Inside Syria: Florist martyr spurs Syrian rebels

The Sunday Times

In the eyes of the Syrian authorities Ferzat Jarban was a rodent who had to be exterminated. The 35-year-old florist had transformed himself into a citizen journalist, filming scenes that depicted the brutality of the regime and posting them on YouTube.

His footage included the bodies of men and women, and some particularly shocking images of a young boy who had been shot in the head.

Jarban was soon one of the most wanted men in his native al-Qusayr, a rural town of 30,000 people near the rebellious city of Homs in the west of the country. He went on the run from the intelligence services, never spending more than two nights in any one place.

Every month, however, he risked everything to see his wife, Khalidja, and their three children. He would savour half an hour with them before disappearing underground again.

It was during one of these fleeting visits, as he stepped out of his car and into his front yard, that the secret police pounced. Armed men in plain clothes bundled him into the back of a black police van.

Jarban’s cousin, who was looking after the family, rushed out of the house, shouting, and tried to pull him away. According to two witnesses interviewed by The Sunday Times, one of the officers drew his pistol and shot the cousin at point-blank range.

Twenty-four hours later Jarban’s body was dumped in a puddle in the town square, where his wife was taken to see him. The marks of torture testified to the cruelty of his final ordeal.

The men who carried his body from the square said police had gouged out one of his eyeballs with a knife and then forced it back through the empty socket into his brain.

Those who washed the body for burial found that he had a broken nose, a large, bloody flap of skin hanging from his neck and severe bruising to his arms, legs, back and chest.

A relative fought back tears as she described his tireless work for the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad.

“He rarely slept. He was at the forefront of every demonstration. He wasn’t scared of showing his face,” she said. “He photographed every protest, every murder, every destroyed building. His weapon was his camera. His memory will live on for ever.”

Jarban’s murder has made him a martyr in al-Qusayr, which thrives on cotton, fruit and vegetables from the surrounding fields in normal times but is now ringed by an estimated 2,000 soldiers from the Syrian army. His image is carried aloft by demonstrators at daily rallies in the square.

Local people say he is one of 96 civilians killed here since the start of the popular uprising last March.

They rely for their security on perhaps 200 rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), mostly former members of Assad’s forces who defected. The rebel army, which provides the town with a lifeline by keeping open a single route in and out, is well organised but lightly armed and vastly outnumbered.

Last week the Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and I were smuggled into al-Qusayr along this route, giving us access to the men and women who have been defying Assad’s crackdown for 10 months.

The crossing from Lebanon was fraught with risk. The Syrian army has beefed up border patrols to prevent weapons and medical supplies from reaching the rebels.

Smugglers took us to a bare-walled hut near the border, where we sat on cushions around a wood stove, waiting for the order to move.

“Doctors or journalists?” a smuggler in a black leather jacket asked. He looked disappointed by the answer.

As we stooped to put on our boots in the doorway, the rattle of automatic rifle fire sent us scuttling back inside.

“Don’t make a sound,” the smuggler whispered, pressing a finger to his lips before vanishing into the darkness.

We followed in single file, stumbling blindly across boggy fields and mud tracks as we struggled to keep sight of the smuggler’s white trainers. No sooner had a figure loomed out of the shadows and signalled the all-clear than a bullet cracked over our heads, shattering the stillness of the cold night air.

The smuggler pushed us against the concrete wall of a shepherd’s hut. We crouched down, breathing hard and praying we had not been spotted by a border patrol. A light inside a military checkpoint 150 yards to our left cast a ghostly pallor over the fields.

It began to snow as we moved off again, zigzagging through gaps in the tree line and over a barbed wire fence to a small white truck with its engine running. Hunched over the steering wheel, the driver nervously whistled a tune through his teeth as he inched forwards over the bumpy track.

Finally he flicked on the headlights, turned to us and, with a grin of relief that lit up his face, said: “Welcome to Syria. You are now in rebel country.”

We raced along potholed roads to a farmhouse on the outskirts of al-Qusayr, nine miles from the border, where we were met by a group of young rebels carrying assault rifles. They immediately opened a laptop and played videos shot by Jarban the florist.

One showed a boy of about seven years old. His brain was oozing from his skull onto a dirty mattress. A sniper’s bullet had split his head during a demonstration, the doctor who treated him said.

“They’re animals,” said one of the rebels in disgust. “Now you can see why we hate this government.”

The following morning we were shaken awake at 4.30am and taken to a brown canvas tent pitched in a garden. This tent, hidden from the road by trees and not even big enough to stand up in, was the only remaining medical facility to serve the town, we were told. The army had taken over the town’s hospital, and five other makeshift clinics had been destroyed.

Inside, on a dirty floor, lay a few packets of bandages and gauze, several syringes and an old Fanta bottle half-filled with antiseptic.

A 42-year-old farmer lay wincing on one of the soiled mattresses that carpeted the floor. He had been driving through the narrow streets of al-Qusayr to his ailing mother’s house when soldiers at a checkpoint opened fire on his car, he said. A bullet had pierced his wrist, slashing the tendons.

