So what did you do?
“When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years and then we said: ‘It’s enough.’ So we decided to move to the city. I got a government job as a nurse and my husband opened a shop. It was hard. The majority of people left the village and went to the city to find jobs, anything to make a living to eat,” she said.
The drought was particularly hard on young men who wanted to study or marry, but could no longer afford either, she added. Families married off daughters at earlier ages because they could not support them.
Faten, her head conservatively covered in a black scarf, said the drought and the government’s total lack of response radicalized her. So when the first spark of revolutionary protest was ignited in the small southern Syrian town of Daraa, in March 2011, Faten and other drought refugees could not wait to sign on.
“Since the first cry of Allahu Akbar (“God is great”), we all joined the revolution. Right away,” she said.
Was this about the drought?
“Of course,” she said, “the drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution.”
Zakaria Zakaria was a teenager in nearby Hasakah Province when the drought hit and he recalled the way it turned proud farmers, masters of their own little plots of land, into humiliated day laborers, working for meager wages in the towns “just to get some money to eat.”
What was most galling to many, said Zakaria, was that if you wanted a steady government job you had to bribe a bureaucrat or know someone in the state intelligence agency.
The best jobs in Hasakah Province, Syria’s oil-producing region, were with the oil companies. However, drought refugees, virtually all of whom were Sunni Muslims, could only dream of getting hired there.
“Most of those jobs went to Alawites from Tartous and Latakia,” Zakaria said, referring to the minority sect to which al-Assad belongs and which is concentrated in these coastal cities.
“It made people even more angry. The best jobs on our lands in our province were not for us, but for people who come from outside,” he added.
Only in the spring of 2011, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, did the al-Assad government start to worry about the drought refugees, Zakaria said, because on March 11 — a few days before the Syrian uprising would start in Daraa — al-Assad visited Hasakah, a very rare event.
“So I posted on my Facebook page: ‘Let him see how people are living,’” Zakaria said. “My friends said I should delete it right away, because it was dangerous. I wouldn’t. They didn’t care how people lived.”
Abu Khalil, 48, is one of those who did not just protest. A former cotton farmer who had to become a smuggler to make ends meet for his 16 children after the drought wiped out their farm, he is now the Free Syrian Army commander in the Tel Abyad area. We met at a crushed Syrian army checkpoint. After being introduced by our Syrian go-between, Abu Khalil, who was built like a tough little boxer, introduced me to his fighting unit. He did not introduce them by rank but by blood, pointing to each of the armed men around him and saying: “My nephew, my cousin, my brother, my cousin, my nephew, my son, my cousin ...”
Free Syrian Army units are often family affairs. In a country where the government for decades wanted no one to trust anyone else, it is no surprise.