Omar Mande, 56, is a fighter in a unit in the Free Syrian Army in northwestern Syria. He is seen here in an interview during a rare visit to his family’s rented house in the Turkish border town of Hacipasa. — SG photo by Daniel Lippman
HACIPASA, Turkey — Omar Mande had a normal life in the town of Darkush in northwestern Syria, where he worked hard as an iron metal worker and provided for his wife and six kids. But after protesting peacefully for a year, he is now a seasoned member of the rebel Free Syrian Army and uses a Kalashnikov to fight the regime in his home province of Idlib.
About a year ago, he decided that demonstrating in the streets was not enough and took up arms against the Bashar Al-Aassad regime. In response, the regime henchmen burned down his house, destroyed many of his belongings, and forced his family to flee to Turkey.
“The first time I used a weapon, I picked up just my pistol. I didn’t have anything because I didn’t find meaning to live with this unfair situation. To me it’s better to die than to see the regime continue to humiliate my family and other villagers,” he says.
He and his group of 23 fighters, five of whom he says lack Kalashnikovs, battle against the army in towns around Darkush, in Syria’s northern Idlib province, and says his unit, which includes his two sons, has recently “liberated” three government-held villages. Idlib is known as one of the most anti-Assad provinces and is also militarily critical to the rebels because supplies, food and weapons flow through the area to Aleppo, the country’s second largest city.
Mande says his group has received no assistance from Western countries and has to constantly scrounge for weapons and ammunition (he says a bullet sometimes costs 200 Syrian pounds or two US dollars). He specifically cites a lack of heavy weapons that hobble him and his rebel colleagues when they face powerful tanks and fighter jets that drop bombs.
Indeed at one point during an interview with him in Hacipasa, a dusty poor and agricultural Turkish border town that has taken in around 1,300 Syrian refugees, including Mande’s wife and children, the faint rumbling blast sounds of either artillery or bombs being dropped could be heard from inside Syria. Mande had arrived four days before and was seeing his family for the first time in five months.
Most Western countries have not aided the rebels militarily because of concerns that Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front are becoming more powerful and believe that adding more guns, ammunition and rockets into the already weapons-saturated country would only add fuel to the fire, ensuring that different rebel groups will turn on each other to secure power once Assad is gone.
“Nobody is helping. But for us, there is no way we will give up,” Mande says. “We can’t stop. If we stop, Al-Assad would rule the country even if he would kill all the nation. It doesn’t matter. We would fight even if we didn’t have weapons.”
The most shocking story Mande told was about how his house was burned down five months ago by regime-supported Shabiha which is notorious for heinous crimes against the civilians.
They left a hand-written note that he showed this reporter. It reads: “You coward Omar, you are a dog, you think you are a man. Where are you going to run away? You are going to Turkey?” The signature at the bottom of the note roughly says Sons of Assad, which means lion in Arabic.
He later found out that he knew some of the people who torched his home.
“Before the war, we sometimes had food and meals together. But under Assad, they got crazy and did that for him…They burned and broke my furniture and stole from me.”
“My feeling was of betrayal because some of the men who did it, I had had meals with and broke bread with and I asked: how could they be that sectarian? Instead of when we used to laugh and eat with each other.”
He hopes to soon return to rejoin his unit and says his “soul is on the other side.” He feels a special responsibility toward his fighting colleagues because while not the unit’s leader, at age 56 he’s one of the group’s elders, and likes to cook for his colleagues, give moral support and solve problems for them.
“I’m worried about my group and other people. I want to go back soon, but my family is trying to keep me here,” he says with a smile.
Daniel Lippman is a freelance journalist based in Washington. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, McClatchy Newspapers, Reuters and The Huffington Post. He is on Twitter @dlippman and can be emailed at email@example.com.