With no income, rocketing prices and increasing violence, villagers in the outskirts of Aleppo have been forced out, leaving the countryside to rebel soldiers
Fuel oil for cooking began to run out in Derat Azza about a month ago. Now, nightly meals in this village near Syria’s second city of Aleppo are prepared with scavenged firewood in the courtyards of people’s homes. Thin black columns of smoke start to rise at dusk and are soon absorbed by the gathering dark. Then the only lights visible in this blacked out village on the outskirts of Aleppo are the orange flames of the cooking fires.
Most people here say they have not received a salary since 2011 and even the basics of life are well beyond their reach. Where fuel oil can be found it costs about £9 a litre. Meat is also prohibitively expensive, so the people eat eggs or potatoes. Even these are now in short supply.
Bootleg petrol costs around £2 a litre, more than 10-times its pre-revolution price, and the few cars that move in Derat Azza run on improvised benzine, crackling and thumping their way around Derat Azza’s narrow lanes like cartoon jalopies.
The story is the same across a swathe of northern Syria. Villages under siege, dangerous roads and scarce fuel have slowed commerce to a halt.
Apart from the crash of the occasional artillery shell, the opposition-held village is eerily quiet. After the paper factory was shelled early this month almost all women and children left. Only men of fighting age remain.
Earlier that morning, in a dark, dank meeting room below street level, the weary guerillas of Derat Azza were rallying for another day guarding their town.
Their headquarters is a vast, gloomy expanse of upturned plastic chairs, foam mattresses and Kalashnikovs scattered to all points like children’s toys. In better times, it acts as a wedding venue and a focal point of community life. A dried and brittle bouquet dated March 2011 lies long-discarded against a wall.
Two haggard men sat behind a wooden desk, one of them tapping a Chinese-made walkie-talkie, trying to get it to work. “Mahmoud!” he yelled into it, trying to summon the local guerrilla leader. “Report to the desk immediately!”
Mahmoud eventually stirred at 1pm and roused five of his colleagues. All, like him, were students from nearby Aleppo university, although they had not turned up for weeks. Nor did they think that their admission to one of Syria’s most coveted academic institutions amounted to much anymore.
“The revolution means more than the university,” said Ahmed, 22, a gangly fresh-faced chemical engineering undergraduate. “I didn’t go to my exams and nor did most people. This is a price that I’m more than willing to pay for now.”
Another man, Haithem, had a small pistol strapped to his hip.
“The head of the faculty carried one of these too,” Haithem said. “Can you imagine that, a lecturer with a gun? He loves Bashar [al-Assad, the Syrian president] from the bottom of his heart and he will fail all of us in the revolution [in our exams] or tell the Shabiha where to find us.”
According to the students, the Shabiha, the regime militia that has been at the vanguard of many atrocities since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, has had a central role in intimidating them during regular student protests in the city.
“They stand near the gates with some of the people from air force intelligence,” said a third student, who did not want to be named. “They pick their targets and they go after them. It’s usually anyone connected to the protests, but sometimes it’s just girls.”
He showed his right forearm, which was disfigured by four bulging scars. “They caught me then they stabbed me,” he said. “I was rescued by girls.”
Grainy mobile phone footage of girls from the university wrenching the male student from the grasp of the militia earlier this year has been etched into folklore on campus.
For a time, the footage seemed to embolden the students in their war of attrition against the security forces. The incident happened in February, when many on campus believed they had an unstoppable momentum for change. But activism or defiance had never before been a rite of passage during student life on Syrian campuses. Students and security forces remain locked in a standoff and teaching in the faculties has largely ceased.
“It has become relentless ever since then,” said Mahmoud. “Yes, we can still fight with them and protest, and yes around 60% of the university is with the revolution, including many of the lecturers.
“But most are staying quiet for now. It’s too much for them to do what we have done. Now if I went back to Aleppo I would be caught and put in prison, or killed. There are hundreds of checkpoints there. Some of them are only 20 metres apart. The city is locked down.”
Instead the university rebels remain on the outskirts of the city, where there are fewer checkpoints but where it is also harder to find food.
