The house is a stop off point for fighters from the Free Syrian Army’s Al Furqan Brigade. It is a short drive from the Turkish border but more than 500 kilometres from Deir Ezzor, the isolated and under-reported north-eastern province that the Al Furqan Brigade is slowly and painfully ripping from the hands of the regime. Here in this safe-house, fighters returning from hospital treatment or respite in Turkey change into their fighting uniforms and pick up their weapons, ready for the long and dangerous drive back to the front line.
Kesar is on the final stretch of a journey back from Istanbul, where he has been getting treatment for wounds he sustained last September in a battle. As he lifts up his shirt he reveals a roadmap of fresh scars across his torso. “I was hit by a dum dum on the 3rd September. They fixed me as well as they could in Deir Ezzor, then on the 2nd October I was taken to Istanbul. On 29th October I was back fighting on the front line, with packing from the surgery still inside me.”
The journey to Deir Ezzor takes eight hours along a road only captured by the Free Syrian Army two months ago. Leaving Al Bab the driver breaks sharply at a checkpoint that is invisible until he has almost passed it. For thirty seconds the mood turns sour, and Kesar lifts his Kalashnikov up from the foot-well of the passenger seat, only lowering it again after a wary check of credentials confirms that the men who have waved us down are fighting for the opposition. Syria’s checkpoints assume a different, more threatening, demeanor in the darkness, and there are many of them along this road.
This is the most direct route to Deir Ezzor and yet it is still tortuous; a narrow road left potholed by years of neglect. Previously it would have been impossible for Kesar and his men to take this route and the regime’s jets still bomb it often, so he drives slowly, and stops regularly to turn off the headlights. Along the way, Kesar talks about how he came to lead the Al Furqan Brigade, which now controls all of the Deir Ezzor countryside and around half of the city itself.
“I was the captain of my local football team so I knew that I was a good leader,” he says. “And I treat my men in the brigade in the same way I treated my players – with respect.”
In the car the fighters talk and laugh together like a clique of old school friends. Each has a nickname. Twenty five year old Mohammed is ‘Muhandis’; ‘the engineer’. His freckles and open smile lend him the demeanor of a wayward teenager, yet he has seen more front-line fighting than most hardened soldiers. “He was in the regime army but defected and joined us three months ago. And he was part of the group that liberated this road,” Kesar says. Muhandis looks back from the driver’s seat and grins.
Unlike his recruit, Kesar is not a time served soldier—when the revolution started he was a carpenter. His high school grades should have won him a place at university to study electrical engineering, but his refusal to join the Ba’ath Party debarred him. “There was someone else with lower grades than me,” he says, “but he got a place on the course and I didn’t. This was the way in Syria; to get any kind of success, you had to support the regime.” So he worked in an array of jobs, and in his time off he played football. “I played midfield, like Steven Gerrard,” he says.
In the early days of the Syrian uprising the world focused on the demonstrations in Daraa and Damascus. But away from the camera’s spotlight the protests were also erupting in Deir Ezzor, and Kesar was there. “I was always against the regime, like all of the people here, and I knew that one day the Syrian people would rise up against Bashar Al-Assad. Dictatorships always fall.” Six months later he joined the armed opposition.
Now some of the fiercest battles of the Syrian conflict are being fought in Deir Ezzor, an ancient city that follows the fertile curve of the Euphrates. The regime is gripping on tight to a province that houses some of Syria’s most precious natural resources—phosphates, salt and oil. “Deir Ezzor used to have the best economy in all of Syria,” says Kesar. “We had farms, tourism and industry. But the regime has made the people here poor.” For eight months government jets have strafed the city and bombed every street within it. Pushed out by the force of the fighting, most of the people living in the center have left to the surrounding villages.
Dawn’s grey fingers are creeping across the sky as the car reaches the desert plains just outside the city, revealing plumes of inky black rising across the flatness. These smoke signals are indicators of the war as much as the flattened buildings and checkpoints, for those who know how to read them. The shortage of oil in wartime Syria has created a raging demand for fuel, which the people crouching around burning barrels in the milky light of the early morning are answering. In some parts of the province black oil is so close to the surface that it bubbles up through the earth on its own. Entrepreneurs have worked out a way of refining it into kerosene to sell on the black market, but their business plans don’t include measures to protect the people in these villages from the cancerous black smoke that billows out over the houses.
This cottage industry is a medical time-bomb: one doctor in the province says he is already seeing people who complain of headaches, diarrhea, and chest problems after breathing in the smoke. “The regime stopped sending fuel to the opposition areas in Deir Ezzor, so people started opening the oil fields with simple equipment,” he says. “But they don’t know the dangers of filtering oil, and they have no proper equipment or advice on how to do it safely. In the future this will cause cancers and all sorts of other problems.”
Closer still to Deir Ezzor city the impact of the war becomes ever more overt. Entire streets of houses, shops, and gas stations have been gutted by shells and left deserted. The car drives through streets eerie with silence to Kesar’s home, just half a kilometer behind the front-line. When the fighting started his extended family left their homes and gathered here—three brothers and three sisters, together with nieces, his mother, and aunts. Young FSA recruits sleep on mattresses in the front room, swelling the household further.
