Less than five months ago, this poor rural town on the outskirts of Homs was a passive place whose residents vented their anger at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at weekly rallies; never through the barrel of a gun.
An army attack on Sept. 23 last year changed all that. Now the town is a stronghold of armed resistance in Syria’s west. The Free Syria Army has a stronger presence here than in most other towns and villages stretching south to Lebanon, or north to the Turkish border.
On Sunday, the insurgents’ ranks swelled further with the defection just after dawn of 15 Syrian troops, including an officer. The group gave themselves up to a local commander and were aggressively grilled all day by rebels who feared a trap.
Not far away from the Soviet-style schoolyard that served as the defectors’ interrogation center, a town elder was holding court. He calls himself Abu Qassem and he is known locally as the “father of the two martyrs.”
The deaths in September of Abu Qassem’s sons, Ashraf and Yathreb, seemed to electrify an uprising here that had, until that point, been not much more than intermittent outbreaks of open defiance, followed in turn by regime security sweeps.
“I was in my field with my three sons,” Abu Qassem said. “My land is about 600m long and I left them at the end of the field. People started running toward me and the army started shooting in all directions.”
Abu Qassem could not reach his sons nor could he contact them on their mobiles. The following day, his daughter called the phone of one of the missing sons, Ashraf. This time somebody answered. Nobody spoke, but in the background she could hear soldiers cursing Ashraf, Abu Qassem said.
“She heard one of them say [to an officer]: ‘Sir he is wounded,’” he said. Then came a reply: “Kill him.”
She heard three shots and the phone went dead.
The following day, a relative formally identified the two men at the hospital and took them to their father. At first, he celebrated his sons’ martyrdom and refused condolences.
Then last month, his third son, Gharedin, who had been captured with his brothers, returned from four months in prison. That was when Abu Qassem learned what had happened to his sons after they were captured.
“Ashraf was on the ground,” Abu Qassem said. “He’d been wounded and they were hitting him with their rifles. He turned to Gharedin and said: ‘Please tell my father I send him peace and my regards. Please tell the same to my mother and my brother’s daughter.’”
With that, the 73-year-old father and elder broke down, sobbing tears of a still unfathomable loss.
“He died three times, once when they beat him, once when he sent his family his regards and once when they killed him,” Abu Qassem said.
Abu Qassem was himself a career military man under late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. He retired 22 years ago and does not like to talk about his service.
Many in the slowly swelling ranks of the Free Syria Army appear to be dealing with similar demons.
“We did what we had to do,” said one soldier, who defected a month ago. “It’s nothing to talk about with you.”
A kilometer past the last checkpoint on the town’s western outskirts, is a place the collective band of rebels is clearly uncomfortable with. We were taken to a large hole in a pasture, which looked like the aftermath of an airstrike, but was more likely a purpose-dug mass grave.