Photo above is of Ma'arrat al Numan: the sign says 'liberated area'
We're driving 160km deep into liberated territory in Idlib province. Our destination is the frontline town of Ma'arrat al Numan. Our guides are volunteers from the home-grown Basmet Amal (Smile of Hope) relief organisation. The road we're travelling on, we are later told, was liberated by mostly Ahrar al Sham forces, a new fighting group, still under the wider umbrella of the Syrian Free Army, mostly made up of defectors. We pass Tafta Nas, a regime airbase that was liberated in January. Smiles spread around remembering the day it was conquered. It could have been from here that helicopter gunships had flown over Ma'arra to put down unarmed demonstrations.
Ma'arra was once a bustling, fertile, town of 120,000 people. When the regime started strafing the peaceful uprising, 90% of the population fled. 850 people have been killed, and 2000 houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011, according to local relief organisations. Ma'arra was reduced to a dustbowl, sheltering a shadow population of 4,000-10,000. Infrastructure was decimated; the town's main electricity sub station was leveled to the ground and there is no running water. Pipes were all bombed and repairing them would mean approaching an Assad forces base close by. Hospitals were destroyed, schools shut down, and up until only a few months ago, no markets or bakeries were open. Internet and phonelines are down. Communication between people is face to face or via walkie talkies.
Ma'arra appears to be around 60% destroyed. Everywhere you look you see half-standing apartment blocs with gaping living rooms and bedrooms, crippled mosques, giant piles of rubble and burnt out shops. The bombing continued while we were there, the front-line in the East just a kilometre away from 'safety'. Wadi Deif military base – home to some 500 Assad soldiers we are told – is Ma'arra's main threat. ‘They cannot invade us by land. Free Army forces outnumber them. But snipers can see us and the planes keep bombing’, we are told by local activists.
Ma'arra is slowly coming back to life though, with the help of local home-grown aid organisations like Basmet Amal which are co-ordinating physical and social reconstruction. It's estimated that up to 40,000 people are now back.
The uprising that ousted the regime from Ma'arra began just like those elsewhere in Syria, through unarmed protests erupting in main town squares, spurred on by those in other towns, and the shakey mobile phone footage of children being shot dead and stamped on, crowds gunned down.
It was November 2011 for Ma'arra, when hundreds broke through their fear to protest and were broken up with live ammunition. They returned, with their dead, for the all too familiar event of funeral-turned-demonstration. They were again attacked in an attempt to break people at their weakest but instead this became a live fuse for even more incendiary resistance. The regime kept killing, first with snipers and security forces and then with war planes. Undeterred people kept taking to the streets, until the cycle of picking up the dead and returning with ever more, forced people to take up arms.
Some 200 people were reported to have been shot by snipers from the City museum that regime forces had used as a base. The killings happened between October 2011 and July 2012. It took nine months for local activists to muster the decisive armed strength needed to oust the regime from the base. This was no easy or rapid move.
The growing resistance bought or seized weapons from army officers by force, while many defected voluntarily taking their guns and skills with them. The latter was the most effective and common way to build up an arsenal. With ammunition running out, more ingenious if humble means of attack are being developed. We witness footage of 'The Canon of Hell' – a rocket launcher made out of a tractor except its' 'rockets' are cooking gas canisters.
But it's the social resistance that we have come to support. And Basmet Amal are a leading light in it. Made up of 30 volunteers, it was originally the idea of a young local woman, Leila*, who manages the organisation's external communications, reports and planning. Her work could have even more impact if she could access the internet. One of the organisation's aims is to secure enough funding to build communication masts in the city centre, re-starting mobile phone and internet access which would facilitate better co-ordination between people and organisations.
*Some names have been changed
This is the fifth part of a six day serialization of Ewa’s trip to Syria. It accompanies Jon Sack’s beautiful reportage from the Syrian border in comic form: The Physio.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a journalist and campaigner. She is part of a small international solidarity initiative working to support grassroots groups in Syria. Please support these organisations:
Karama Bus children's relief project in Kafranbel
Juan Zero's Jasmine Baladi studio in Bab al Hawa Camp
Picture by Masoud Bashora - freelance photographer from Ma'arrat al Numman. His facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/Maarawe.Free.Lens
Ewa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.