Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Keeping the Faith in Syria's Rebels
For those who know her personally, Um Mohammed personifies sobriety, dedication and patience. She has been a leading figure in the revolution. I have chosen to write about her in this article so that we don’t forget her and others like her among the women of Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria now under government control.
Women like Um Mohammed participated in the revolution and gave their all for victory.
I did not get to know her until Friday, August 7, 2011. The revolutionaries named that day “God is with us Friday”.
In those days, we would go out on mass demonstrations in the city calling for freedom and for anything we wanted. In the evening we would mourn the martyrs of the day and console their families even though we did not know them personally.
One day I went to Um Mohammed’s house. It was neat and tidy. She was sitting with female relatives, and the scene was as you would expect when a mother has just lost her son.
"He was waiting for his martyrdom,” Um Mohammed said. “He longed for it since the first day of the revolution and now he’s received it.
“Two days ago, he [her son] told me, ‘I saw my martyred friend in my dream and he invited me to follow him. I'm ready, Mum. Pray, Mum, pray that I follow my friend and my comrades.”
Um Mohammed’s son was her martyr, our martyr, and more than that, the revolution’s martyr. He was a student who had just two more courses to complete before he was to graduate from law school. He was her spoiled child, her beloved one. Everyone praised his good upbringing and high moral standards.
I can remember Um Mohammed vividly. I had seen her a few times before, but I had not known her name until this point.
I used to see her every Friday. She used to take the minibus with her husband while my friends and I were marching. On hot days, their vehicle was loaded with bottled water which they distributed among the revolutionaries. I would carry frozen water bottles and hand them over so that they could distribute them for me.
That’s how our friendship began, through common goals and shared pain.
On the Fridays that followed, she was tired and exhausted so she could not accompany us to the demonstrations.
The protest marched began in front of the Saad Mosque and finished in Al-Sa’aa Square, deliberately passing by Um Mohammed’s house which was situated near the gym.
As we went past, friends of her martyred son would cry, “We won’t forget the blood of the martyr”, “We are all your sons, mother of a martyr”, and “Mother of the martyr, grieve no more – I give my blood for the martyr".
Um Mohammed would be waiting on the balcony, leaning on the arms of her relatives to help her stand up. She raised a hand as she cheered the young men and chanted along with them. She cried as she threw down the drops of sesame caramel which she had prepared specially the previous day. Her husband would stand in front of the house, pouring water for the passing protesters to drink, and sprayed from a hose to cool people down.
Um Mohammed was a schoolteacher. She had decided to be stick it out and carrying on working. She became more determined to be part of the revolution until the end, despite all the challenges. As a result, her movements and her house were closely watched by government forces.
"They aren’t just watching me closely; they let me see them watching me rudely and openly everywhere I go, so as to frighten me,” she said. “One of the ‘shabiha’ [government paramilitaries] in the neighbourhood beat my younger son badly and made several threats against my family.”
However these threats did not stop Um Mohammed from visiting the families of martyrs and detainees or from documenting their needs. She continued to update us on their financial hardship, and return to families in need – particularly those whose main provider was in prison or had been killed – bringing items donated by people like us who wanted to help.
At that time, people were scared by what they saw on TV about the horrors perpetrated by the regime, and what they heard about the barbaric methods used in detention cells. Even though they feared for their own and their children’s lives and begged not to be identified, they still helped in secret. For example, one person wanted to distribute olives as ‘zakat’ [charity] when they were in season. Another woman vowed to distribute mutton secretly to the families of martyrs.
Everybody trusted Um Mohammed and her colleagues who arranged this. Over time, their work became more organised and structured. She carried on even after the Syrian army occupied Idlib city and forced the revolutionaries to withdraw.
During Ramadan, Um Mohammed visited me daily after breakfast for morning coffee. She used to cry and talk to let it all out. On one of her visits, she told me that her husband had left the city along with the revolutionaries and they were now hiding out together.
“He is now wanted by the regime, and we don’t know where he is,” she said. “Those poor guys face difficult conditions.”
She recalled another revolutionary from the city. “Do you remember the young man who climbed the electricity pole with no help, just like a spider, to hang up the independence flag at Al-Sa’aa Square? He was martyred! My heart is broken. His father is in his sixties and he works as a gravedigger – his surname is Homsi and he has ten children. He too has fled the city and left those poor children without a provider.”
The man’s father died later under torture, after being detained while visiting his family in secret to bring back food for the revolutionaries outside the city. Um Mohammed told me this during one of our phone calls.
The man told her once that the rebels crave “gumam”, a local dish of sheepheads, boiled and cooked with bulgur wheat or grits, and eaten with dry bread and garlic. Um Mohammed told me that the father once brought the rebels ten portions of this meal, even though sheepheads are very difficult to clean. He cleaned and cooked them himself, saying, "I too want to take part in the revolution.”
Um Mohammed loved visiting me. She loved drinking coffee on my balcony, not only because she liked me and liked my company, but for some more important reason – it may have been just coincidence, or maybe it was God’s way of easing the pain of a martyr's mother.
Every day when she visited me after “tarawih”, the nighttime prayers of Ramadan, we heard the sounds of machine guns and other weapons. We could not tell which were on the city outskirts.
Um Mohammed would laugh and loudly say, “Now my heart is happy. My soul is calm. At this very moment, I forget my sadness and I’m happy.”
Her visits helped keep our hopes up.
“Listen, dear,” she would say to me. “They [the revolutionaries] haven’t forgotten you and they’ll be back. They will avenge you and your martyrs. Those sounds mean they’re close. Yes, they haven’t left, they haven’t forgotten us, as the regime says. The rumours are wrong – they are getting ready to return. We will be waiting for them; we are with them.”
Soon after this, I was forced to leave the city but Um Mohammed remained as steadfast as ever. We keep in touch, and her heart still rejoices at each bullet or shell she hears being fired by the revolutionaries. The sounds make her feel that they are close by. She still awaits their return, and ours too.
Mayada Issa is an Arabic teacher from Idlib who fled to Turkey in 2012.
This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.
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