'We are not afraid of Assad any longer. But why must more people die?'


Kim Sengupta
Saturday 25 February 2012 01:00

The bodies were in a field, dumped during the night. They were men who had been arrested and taken away for interrogation after the forces of the Syrian regime began a vicious and vengeful sweep through this region.

The families in the village of Kurin have not been able to collect and bury their dead because they would be walking into a trap; any approach so far, they say, has been met with sniper fire. A force of rebel fighters who went to carry out the task twice had to retreat under fire from mortars.

Their commander, Abdul Haq, spread his hands in apology. "If we went any further there would be more killed, more for us to try and bring back. We feel we are failing our people, but we cannot match the weapons of the enemy."

Yesterday, as the savage strife continued, the Friends of Syria – America, Western Europe and the Arab countries – meeting in Tunis issued yet another ultimatum to Bashar al-Assad and announced that the opposition group, the Syrian National Council, would be recognised as the legitimate government by a number of states, including the UK.

None of this brings much relief in these killing grounds. The estimate of fatalities varies: according to the United Nations it is around 5,400, while activists say it is around 7,300. But it is a figure rising daily and, to those who have borne the losses, it seems little is being done to stop the murderous campaign.

Nor is there much enthusiasm for the Syrian National Council. Few in the rural areas have heard of it and many among those who have, including rebel fighters, view them as preaching revolution from a comfortable exile.

Here in Idlib province, in north-western Syria, The Independent found the reality is of troops and armour backed by the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, systematically going through the area, killing more people in the last four days than have fallen victim even in the terrible bombardment of Homs.

Almost every village and township has tales of being visited by organised violence. On the day that the eight bodies were found at Kurin, activists were being held at Azmarin, Idita, Iblin and Bashon, on occasions after being identified by informers.

Six were arrested at Darkush, including a 13-year-old boy and a schoolteacher. There "they had a list, they knew the ones they wanted" said Issa Mohammed, 22. "No one could go to help them because there were so many roadblocks. If anyone said anything they would be captured as well."

One needs to be cautious of these accounts in such a bloody conflict in which hurt and anger, as well as political expediency, can lead to embellished tales.

But here residents would come forward with names of those killed and detained, albeit with requests that the names of those still thought to be alive should not be made public because this may expedite their deaths and put relations and friends in harm's way.

Abd Jibilawe, from al-Janoudiyah, described how three friends have lost their lives so far, before adding quietly "and there was Ahmed Jibilawe who was my cousin and my best friend".

At a hamlet near Darkush, Hasina Um Samin was mourning her brother, Abu Khalid. "We are just poor people, we have not done anything bad," she said, huddled under a thin blanket at her home, unheated because of a lack of fuel. "Still they came and took him. We thought it must be a mistake, but we don't know where he is. We fear will not see him again."

There is little defence in Idlib against a state which is clearly waging a war on its own people. The revolutionaries here are mainly local men, with courage but no military training and woefully short of anything like adequate arms and ammunition. Witnessing their plight, one had wry memories of rebels in Libya firing thousands of rounds into the air, often in celebration of imaginary victories.

The Libyan revolution was, of course, facilitated by months of Nato bombing. The constant question here is why no military action has followed grandiose statements by the West. For the time being, however, the rebels would be grateful for supplies which would go some way towards enabling them to take on the regime.

Commander Haq, a 34-year-old mechanic, has around 50 fighters under his command, but not even one semi-automatic rifle between them. Instead they pass around 20 hunting rifles, shotguns and handguns and one set of body armour brought over by a soldier who defected.

As we sat at his base, a farm building in the hills above Darkush, pinned down by a burst of machine-gun fire flying overhead, he opened a rucksack containing cartridges. "This is what I've been sent. Perhaps the Syrian National Council can send us some proper guns and ammunition from all the international money they are getting. Look at these, how old they are. Some of these are rusting. Some of these are not even the right type for the guns we have."

At this point a Remington pump-action shotgun one of his men was using simply fell apart, possibly due to metal fatigue. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the men were keen to show other examples of their antiquated armoury – a Soviet Star pistol proudly bearing the place of manufacture, CCCP, and the date, 1948. Britain, too had provided a little help for the Syrian revolution – a Webley revolver, circa the 1930s.

Later in the afternoon, during a break in the shooting, another commander, Abu Staif, came in proudly bearing the favoured tool of revolutionaries the world over, a Kalashnikov AK-47.

This one, the first for the group, was a regime-issue weapon. It had not been captured but bought from a member of the Shabiha. "It cost us $2,000 – even then we had to wait for almost two months," said Commander Staif. "The man who sold it to us stole it from another person from the Shabiha so the registration would not get back to him if Bashar's people capture it back.

"The Shabiha and the army are both corrupt, just like the rotten regime they serve. The soldiers are more corrupt. One officer offered to sell us his entire checkpoint with tanks, but he wanted more money than we could ever have. The Shabiha are more difficult because they are Alawites and they hate us."

The price of a Kalashnikov of similar vintage would probably be around $300 in places like Afghanistan. The Syrian rebels insist paying so much is not an illustration of being flush with Qatari or Saudi largesse, but rather of having to turn to wherever they can.

Most of their funding, they claimed, came from donations raised by local communities. This, however, has suffered a setback because one of their main fund-raisers had been killed that morning at Jisr al-Shughour.

"They used an agent. He was sent to find out who were the organisers, and they came and shot him in front of his family," said Izzedin Hihano, a revolutionary from the town.

"For years, the Assads controlled us by fear. We are not afraid any longer. People would rather die than go back to that. But why must that happen? Why must more die? We need help quickly – we are desperate."

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