There's no call to prayer in Al Qusayr these days. It is not that the townsfolk have forgotten their faith, but rather the mosques have been blown full of holes, rubble and dust. The daily dawn call is a smatter of machine gun fire from the government checkpoints and the occasional percussive bass of an artillery round landing.
Here, as in other restive Syrian towns such as Homs, Rastan and Idlib, residents say their peaceful protest movement turned to armed resistance after facing a lethal crackdown from government forces. Now, some 15 months after the first demonstrators took to the streets, Al Qusayr is a town cut in two. The heads of the town’s family groups have elected a local council that is backed by numerous brigades of soldiers claiming membership in the ‘Free Syrian Army’, control roughly half of Al Qusayr and most of the surrounding countryside.
‘Normal’ life has come to a halt: the schools are all closed and only a handful of stores are open. It is almost as if the town were on an extended public holiday, except one marred by frequent, sporadic moments of extreme terror and violence.
“We spend all our time with our children in our houses,” says Abbas Muhebeddin, head of the town’s recently elected local coordination committee. “Everything has changed. We spend a long time with a our families but we cannot think, we cannot do anything, we cannot even teach them because we are thinking always [about] what will happen. You are always worried.”
Of a town once home to 50,000 residents, just some 10,000 remain, and more are leaving everyday. Some half of those that are left are effectively trapped, however, according to Muhebeddin, with their names on a government blacklist. Leaving the protection of Al Qusayr would put them at risk of being picked up by the Syrian regime’s security forces.
Inside the town, fear, death and hardship are never far away.
In the ground floor of what was until recently a residential property, a busy team of medics poke around inside the 30-centimeter gash they have cut into the chest of a man, shot by snipers positioned atop of the town’s actual hospital. One holds a table lamp to accompany the jerry-rigged operating light that hangs above, as an aging pump sucks fluids from the patient, through tubes, to splash into a bucket.
This is one of the lucky ones; doctor Kasem al-Zeim and his team are able to save him, unlike the some 200 other residents who now occupy a small martyrs’ cemetery on the edge of town.
“They haven’t killed everybody but every two, three days they kill one person,” says Muhebeddin. “It is a difficult time, we are living like we are living in jail.”
The cost of living
Prices of everyday goods have soared, such as petrol, which has increased by 300 percent. Cigarettes, food and drinks have all taken similar hikes. “All the food gets more expensive, only [human life] gets cheaper in Syria,” says Hussein, previously a clerk in the family construction firm who now puts his language skills to use helping visiting foreign journalists.
The local council controls the only diesel in town. Deliveries come with a hefty add-on of a 50,000 Syrian pound ($870) bribe to the mukhabarat (government intelligence agents), and are used sparingly for baking bread and powering street cleaning and electricity maintenance vehicles.
The local council also coordinates donations of money and goods, be it from wealthier residents, those who have left, expats or aid organizations, and distributes them to the most needy. “We purchase sugar, rice, bulgur wheat,” explains Muhebeddin. “We have more than 1,500 families we are spending for, arranging food, medicine, milk… We arrange everything for these people, even bread.”
According to Muhebeddin, on the other side of the fence it’s a bonanza.
“[The government soldiers] steal everything from the houses. At any checkpoint it is like a supermarket: you want a fridge, you want a washer… you want a tractor, you want a car, you want a motorcycle, you want a cylinder of gas, fridge, chairs, blankets, everything, carpet, everything is for sale.”
Muhebeddin claims that the stolen goods are taken to pro-regime neighborhoods and villages where they are sold-off cheap to the party faithful. “There, in the streets you can find a fridge that would cost 30,000 SYP for 2,000 SYP,” he says.
Yet despite the constant fear of death or arrest, scarcity of food and rocketing prices, residents of ‘free’ Al Qusayr say they wouldn’t turn back the clock for a second.
“Now, in this bad condition we are glad and we are happier than before because now we respect ourselves. Before we hadn’t any respect for ourselves because one person from the mukhabarat could take all this city out, like animals,” says Muhebeddin.
But the fate of Qusayr lies in larger hands than the residents who fought for their freedom.
While Dr Zeim says that the recent uprising in Syria’s industrial heartland of Aleppo is buying the town time, school teacher Fatima spells out the fragile nature of their situation: “[The regime] will not stop. The army is still here, we are surrounded. We can’t go out. All the men in our town are [wanted]. If they catch them they’ll be arrested and killed,” she says. “Now we’re coming to a more dangerous stage. Now we want to get rid of [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. We don’t want him, he is not our president.”
“We think that the time that is coming will be very dangerous,” says Fatima. “There is no safety in our town.”