – finding secure mechanisms for communication between activists has always been difficult here. This hampered coordination of activists nationally. “In the beginning, I only worked with my group of friends. I was afraid of getting caught … all the women would be asked to collect what they had, such as milk, to send to Homs,” Abu-Sayeed says. “I could never really trust [people outside of my network] completely.” Over time, Abu-Sayeed has expanded her network of people, but maintains a shroud of secrecy regarding her true identity, for her own and her family’s safety.
By late 2011 the situation in Homs City had deteriorated. Abu-Sayeed and other activists risked their lives to bring aid from relatively safe Damascus into war-torn Homs. By the autumn, she was regularly running aid into Homs at great risk. “The first time I went, I took 500,000 Turkish lira from a doctor in my area to the people in Homs,” she says. “Other times, I would gather whatever funds women living in my area could spare.” She continued running aid back and forth until the military campaign against the Damascus suburbs began in the summer of 2012. After that, Damascus activists were forced to focus their energy and resources on providing aid to their home, while watching Syria’s capital crumble around them.
The attacks on Damascus were relentless from the start. In early 2012, the regime laid siege to Harasta in response to the suburb’s full-throated support for the opposition. Even walking home became dangerous, but Abu-Sayeed and other residents acclimated to this strange new world. People would take cover during an unexpected rocket barrage on their evening walk home, and then continue walking home as if nothing had happened. “There are a lot of security forces between Harasta and Douma, and no taxi driver would risk driving me to my area, but would drop me off one kilometer away from the nearest entrance into the suburb,” Abu-Sayeed says. “Every time I left work, I would walk through the security, even at night. This had become our lives in the Damascus suburbs.”
Her months of aid running eventually caught up with Abu-Sayeed: She was paid a visit by the feared Mukhabarat, the regime’s ruthless intelligence unit. She was caught as she attempted to smuggle medical aid into the Douma neighborhood, and was taken to Mezzeh, one of the country’s most notorious jails.
“I was arrested Christmas Day, at the entrance of Harasta. I was taking a microbus back home. They didn’t stop me [at the Harasta checkpoint], but the Shabiha [volunteer fighters loyal to the regime] were following me via taxi and stopped the microbus,” she recalls during our chat in Gaziantep. “First, I was taken to the Harasta jail and then transferred to Mezzeh. The Shabiha thought I was smuggling weapons because I was working with another activist who was helping the FSA with weapons in Douma. When I arrived to Mezzeh, the Shabiha were saying, ‘You will have Christmas Day with us.’ I was put in a room located between two investigation rooms, and I could hear prisoners scream in the others. I was the first girl to be arrested from Harasta, so they didn’t do anything to me. I was lucky. They shouted at me for two days, and then they blindfolded me and shouted again. They put the electricity in front of my eyes, threatening to electrocute me.”
Forward thinking may have saved her from torture. “Before I was arrested, I spoke on the phone with a friend and told her that I suspected ‘it’ would happen,” she says. “Because of this, my friend was able to alert everyone. My name was sent to the Arab League, and they [fellow activists] called everyone they knew to try and have me released. Ultimately, my connections to certain elements of the FSA were able to convince officials within the regime to release me without injury.”
The experience triggered Abu-Sayeed’s decision to take up arms against the regime, making the jump from peaceful activist to opposition fighter – extremely rare for a female in this patriarchal wartime society, with female fighters still struggling against the notion that they are mere novelties. Like so many others, she says she felt she had no choice in the face of the regime’s brutality. Nonetheless, Abu-Sayeed is the logistics coordinator for her battalion. She makes sure that the fighters are fed and serves as a medic for her battalion and what’s left of the civilian population in Harasta. She is also the battalion’s spokeswoman. All of this, she says, has earned her the respect and trust of her fellow fighters.
Abu-Sayeed is also focused on creating the first all-female FSA battalion. This new battalion will provide a way for more women to participate in the war. The experiences of Abu-Sayeed and others like her have convinced many that being an unarmed woman in the Syrian conflict will not save them from being tortured, killed or raped. The cost of the conflict, she says, has been high. “Everyone in Syria will need therapy after this fighting is over. I was changing the dressing on a badly broken leg of a 15-year-old boy. It broke my heart. Every time I changed the bandage he was screaming and crying and did not want to see how badly damaged his leg was. His father began to cry for his son … it broke my heart. This is life every day in Syria.”
Abu-Sayeed’s tale is inspirational, but a recent turn of events in her life highlights the despair of the Syrian people. While in Turkey, I spoke with her cousin, Abu Buro, the commander of their battalion. “We were all peaceful activists with no interest in taking up arms. I am a civilian commander, I am not a defector, but what choice did we have?” he asked me. “We were being slaughtered, and aid from the international community and the West did not arrive. We were left fighting this brutal regime on our own, and we will likely finish this regime on our own without support.” Later, as I write this from the comforts of home, word comes that Abu Buro was killed and martyred, his female cousin left to fight their family’s battle.