Originally posted on LightBox:
In the mountains of northern Syria, the summer fruits ripened in the orchards. Farmers collected their crops, walking between olive groves, tomato patches and lush trees with a plum-like fruit they call ‘mish mish.’ It was a scene of serenity when I arrived over a week ago, surprising given the news that has streamed constantly out of Syria for the past year. Daily life must go on, my friend Mohamed said. “If you don’t work one day, maybe you won’t eat the next,” was his answer to a question on how the revolution and war affected civilians in Syria. Groups of armed Free Syrian Army fighters, many of them defectors from the military, manned check points and greeted civilians with warmth and familiarity. They knew how close the military was and how the government would not hesitate to use force, so they stayed on watch all the time, handling the meager weapons they had. AK-47s, RPGs, one tank and one 23 mm anti-aircraft gun, the latter two acquired in fights with the Syrian Army. This equipment was all they had to cover the string of more than 40 villages in the mountainous region outside of Idlib.
From our mountain top perch last Saturday, I watched the twinkling lights of the villages and towns below. And then the sickening thuds of incoming mortars erased any notion of serenity. Just 20 kilometers away, the Syrian Army was conducting its usual, almost nightly, attacks on the town of Maarat al Noman, a town of about 100,000 situated on the outskirts of Idlib City. I sat with my hosts as the word arrived about casualties. By 11 p.m., the estimated number of deaths hovered between 20 to 30—mostly the result of mortars.
We decided to go, but it would be no easy feat. The army was stationed at 13 checkpoints inside the city, as well as in the surrounding mountains and farmland. Some were as close as 4 km away. The only way to communicate with the inside was through FSA radios. After more than an hour of planning and coordination between FSA commanders, we were on our way, negotiating back roads and the lack of light. On the final stretch to the city was a Syrian Army check point, located on the top of a hill in what looked like a little house. “There, that’s the army, we’re in a dangerous area now,” Mohamed warned, but I wished he hadn’t told me. I could feel the tension in the car as Ibrahim, a shy FSA fighter who was driving, accelerated, and then I heard the crack of gunfire—four bursts. I waited for the sound of bullets hitting metal, and when it didn’t happen, a collective sigh of relief filled the car.