In recently surrendered Damascus suburb, rebel fighter stays behind: ‘I want a normal life’

An estimated 10,000 civilians, rebel fighters and their families began leaving the embattled northeast Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh one month ago under a surrender agreement handing the opposition-held district back to the Assad regime.

The evacuations north to the rebel bastion of Idlib province brought an end to nearly three months of regime siege and bombardment of Barzeh.

Absent from the regime’s evacuation buses was 35-year-old Abu a-Leith, a Free Syrian Army fighter since 2012 who decided to stay in Barzeh in exchange for making peace with the Syrian government and handing over his guns.

Today, a-Leith, his wife and four young sons remain in a neighborhood still surrounded on its perimeter by Assad’s forces. Movement both in and out of the district is severely restricted. Fruits, vegetables and bread—when available—are double the price they were before surrender, he says.

So what drove a longtime rebel fighter to face life in newly recaptured regime territory?

“I decided to stay so I could return to my life as a civilian and rid myself of a life of war,” he tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Rateb. “The commanders who were with us in the revolution left their principles behind when they surrendered Tishreen, Qaboun and Barzeh, which were for sale by the opposition.

Q: How is life right now in Barzeh?

Difficult. Since the signing of the reconciliation agreement with the regime, only 1,000 packages of bread [roughly one kilo per package] entered the neighborhood [two weeks ago], and since then the regime hasn’t brought in anything.

[Ed.: Regime and rebel forces reached a truce deal in early May to evacuate rebel fighters, their families and willing residents from the district. Those leaving Barzeh on the regime’s buses headed to either rebel-held Idlib province in northwest Syria, or to Jarablus, a city in northern Syria currently under the control of Turkish-backed rebel factions.]

Right now, I’m unable to secure bread for my family. Even fruits and vegetables are unavailable, unless you’re buying from a trader for exorbitant prices. Other food prices have doubled, so all I have in my home is burghul [a relatively cheap grain].

 Barzeh on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

Q: How did the regime treat you after it took control of Barzeh? Were residents allowed to come and go through the neighborhood?

Until now, the regime hasn’t entered Barzeh. They are staying at the perimeter of the district. So we haven’t had any scrapes with their soldiers yet.

Many of the fighters—including myself—who refused to evacuate within the terms of the agreement are reconciling [with the regime] and giving up our weapons.

But the regime has not allowed civilians who chose to stay in Barzeh to leave the neighborhood yet, and hasn’t allowed anyone from outside Barzeh to enter.

Q: Why didn’t you travel to Idlib with the other fighters?

I decided to stay so I could return to my life as a civilian and rid myself of a life of war. I want my children to live a normal life and finish their studies.

I didn’t go to Idlib because I have nobody over there, and if I ever wanted to emigrate to Turkey I would need to pay a large sum of money, which I just don’t have.

The commanders who were with us in the revolution left their principles behind when they surrendered Tishreen, Qaboun and Barzeh, which were for sale by the opposition.

I’m talking to you as a fighter: We were fighting with just light weaponry against tanks and airstrikes. I survived death and injury many times back then, and still didn’t surrender my gun.

Q: Do you regret staying in Barzeh, or do you think you made the right decision? What is your opinion on the Assad regime, after choosing to stay behind?

No, I don’t regret staying in Barzeh. The [opposition] commanders who left Barzeh were selling Syrian blood, and surrendered us fighters without guaranteeing our rights.

But I stayed in Barzeh for my children’s sake. They were barred from their right to an education—my 11-year-old son still cannot read or write. It is my children’s right to live a decent life after everything they have suffered through these past six years.

We lived through humiliation and dishonor. We’re disgusted by this life and just want to be done with everything.

Q: After everything you’ve been through, what is your opinion on the Syrian revolution?

There isn’t anything that can be called a “revolution” in Syria anymore. Rather, there are only those who sell the blood of their fellow Syrians. The fighters who left to Idlib are not honorable—they left their homes and revolutionary morals behind.

For six years and three months, I was a fighter in the ranks of the revolution and the Free Syrian Army. It’s an army that has sold itself out. In the beginning we liberated entire districts and neighborhoods, and we were fighting with simple shotguns.

Now that we do have heavy weapons, instead of liberating areas, we’ve started surrendering our neighborhoods. May God punish the commanders who surrendered our neighborhoods and allowed us to reach this point. 

Alaa Rateb

Originally from Homs, Alaa Moved to Jordan in 2013 due to the security situation in Syria. She volunteered with Syrian refugees before joining Syria Direct.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.