Living Off Scraps in Syria's War Zone

Amid death and deprivation, those who remain in Syria's anti-Assad towns abide by an ethos of scrappy solidarity.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The camera held by a member of the Syrian opposition in the town of Talbiseh north of Homs pans the walls of the local school, documenting the destruction. In a small classroom, young children sit on the floor, wrapped in layers of clothing but still shivering from the cold. An oil heater sits in the middle of the room, idle for lack of fuel. The walls are haphazardly constructed, made of exposed cinderblock.

The dark hallway floors are full of debris, twisted pieces of steel and plaster fragments through which the children make their way to their classrooms. Another classroom is more orderly, with desks and chairs, but the windows have been blown out. Some are covered with plastic sheeting that doesn't keep out the cold wind.

The Syria Red Crescent emergency aid worker who made the film brings a few small presents for the children: a drawing book, pencils and a few clothes. He asks what they want him to bring on his next visit. "Desks," a boy suggests. "A backpack," a girl says quietly, "and also paints."

According to reports from aid organizations, more than 3,800 schools have been destroyed in the fighting in Syria, and many others are serving as military command posts, makeshift hospitals or prisons for President Bashar Assad's regime. Some also serve as shelters for those displaced by the war — housing about 650,000 people.

Talbiseh is a small town of about 40,000. At least that's how many people lived there until last week's bombardment by the Syrian army. The town is controlled by the opposition Free Syrian Army and also shelters a branch of the Revolutionary Command Council, which in January chalked up a major accomplishment when its fighters brought down a Syrian MiG fighter jet.

The response was not long in coming. Deadly aerial bombardment and artillery shelling hit hundreds of homes in the town and killed dozens of civilians. The next day, hundreds of civilians took to the streets in protest not only of Assad and his regime but also of other Arab countries who have offered no assistance and of apathy in the West.

"Arab leaders have stolen your loaf of bread. Then they gave you a slice of it ordering you to thank them for their generosity. How shameless they are," the website of the Homs district revolutionary council says, quoting Palestinian poet Ghassan Kanafani. The council is responsible for, among other things, managing daily life in Talbiseh.

"Daily life" is a fluid concept. Most tasks fall to civilians, who organize local volunteer councils that arrange for local policing, social welfare services and even courts. The councils don't always see eye-to-eye with the Free Syrian Army.

According to the New York Times, the local council in one northern Syrian town was forced to fight the Free Syrian Army command for basic supplies. It ultimately managed to win daily rations of two pitas a day for each adult resident and four hours a day of electricity. It was a minor accomplishment but enough to afford the council legitimacy. But when residents hauled off the remains of a Syrian tank, hoping to sell it to scrap dealers for a little cash, Free Syrian Army soldiers stopped them, ordering the tank be left as a monument to their military victory.

It's hard to fathom the well-spring of determination that feeds the town and the hundreds of others like it, which continue to fight and demonstrate amid bombing runs and shelling. The text on the Talbiseh Facebook page provides no explanation. But perhaps the answer can be found in the photographs of vast destruction and deceased residents. Talal al-Akidi, Iyad al-Akidi, Khaled Salem Suwais and Omar al-Masri, are all memorialized on the Internet, which will serve as a moral ledger when a new regime takes control of Syria and scores begin to be settled.

"These are small towns. Everyone knows everyone else. If your son served in Assad's army, your family immediately becomes suspect. If your daughter was killed in the regime's bombardments, you become a hero," Ali Othman, a Syrian refugee in Turkey explained to a Turkish journalist. "You can't permit yourself not to turn out for demonstrations or identify with bereaved families. You take to the streets even at risk to your life. Otherwise you can't show your face in public." Othman's home has already been taken over by the Free Syrian Army and he doesn't know if he will ever get it back.

The residents of Talbiseh don't concern themselves with failed international consultations designed to bring down the Assad regime. They don't follow the movements of the United Nations envoy on the Syrian conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, and they are not asked their opinion of opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, who is having difficulty establishing a provisional Syrian government.

Those left in the town just try to stay alive for another day. It is doubtful that the $60 million in additional aid pledged by the United States will reach the local school that was destroyed or the bakery that is still trying to supply bread. The money will go to the leadership of the opposition and the commanders of the Free Syrian Army and be used mostly to buy weapons or to fund airline tickets for opposition leaders. The biggest bill will come later, when the country has to be reconstructed.

The aftermath of fighting in Syria. An Israeli military figure describes the situation as 'post-Assad, still in his presence.'Credit: AP

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