Sixty years old—“I think I am sixty, but maybe I’m older”—and standing just five feet tall, Samiha Khalil’s deep set eyes shine as brightly as a twenty-year-old’s and her handshake is as firm as those of the men who surround her. Her courage has kept her in a village that most have left, under a daily bombardment of shelling and bombs, and with the knowledge that the regime troops who want to kill her and the rebel fighters around her are just three kilometers away across the mountains.
“The revolution started in this village, from my house,” she says. When soldiers began defecting from the government army’s coastal bases eighteen months ago, Samiha’s village was the first safe place they found. Riad Al-Assad and Malik Al-Kurdi, the first high-ranking military defectors and the founders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), stayed in Samiha’s house, like hundreds of other defectors have since. She takes them into her small front room and feeds them her home-made bread. “I have nine children—four boys and five girls—of my own,” she says. “But now I feel like I have hundreds more.”
Samiha’s house has become the base for a brigade named in her honor: the Um Al-Thuwra Katiba (Mother of the Revolution Brigade). Sixty-five rebels are staying with her now, and more defectors arrive almost every day from the coast and the mountains of Jebel Al-Zawaya. “I give them everything I have when they come here,” she says. Her children speak of their pride in their mother; the fighters she welcomes into her home kiss her head and hand each time they greet her.
But although she has won the respect of the opposition fighters she cares for, she has lost her friends in her village. “My neighbors didn’t believe in what I was doing at the start.” Samiha says. “They told me to stay away from the fighters and not to bring them to this village. But I didn’t listen to them. I was so happy when the protests started, and I cried for the children who died in Dera’a.” Once a bustling community of nearly two thousand people, there are now just four hundred left in the village. The rest have fled to Turkey.
From Samiha’s village, the rebels pushed forward across the mountains of Jebel Al-Kurd, right up to the Turkish border. “They still come back to visit me,” she says. “And I pray to God for the ones who are going to the front line. Minute after minute, I am waiting for them to come back.”
But in the past month, their advance has slowed. The brigade leader talks of the position they are in: this brigade, like so many others, has men and guns but no ammunition or heavy weaponry. “We are trying to push to the west, to the place that the regime is shelling us from,” he says. “We would like to fight them on the ground, but all the time they stay in the mountains.” The village has had no electricity for eighteen months, and they turn on the generator for just two hours a day to recharge their radios and watch the news. This morning, like most other mornings, the MiGs came. “It made a strike near here, but thank God it missed us,” says Samiha.
But despite the shelling and the bombs, Samiha carries on with her routine. For three hours every day, she makes bread with the flour that the rebels send her, to feed the men who come back to her house from the front line. Every day, she prays that it will be the day the regime falls. “I hope I will hear that Bashar is dead today,” she says. “And then I will feel comfortable.”