Later that day, the local Free Syria Army leader called a meeting in an abandoned home nearby. Abu Ahmed, as he calls himself, is a large, imposing man who taught Islamic and Sharia law until the uprising began, but he now commands around 300 men. His 19-year-old son, Ahmed, joined the gathering, his right arm in a splint and his shoulder heavily bandaged.
“He got shot twice two days ago,” Abu Ahmed explained. He outlined an attack his forces had made on a regime position on a nearby mountain ridge. “They lost 15 and we lost one man,” he said. “How it happened was a miracle.”
The bullet that passed through Ahmed’s arm had severed an artery and he had lost several litres of blood that had not been replaced. He recounted details of the battle to his father and other elders with a dazed expression. “I saw fear in their eyes,” he said. “They were terrified. Really terrified.”
The men set out lunch on a plastic sheet. Where previously visitors to this region were offered the overly-generous hospitality that is obligatory in Arab societies, now the large round trays that once cascaded with food held a few staples: flat bread, apricot jam, cucumbers and ripe red cherries.
“This is an evil and determined enemy we are fighting,” said Abu Ahmed. “The whole region is in a very dangerous situation,” he said. “There is one answer to what is happening: Islam.”
For many months, the Syrian regime and some international observers have warned that the revolution has taken on an increasingly militant Islamic feel. Along the road from Aleppo towards Syria’s fifth city Idlib, guerrilla leaders and the few villagers that remain insist that is not the case – yet.
But with the local economy in tatters and the most basic tenets of life hard to come by, the people are getting desperate. Some rebels say they will soon have to seek help anywhere they can.
“All we have is from the fields,” said a rebel leader, Enas, in a village near Idlib. “From those weapons that came in recently, do you know what we got? One rifle and 1,000 bullets. That isn’t help.”
From Aleppo to the border crossing point now used for gun-runs coming in and refugees fleeing to Turkey, little seems to move. Hulking wrecks of tanks litter sections of the road, alongside the torched lorries that were transporting them. This is ambush country, fertile ground for the guerillas who hide in the nearby hills with whatever weapons they can scrounge.
Increasingly, the weapons of choice against the Syrian military’s ageing tank fleet are Iraq-style roadside bombs, made with fertiliser detonated by mobile phones.
As the Guardian was crossing the border into Syria from Turkey early last week, a Turkish soldier checked the carry bag of a Syrian man, only metres from the border fence. He found four large ignition switches and a circuit board – all components for such bombs – that had been bought in a nearby Turkish town. “They’re for my car,” he said in a half-hearted bid to keep them from being confiscated. The soldier returned the man’s bag without the switches. “Go to Syria,” he said with a wave of his arm.
This border has been a hub of activity in recent weeks. Few parts more so than a tiny village two-and-a-half miles from the Turkish town of Rehanliya, which is now a stopping-off point for refugees fleeing the conflict.
Sitting on the floor helping himself to handfuls of chicken, rice and fresh salads was a member of the ruling Alawite sect, Thayyir Aboud, who had joined the revolution in its earliest days. Most of the men in the room had not dealt with Alawites since the uprising started. All were initially wary of Aboud.
“Be careful guys,” he said, introducing himself. “I am the enemy.”
Aboud gained the respect of the other, mainly Sunni guests by recounting his first-hand experience of dealings between the Syrian National Council, for whom he has worked, and world figures, including US officials and the office of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
None of the stories reflected well on Syria’s leading opposition group, for whom the Free Syria Army has no love.
“Are you sure you’re an Alawite?”, Abu Hamza asked rhetorically. “We’re agreeing on everything you say.”
Despite the bonhomie, the increasingly sectarian nature of the divide in Syrian society meant Aboud remained isolated among the Syrian exiles in Turkey, where the political and military groups are almost exclusively Sunni.
“What this regime has done to its people is unforgivable,” he said. “I made a decision from last year to speak the truth and not stay silent and I am paying a heavy price.”
Syria’s intelligence services had already caught him once, he said. “I was jailed and told not to continue what I am doing. Now they are looking for me. But I will stay true to what I have done, because Syria must change. This is our moment.”