Just like the safe-house five hundred kilometers to the west, Kesar’s house has become a crazy hybrid of family home and military base. A heap of Kalashnikovs sits beneath a Hello Kitty sticker on the bedroom wall, their wood trims etched with the graffiti of previous wars. These guns are old but they are the most precious and ubiquitous weapons in Syria today. Before the uprising Kalashnikovs could be bought on the black market for SYP 35,000; now their price has doubled.
The women of the family have become as used to these guns as they have to the soundtrack of airstrikes and shellfire. The teenage girls pose for photos with the Kalashnikovs, but Kesar’s mother still covers her ears and flinches as her sons take turns to fire a sniper rifle behind the house. As another government jet sweeps over the neighborhood and deposits a bomb that makes the whole house shudder, she lowers her eyes. “We are living in hell,” she says.
Behind the house the skeletons of fruit trees, dead for want of water, clutter the fields. “I loved growing up here, close to the river and the fields,” Kesar says as he walks amongst them. Last year this was a fertile patch of land, the center of an agricultural research project bursting with pomegranates, pears, and wheat. But artillery hit the irrigation system four months ago and now the soil is parched. A cluster of cherry trees has borne a sprinkling of blossom, nourished by the heavy rains of last winter, but they will not survive the searing heat of the fast approaching summer.
On the dusty ground Kesar points to a defaced portrait of Bashar Assad. Looking down on it in the dying orchard, it is easy to forget that the dictator’s troops are just 500 meters away. Peeking around the side of a concrete shelter we can catch only glimpses of Deir Ezzor’s famous suspension bridge, fifty meters down a road that has become a sniper alley. It is 85-years-old and a symbol of the industry and innovation of the city, but in the past weeks it has also become a target for the regime’s shells and it could yet become another victim of this war. “This city is 6,000 years old,” says Kesar. “It was beautiful, and there was so much civilization. But this war is destroying everything. In August the museum was completely destroyed. And now the regime is destroying the bridge as well.”
And just as the landscape of Deir Ezzor is dying slowly, so too are its people. At Al Mayadeen hospital, Dr Abu Hamza says he fears a coming epidemic of Hepatitis and HIV infection. “The blood bank has been empty for a year, and we can’t get more supplies,” he says. “And we have no research facility to check the blood that people donate. Now the priority is to save the lives of the people who are wounded, but in the future I know that a lot of those people will suffer from blood transmitted diseases.”
In the present Dr Abu Hamza has more imminent concerns. He takes us to his town, Al Quoria, where the Euphrates, once Deir Ezzor’s life source, has become a conduit of disease. For months there has been no chlorine for the river’s water filters, so the raw sewage that flows into it flows straight back out, untreated, into people’s taps. 50,000 people live in the town and there are already 1,000 confirmed cases of typhoid. The doctor tips out three bags full of patient notes onto the floor of a dispensary. “These are the confirmed cases,” he says. “But these are only the patients who have the money to pay for testing. There are at least another 1,000 here with the same symptoms.”
Typhoid will eventually subside without medicine; Dr Abu Hamza’s real fear is a cholera epidemic. “There are already suspected cases, and it will be a disaster if it comes,” he says. “We can deal with typhoid, but not cholera. If we have an epidemic of that, half the people here will die.”
Cholera causes extreme vomiting and diarrhea, and kills through dehydration and kidney failure. Sufferers lose two liters of water from their bodies in a single day, and need ten bags of saline to replace it. The doctors in Deir Ezzor know that they need to get supplies in now to have any chance of fighting an outbreak, but they have nowhere to get those supplies from. “The NGOs keep promising to bring us medicines and equipment,” says Dr Abu Hamza, “but nothing ever materializes. They are good at talking but they don’t deliver.”
The doctor’s words point to a bigger truth: Deir Ezzor has become the forgotten city of this conflict. This isolated and beleaguered province is slowly being crushed into the ground by the war, and it’s happening away from the television cameras that have so clearly illuminated the suffering of the people in Aleppo, Homs, and the refugee camps. As the night blackens Kesar’s family and their adopted members gather around a couple of guttering candles, drinking sweet tea, waiting for the generator to kick in, and talking about the war in Deir Ezzor. Some think that the fight against the regime here could be over within months; others disagree and say it could take years. In either case, the people here are fighting it alone.
Life for this family, as for so many others, has narrowed to the walls of their house. The children have no schools to go to, and no safe places to play outside. All that the women can do is wait for this nightmare to finish as the men they love leave each day for one of the most dangerous front-lines in the world. Meanwhile they have no choice but to abide by the rules of war stricken Deir Ezzor—rules that they have no choice in, and often struggle to understand.
“One day I found a cat near the front-line,” says Muhandis. “I rescued it and fed it and it stayed with me for a week. But then it wandered out into the street and a regime sniper shot it. That’s what they do in Deir Ezzor—they shoot at anything that moves.”