Syria: 'Our men say they are going to fight to save our country'

Kim Sengupta meets the rebels' families who are living through an ever bloodier war against Assad

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The tanks and troops of the regime were leaving in swirls of dust and so were the revolutionaries in their pick-up trucks and cars; implacable enemies heading for their rendezvous in Aleppo. Left behind were the families of the opposition fighters, helping their men prepare for the battles ahead and then waving goodbye without knowing whether they would ever see them again.

"It is so hard when you wait and do not know what is going to happen. We cannot go with our husbands and sons, so all we can do is worry," Hania Um Khazali sighed. "But I also tell my friends, my daughters, that we must be strong, it is all in Allah's hands."

Convoys of regime forces have been moving towards Syria's largest city for the latest bloody showdown in this long and bitter struggle to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a result the shelling in the areas near the border with Turkey has died down, there seemed to be fewer checkpoints and military patrols.

The rebels have attempted to ambush regime forces on the move; but, it appeared, with only limited effect. The most successful operation was claimed to have been at Jabal al-Zawiya, where a convoy was forced to turn back with around half dozen soldiers killed or injured.

For the residents in this region of northern Syria, the prevailing mood was one of uncertainty. They had heard about air strikes on Aleppo and wild rumours circulated of chemical weapons being used. There was also the fear, which both they and the fighters hesitated to express, that the regime was still too strong, and may prevail as it has done in Damascus, despite the bombing that killed four of Assad's closest advisers and despite the rebels taking over districts in the capital.

If the government does win this latest round of fighting, the fear is that retribution will be visited on the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib. Hania Um Khazali, 56, lost a cousin and a brother-in-law at the hands of the Shabiha, the militia of the Alawite community from which the country's elite is drawn, and which has been blamed for some of the most vicious atrocities in the conflict. Her concern now is for her husband Abdulbakr and son Abdusalem, 22, who were both heading for the frontline.

Speaking at her home in Bishmarun, Mrs Um Khazali said: "How could I stop them? They said they are going to free the country. I hope they will be back soon in case something happens here. We had the military and the Shabiha come through here in the past, they shot people, arrested people. I hope they never come back, but we have to be prepared in case they do."

Mrs Um Khazali and her three daughters will move in with relations at a nearby village if there is an emergency. The traditional support system of the extended family and community has proved to be so useful in this time of strife. They were looking after Manu Mohammed Qasim, in her mid-20s, left widowed with a little boy of four and a girl aged six.

Mrs Qasim's immediate family had already gone to a refugee camp in Turkey when her husband Zaied was killed. Sitting with the hem of her hijab pulled down over her face, the young woman said she did not know when she would see her family again: "After this is over, maybe they will come back. We have spoken about me going over there, but the road is too hard and dangerous, I cannot risk it with the children. They have been very upset by their father's death, they get scared very easily now. Last night they were crying so much because of the noise [of shelling]."

There is no shortage of families damaged by the conflict in this region. The village of Basheria was shelled by tanks and then, according to local people, a gang of the Shabiha came in firing indiscriminately, looting and burning homes.

One woman, Salma, had a gun held to the head of her young boy as they demanded to know the whereabouts of her husband. After they fled to the home of her brother in another village; she returned a little late to find her home had been burnt down.

Amira and Abdul Khader lost their 15-year-old son, Ali Ismael, in the same raid, shot in the neck as, frightened of being arrested, he tried to run up a hill to a wood. For the next 70 days the family stayed in the village, worried that any movement may provoke soldiers from a nearby military base to open fire. "I do not know why they killed him," said Mrs Khader, "he was not a soldier, surely everyone could see that."

A mother sits outside her house at Basheria which was half destroyed by mortar rounds, day after day, holding a photograph of her dead son. Like the others, her sadness and shock is mixed with incomprehension as to why the attack took place. The family has refused to leave, staying in the few rooms which have not suffered too much damage. They will rebuild, they said, when the fighting ends.