Life and a death sentence in rebel-held Damascus
(The identity of the correspondent has been withheld for security reasons)
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - One day last November, armed rebels woke Hind and her family at six in the morning and ordered them to march.
"They were taking us to our death. They had decided to execute us because they said we were collaborators," said the 38-year-old. "They marched us down the street, and I kept telling my sister not to worry, that God would save us."
For over two years, since Syria's armed uprising began to take root in the suburbs of Damascus, Hind had lived openly as a government loyalist while rebels gained ground around her.
Many thousands of civilians had fled her neighborhood south of the Syrian capital, escaping the growing conflict and the increasingly radical insurgents battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Her three brothers went into hiding when rebels took over her area in December 2012 but Hind, the daughter of a displaced Palestinian, chose to stay behind with her sisters and care for her elderly father.
"I'm already a refugee once. I won't be a refugee twice," she said. "Besides, where would I go?"
Her decision to stand her ground - an exception in a three-year conflict which has displaced millions of Syrians - marked the start of a fraught relationship with rebels that finally led to the local rebel council ordering her execution.
It was a fate she and her sisters only narrowly avoided when Assad's forces launched an assault to recapture her district three months ago, Hind says.
Hind's story, starting with the outbreak of anti-Assad protests in March 2011, illustrates Syria's journey from early calls for reform to the bloody civil war which has killed 140,000 people. Her experience is also closely entwined with the rise and fall of rebel power in Damascus.
TURNING TO ARMS
Demonstrations broke out in her district early in 2011, initially in support of protests in the cities of Deraa and Homs, the first centers of the uprising against 40 years of Assad family rule.
At first they were peaceful.
"And then, it seems that we went to bed one night and woke up in the morning and found some of the men we had always known as our neighbors now had arms," Hind recalls. "But they were very few at the time, maybe two dozen."
She says the 20 or so armed opponents of the president quickly fled her neighborhood during some of the first government raids, but returned shortly afterwards with more guns when Syrian authorities seemed to relax security.
Things began to snowball from there, and as rebels acquired more light arms, Hind's entire neighborhood seemed to become militarized. Soon, it was impossible for government troops to enter without risking major casualties.
"And as time went on, the rebels became more and more Islamicised, their beards grew longer and longer," said Hind, herself an observant Muslim who has always worn a headscarf.
Foreign fighters began arriving. "From Jordan, Libya, Tunis. I even met a Chechen," she said, adding they were few in numbers. "Maybe a few dozen or so."
The uprising around her turned into a full-fledged civil war, forcing everyone in the neighborhood to choose sides.
Hind saw no reason to support the rebels, who she blamed for ruining years of stability. "Things were fine. Life was good," she said. "I reminded (the rebels) every time they complained about food prices. 'You don't want to pay 200 pounds for a bag of chick peas? Why did you do this, then?'"
Her sentiments echo those of other Assad loyalists and Syrians who were ambivalent about the uprising and blame the turmoil and economic collapse solely on the rebels.
CHALLENGING THE REBELS
Stuck in the rebel-held area, Hind and the other remaining residents endured months of isolation and a government siege before the rebels finally retreated a few weeks ago.
Life in the neighborhood, where law and order soon collapsed, veered between tragedy and comedy as Hind often taunted the rebels on her streets.
She once took off her plastic slipper and threatened to beat an incensed fighter as they argued over who looted food.
"He shouted: ‘I swear to God, I will put a bullet in you and your sisters and your father and then I'm going to put a bullet in my own head!' And I said: ‘I must be really important then if I can make you kill yourself.' And he started to go crazy," she recalled with a chuckle.
She refused to sell the rebels bread during the months leading up to a government siege. At that time, only women could venture out into the government-controlled areas with relative ease, and return with much needed food and medicine.
As well as food, some women smuggled guns and equipment past the government checkpoints - something Hind also refused to do.
NO PLACE FOR YOUNG MEN
Farouq al Rifai, a rebel media activist for the Damascus southern front, which includes Hind's neighborhood, acknowledged that no military aged men could remain in rebel areas if they were openly government loyalists. But loyalist women and the elderly were tolerated, he said.
"The (rebel) Free Syrian Army in those areas were not extreme. They promised not to harm government loyalists living in their midst, on condition that they won't collaborate with the regime. Some loyalist families remained, but not military aged men," he said.
Across south Damascus there had been only one sanctioned public execution of collaborators, when three men were executed last summer, he said.
Hind says the rebels wanted to execute her when it became clear they were losing the battle, and suspected she had a role in passing on intelligence. She denied the charge.
Recalling the day when she thought she might die, her rapid words barely keep up with her breath, or her tears. She tells the story out of sequence, and her short sentences are interrupted by emotional outbursts.
Rebels alleged she had collaborated with government troops.
Her interrogator asked why she spent time with friends in government-controlled Sayida Zeinab, a 10-minute walk away and home to thousands who fled the embattled surrounding areas.
"I told him: "You're inquiring about my friend who lives in Sayida Zeinab? You have all your family living in Sayida Zeinab...So what if I have a friend who lives in Sayida Zeinab?" she said, sitting in the friend's living room.
Hind's own home is in one of the sprawling suburbs around Sayida Zeinab. She asked Reuters not to identify the suburb and to change her name because, she said, rebels who still want her dead would be able to identify her.
She, her sisters and father, along with a couple of other families are all that remain of the civilian population of her district. Close to a road network once bustling with traffic, they are now surrounded by ruins.
Debris, blackened wreckage and rusty metal barely break the grey monochrome of destruction. Some buildings have collapsed one floor on top of the other, the aluminum of their window frames looted long ago. Syrian security forces, which now man checkpoints inside the area, consider it a military zone that is strictly off-limits to most civilians.
MARCHING TO DEATH
It was their recapture of the district three months ago which, according to her own account, put Hind's life in grave danger but ultimately saved her at the last minute.
When she was being interrogated by the rebels who suspected her of helping the army, Hind recalls holding her ground "even as my heart started to sink".
When her interrogator told her to watch what she was saying and lower her voice she refused, saying she had done no wrong. "He said: 'No problem. When the mufti returns after liberating Sbeineh, he'll be the one to carry out your execution.'"
But the rebels lost Sbeineh, a nearby town, to government troops who quickly advanced toward Hind's neighborhood.
The rebels knew their battle would soon be lost, and Hind heard them in the middle of the night chanting songs of sorrow and mourning in the streets. They had run low on ammunition, and they felt their commander had sold them out.
They donned military fatigues to look like army soldiers, hoping they could escape in the confusion. Many withdrew that night with their families to other rebel-held areas of south Damascus like Yarmouk Camp and Hajr al-Aswad.
"But the few who stayed behind were determined to execute us before leaving," she said. "They marched us down the street, a group of them ahead of us, another one behind us. My sister next to me in tears. There was lots of noise."
"Then, a huge explosion. It was a hit from the army. The rebels scattered. There was chaos," Hind said, catching her breath as her eyes welled up.
"Then, I looked up and saw the army. It was mostly Hezbollah," she said, referring to the Lebanese militia fighters supporting Assad.
"I ran up and down and I was screaming. I think I started to kiss them and cry. They didn't know what I was doing, and they were suspicious, but then they realized I was hysterical. God had given me a second life."
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