Egypt Independent

Free Syrian Army fighters recount falling in love during war

ALEPPO — While being a landscape of warfare and death for the last two years, love and romance has not been killed by Syria’s ongoing revolution.

Mahmoud Abu Jafaar, 29, used to be a driver, while Nour, 22, worked as a hairdresser. Now they are fighting together in the Sheikh Saeed Front in north Syria, where the Free Syrian Army has been battling President Bashar al-Assad’s troops for the road to Aleppo International Airport.

Mahmoud comes from the village of Safita, near Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. There, he learned how to paint and sculpt, and has been practicing his passion since his childhood.

He used to work as a driver for a minister’s wife, but got fired in 2010 after being accused of falling in love with her daughter. He was imprisoned for six months and tortured, then forced to leave Syria.

He took refuge in Libya, where he worked as a sculptor. But when the revolution started in 2011 against President Muammar Qadhafi, he decided to take arms and join the battle.

“I took part in their battle, and that’s where I gained most of my fighting skills,” he says.

There, he met another Syrian, and they became friends. The man was part of the Tenskia organization, which organizes protests against Assad.

“I kept in contact with him, joined the organization and got back to Syria illegally at the very beginning of the revolution,” he recounts, while seated in his living room next to his Kalashnikov.

As violence spread, Mahmoud decided to join the FSA in Aleppo and share his Libya warfare skills on Syria’s battlefield.

As for Nour, she is the daughter of a senior official of the regime’s Baath Party. Before the war started, she was a hairdresser in the center of Aleppo.

She has a 5-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, which she is discreet about. When the revolution began, she took part in the demonstrations and was active publicizing and mobilizing for them on social media.

But her mostly pro-Assad family didn’t appreciate her activism, and tried to incarcerate her at home.

It wasn’t until June 2011 that the revolution took both their lives in an entirely different direction. Mahmoud was part of a mission to chase pro-Assad militiamen, otherwise known as Shabiha, and hurriedly got into a taxi, not seeing that Nour was already inside. They started talking to each other about the revolution, and found they agreed on many issues. They exchanged contact information and kept in touch.

Nour recalls that she was living on the side of Aleppo where Assad’s troops were still in control.

“I didn’t want to stay there and wanted to join Mahmoud on the other side of Aleppo,” she says. “Of course, my father prevented me.”

One day, she left to join a protest. My dad called the police in order to chase me and arrest me, which they did,” Nour recalls.

On that day, Nour’s friend alerted Mahmoud, who was furious, knowing what the fate of a woman under Assad’s men’s custody can be.

“I decided to rescue her; I knew where she was, as I had contacts in that part of Aleppo. As I had to cross an area under the control of Bashar’s troops, I disguised myself as a woman with a niqab to pass the checkpoint,” Mahmoud says. “It went well, and when I arrived at the house where she was arrested I stormed the place, killed two police officers and took her out. My battalion was waiting for me in a car a bit beyond the checkpoint.”

Since that day, Nour never returned to her family, and stayed on to liberate Aleppo with the FSA. She and Mahmoud got married and moved in together in September.

Their apartment is in the top floor of a building that serves as a meeting point for Mahmoud’s battalion. While serving as a war base, it is also visibly a space of love and fun.

When it’s not Nour’s little daughter running around, it’s Nour and Mahmoud chasing and teasing each other, like two teenagers in love, except that their love blossomed amidst fierce warfare. Elements of this war made it to the inside of their flat, where Kalashnikovs, pistols and knives decorate the place. They belong to the both of them.

Mahmoud says he taught Nour how to use guns so she can protect herself and her child when he’s not at home.

“I trained her for two months on how to be a good fighter,” he says. “At first, I trained her at home, then I brought her to the front line.”

But once Nour could use a gun, she wanted to join the fighters for real, and not just use it for self-defense.

“We had some fights because sometimes I would just sneak out to join the front line. I was fighting with men at first. Then, when other women heard about me, they asked if they could also join the FSA,” Nour says.

At that time, Mahmoud decided to create a women’s battalion that fights at the Sheikh Saeed front line. Nour became the commander of the battalion, which now has nine female fighters.

They called it Nazel al-Abed Battalion, in memory of a famous Syrian female fighter during the armed resistance against the French occupation.

“We are not against women fighters. On the contrary, they are very efficient and useful,” says Mahmoud. “Although they are not fighting on the front line, they are very good at sniping on the third line.”

The female fighters are also responsible for special missions such as passing checkpoints controlled by Assad’s troops or killing Shabiha fighters.

“Since she started, Nour has killed six Shabiha,” Mahmoud says proudly.

Unlike men, women are not fighting every day. They alternate between training, missions and their lives at home.

When not on a mission, Nour spends her time taking care of her house and daughter, and managing their family’s finances, which largely depend on Mahmoud’s savings from his time in Libya.

“Once Aleppo is totally liberated, I will move and fight somewhere else,” says Mahmoud, and within a second, Nour adds that she would follow him. “I think that I will move to Damascus. In Aleppo, the situation is very bad, as the FSA is not united anymore. Some brigades are working alone without a unified organization.”

Mahmoud and Nour long for the day when Assad is gone, but are also unsure that it would immediately be a happy ending, especially with ongoing troubles between different brigades and battalions of the FSA.

“In that case, we’ll go to Egypt and get back to a normal life,” says Mahmoud, before going back to chasing his wife around the room.

Above them, on their wall, hangs a picture of them together, next to their weapons.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.