Ramadan in Aleppo

A Letter From Rebel-Controlled Syria

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

"Don't even think about going to sleep tonight."

My fixer, Mahmoud Elzour, shot me a wry smile from the corner of a rooftop patio in a safe house in al-Bab, a town about 27 miles north of Aleppo that was recently liberated by Syrian rebels. It was already two o'clock in the morning, and the predawn meal that was supposed to get us through the Ramadan day ahead was being served by our host, Abu Ali. With his large frame and close-cropped brown hair, he could easily have been mistaken for a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. We were surrounded by a gracious fraternity of activists, relatives of Abu Ali, and rebel fighters, among them one military defector and about four civilians. Earlier that evening, we had made a touch-and-go border crossing from Kilis, Turkey, and then drove for an hour along the completely quiet roadways leading from the border to al-Bab. The only military presence we encountered was a single Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint. So after all this, sleeping had never occurred to me. "We will go to Aleppo at four and leave at noon," Mahmoud said. Was it safe? "Of course. I would not take you there if it wasn't, habibi." Another smile.

Reedy and bespectacled, Mahmoud is a 52-year-old Syrian who spent the last two decades in Atlanta. A few months ago, he sold most of his successful construction-vehicle dealership to move to Antakya, Turkey, where many Syrian fighters have formed an ad hoc base. Once there, he started financing his own rebel battalion. The day before our jaunt into Syria, he had returned from a fierce battle in central Aleppo that culminated in the rebels' overrunning two police stations and defeating a group of shabiha, mercenary civilian thugs employed by the regime, from the pro-Assad Barri tribe. Some members of the tribe were later summarily executed, and a gruesome video of the incident appalled even pro-opposition Syrians. Mahmoud took no part in the executions, but he did participate in a raid on one of the police stations. Rebels blew up the ground floor with with a bomb that had been fashioned, Mahmoud said, out of an old water boiler. The officers inside had been offered amnesty and safe passage if they quit their posts, but after hearing the scream of fighter jets overhead and mistakenly believing that reinforcements were on the way, they angrily refused. So the rebels invaded, killing anyone who fired back.


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