Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syrian Army Continues Idlib Onslaught

Local activist describes destruction in villages and indiscriminate killing.
By Daniella Peled
  • Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)
    Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)
    Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)
    Destruction of villages in Jabal al-Zawiyya area of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. (Photo: IWPR)

With the Syrian army continuing its crackdown in the northwestern province of Idlib, IWPR Arab Spring editor Daniella Peled interviewed a 28-year-old activist in the region who goes by the pseudonym Abu al-Barra.

What is happening in Idlib now?

The situation is very difficult in the area where I’m from, Jabal al-Zawiyya, which has now become infamous. It actually consists of 34 villages, and I am from the largest of them, al-Barra, which now lies in ruins.

The Syrian army is spread across the area, with checkpoints set up every few kilometres. Every day, these forces come into a village, set fire to houses and sometimes kill people.

The humanitarian situation is very difficult – there are no communications, no fuel and no electricity. The checkpoints have disconnected communities so that people can’t move around or get to their farms. For instance, it has been a very harsh winter there in the mountains, but people can’t get out to collect wood to use for fuel. And of course there are no medicines.

Yesterday, the Syrian forces entered Mraeian and other villages and set fire to houses there. People fled – we don’t know where to exactly, but most try to get to Turkey or Aleppo.

Villages which used to have 3,000 or 4,000 people now have no more than 300 or 400, just old men and women.

Turkey isn’t doing anything to help us. It is just setting up camps for displaced people. Most of these are women and children, because so many young men have been killed or arrested.

If the army sees any young men, it arrests them. At checkpoints, young men are told to return to their villages, and when they turn around to go, they get shot in the back.

One of the women in my village told me that her son of three or four years old had been sick for two weeks. She couldn’t take him to Aleppo for treatment because there’s no transport and she was afraid of the checkpoints. The child died.

Her husband is an army officer in Damascus, working in a desk job, and even he couldn’t get permission to come and help his own family.

What do you think of the request by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a humanitarian ceasefire two hours a day?

The Red Cross, like the Gulf states and the European Union, just talks rather than doing anything. I spoke to members of the Free Syrian Army an hour ago and they said that they had volunteers – surgeons and drivers – who were ready to help the Red Cross, not just two hours but 24 hours a day as the humanitarian need here is so great.

But the regime will not accept this. It says the Red Cross won’t take drugs and medical supplies to those who need them, but will instead shift weapons and supplies to the Free Syrian Army. The regime just wants to punish everyone on the ground.

We have a saying in Syria, “Punishment is for everyone , while one person reaps the reward,” and that’s what’s happening here [with the public and President Bashar al-Assad].

What is your role as an activist in the uprising?

I work with the Syrian network for human rights, I help with the distribution of food and other supplies, and I work with the Free Syria Army on media communications, videos and reporting.

I travel between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and cross illegally into Syria when I can.

Activism isn’t something new for me. My father, a teacher, was arrested two weeks before I was born and spent many years in prison. The regime said he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. I spent my childhood not knowing my father.

My brother and I became involved in internet activism a few years ago. We blogged about the political situation in Syria, and we got arrested. I was accused of spying for the United States and Britain. My brother spent several years in prison and is now living in hiding inside Syria. If the army catches him it will send him to prison again.

The Syrian army has already come and attacked my parents’ house. The situation my family is going through is very hard.

What help do people say they need?

We want to live freely and to speak freely. The security forces here are murderers; they kill people without pity as if they are from another planet.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are just talking without actually helping.

When I speak to the Free Syrian Army, they tell me they need weapons to defend ourselves, so as not to be killed like sheep by the army. We need NATO to help us, or weapons supplied by the international community.

Personally, I am happy to accept all forms of aid, but people in Syria are saying that what we need is weapons, not food. We need to be able to defend ourselves.