The farmer twitched in pain as one of the few doctors brave enough to operate in the town stitched the wound.

“We have nothing here,” said the bespectacled young doctor, who identified himself as Mahmoud, 29. “We have no morphine. It doesn’t matter what injuries they have — bullets, shrapnel wounds — all I can give them is ibuprofen and some antibiotics. But we’re running out of this now.”

The “clinic” treats wounded civilians and rebel soldiers from both al-Qusayr and Homs, 15 or so miles to the northeast, where Syrian army attacks intensified last week.

“I treat people from Homs who have bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds from artillery and tanks, burns,” the doctor said. “All we can do is try to stop the bleeding so they survive the journey to Lebanon.”

While we were in al-Qusayr, however, reports came through that Syrian troops now had such a tight stranglehold on the city that it was impossible to get any more casualties out.

Most of al-Qusayr’s doctors are too scared to work, according to Mahmoud. “If they catch us, we are dead men,” he said.

After Friday prayers two armed rebels drove us into town to one of the daily demonstrations. A scout with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder led the way to make sure the route was safe.

At one point our driver screeched to a halt and reversed rapidly back along the open road. “Syrian army,” he said, pointing to a large grain silo 500 yards to our right.

After passing two army checkpoints that rebels claimed to have destroyed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), we darted through alleys to a square packed with thousands of men, women and children roaring anti-Assad slogans.

“Sit down, Bashar al-Assad,” the protesters shouted, waving flags and brandishing posters with the faces of those killed by security forces.

Hundreds of rows of men squatted and clapped their hands, then jumped up and punched the air in unison, chanting: “Gadaffi flew away! Bashar is next!”

The crowd went wild as the local FSA commander stood on top of a car with a microphone. Young, lightly bearded and surrounded by masked gunmen with RPGs and assault rifles, he shouted: “We will defend you with every last drop of blood.” The men crowding around his feet punched the air again, shrieking their approval.

To guard against any attack from the army, the rebels stationed captured police vans at either end of the square and scoured the outskirts of town from the rooftops.

Later, in a basement that serves as a rebel command post, a former military intelligence officer who had served in Damascus before defecting said the FSA’s main job was to keep the demonstrators safe.

While rebels have taken control of some parts of the capital, Damascus, to the south, the army appears to be in a strong position in Homs, the third- largest city. Neither side has any sustained momentum, analysts say, suggesting a prolonged struggle may lie ahead.

Certainly the rebels of al-Qusayr, who banded together only four months ago, have no expectation of defeating the soldiers any time soon.

“We only have light weapons that we took from the army,” said Mohammed, 22, who defected from an infantry unit in Damascus two months ago after being ordered to fire on unarmed civilians.

“We hardly have any heavy machineguns or mortars and we face an army with tanks, artillery and air power. We are a tiny force compared with them.”

The cost of new weapons is seen as prohibitive. An assault rifle fetches $2,000 (£1,270) on the black market, an RPG $400 and a single round of ammunition $2 — double the prices a year ago.

Al-Qusayr’s revolutionary council, made up of 20 representatives of the largest families, says it receives up to $30,000 a month from the Syrian diaspora in Europe and the Gulf states, but most of this is spent on basic supplies for the inhabitants.

At the start of the revolution, families took shelter in the farms surrounding the town. But two months ago, the rebels said, the Syrian army raided one of these supposedly safe houses and shot dead 13 people, including two teachers.

“It is impossible to plan for the future,” said Abu Sakir, who ran a packaging factory before joining the revolutionary council. “Sometimes they attack; sometimes they leave us alone. But we think they are also scared of the FSA.”

Three weeks ago a former army captain led two men to a Syrian army checkpoint just before dawn, “tiger-crawling” right up to it.

“The officer in charge was cleaning his knife. Most of his men were fast asleep,” the mustachioed captain said. “We pounced on them before they had time to react.”

His men tied up the soldiers and marched them back to FSA headquarters. They swapped them for local people who had been captured during the army’s searches of the town.

“The funny thing is that if they’d known we had only seven bullets we’d be dead men now,” the captain laughed.

It is not only the lack of firepower that prevents the rebels from launching more attacks against Syrian troops, though.

“Many of the soldiers we’re fighting are our sons, our brothers — they are from our families,” said Abu Sakir. “It would be easier if this was another country attacking us, but these are our people.”

They regularly telephone their army comrades and urge them to switch sides.

“The ones who want to desert are scared. They’re frightened about what the regime will do to their families,” said Abu Bashir, a former officer. “Others are just too poor. They need the money.”

The rebels called for the West to intervene. They want the United Nations to create safe zones on Syrian territory. This, they say, will encourage more defections, protect families fleeing the violence and help to save the lives of the wounded.

In the meantime, they draw their inspiration from the sacrifices of men such as Jarban. “Every time we receive another martyr like Jarban we feel new blood in our body,” said Abu Sakir. “We will never stop.”

Some of the names have been changed to protect sources

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