Bullets shattered my sleep.
In Raqqa, Syria, we were used to shooting. Bullets sang their weary tune several times a week, like a hit song overplayed on the radio. We were sick of fighting. Most days, I barely raised my head. It was guys squabbling over gas. Yes. Big deal. Go back to sleep.
The bullets were different that morning.
Shots came from all directions, in a continuous symphony, punctuated by the percussion of mortars. They flew through the chilly 5 a.m. light to crack like champagne glasses thrown against a wall. Their violence commingled with a sense of jubilation; the clashes
rose with the sun.
I sprang up, then ran to the balcony. The bullets continued, but I didn’t worry I’d be hit. I spotted three columns of smoke billowing from the locations of what until hours ago had been army checkpoints, one of which I passed every few days on my way to the bakery. Now they were ruins. Beneath the dust, uniformed bullies bled their lives out, and their fuel tanks exploded into great gray plumes.
The army was clashing with the rebels.
Who were the men fighting on the outskirts of my city? At the time, it didn’t seem like a priority to know. I wanted the regime to leave Raqqa because the regime was acting as our enemy — but as to the twenty-three battalions trying to oust them? I didn’t exactly
have a chart. I knew about as little as a Western analyst. In the rest of the country, rebels fell into multiple categories. There were the local groups, like my friend Nael’s group, Ahrar al-Tabga. They were countless in number, drawn from young men trying to defend their villages, or sometimes just bandits disguised as such. Some of these battalions had fifty fighters at most. There were also larger, still locally based groups, mostly from the countryside around Aleppo — Liwa al-Tawhid was the biggest in the country — which had little to no ideology but revered their leaders as godfathers.
Then there were the groups formed by the Islamists whom Assad had released from Sednaya prison after the first months of protests. Ideology, networks, cohesion. These guys had everything in place. Ahrar al-Sham started as three groups, merged into one, and in a matter of months snapped up territories in thirteen governorates. Some were Salafi, some not, but most were nationalistic in focus, disciplined in execution, and seized with a moronic misapprehension that democracy was an import from the decadent anti-Islam West.
Some of the groups in these three wide categories fought under the three-starred independence flag of the Free Syrian Army, some did not, and some mixed nods to the FSA with Islamist references, but the FSA was more of a brand name than any sort of centralized command structure anyway.
Finally, there was Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Qaeda’s local branch — though they did not admit to being so at first — might have set up shop during the chaos of the war, but it was foreign in origin and objective. Nusra did not believe in our revolution, or that there was
a revolution, or that revolutions were anything more than an infidel innovation imported from the infidel West. They did not care about the ideals for which Syrian protesters had died. They did not believe in borders or regimes bounded by geography. To them, besides the war, Syrian land was the same as the land of Russia, Argentina, or Gibraltar — just land belonging to God. Wherever they could build an Islamic State, they would.
Nusra fought under a black flag adorned with the shahada: There is no God but Allah.
I was fuzzy as to how all these distinctions in belief and objective applied to Raqqa. The only thing I knew was that somewhere in the city, my friends were fighting. I gripped the balcony. My head soared with hope that something might change after our winter of
Nael, you are out there in the battle. I am waiting for you. After five months, you’re coming home.
I woke up and the city was theirs. The new conquerors wore black scarves and had lofty eyes. How swiftly they drove out the army. How caring they seemed to be. Just like our guys to be so amiable. Maybe they carried the black flag, not the three stars of the revolution, but how could we care about something as petty as a color scheme? These boys kicked the soldiers’ asses back to whatever base they’d come from. They killed half the security forces, then sent the rest scuttling to Division 17, an outpost beyond the city borders. That should make them our friends, shouldn’t it? We ought to shut up and smile. Feel some ecstasy. Stop whining about the consequences.
Did we not feel that wind on our faces?
That was our hellish past, running away from us as fast as the army guys who once shot at us. Now they’re crawling back into their hideouts. Poor souls, poor history. Keep them in your memory.
Over several broken minutes I caught glimpses of fighting far away. Guys hid behind walls, shot, ducked — as their buddies readied their payloads of death. Vans swerved to disgorge more fighters. From my doorway, I stood and stared.
I never wanted the revolution to be armed, and I never fired a gun at another human. Every blown-off leg, every burned-off face filled me with anguish. War disgusted me. Yet there I stood, just steps outside the same home I’d lived in for years, enthralled, obsessive. You won’t hate me for confessing my enchantment. On this narrow ledge where violence met banal normality, I could feel life as pure upon me as the first warm rain of spring.
In the afternoon, I walked the empty streets. The shops were closed. The wind swirled, carrying clouds of Raqqa’s lunar dust. Its howl mingled with sporadic gunshots. I did not look for Nael. I knew that he would come.
Back at my house, the power was off, and the mobile coverage had vanished. Only gunshots broke the silence. Through the long night, I felt a thousand emotions, but excitement overwhelmed them all.
Neighbors said that in the hours before dawn, the rebels had killed a sniper. They chopped off his trigger finger and strung up his body from the lamppost. Before they got the sniper, the rumor went, that finger had shot thirteen fighters. Rumors added a detail: He was a Druze. When I arrived, the sniper’s body was already gone.
Instead, the streets’ only inhabitants were young men, nearly all of them holding guns. Some were inside their vehicles, some were resting in the shadows of the walls, some were chewing their sandwiches. In front of every government building, a few fighters
lounged in plastic chairs, sipping tea and bullshitting. They didn’t frighten me. They were my age or younger, members of countless battalions that had sprung up in the previous weeks or months whose names were scrawled in graffiti on every locked-down storefront.
A bulldozer was building barricades. I asked permission from a group of fighters to shoot a video. They refused with an apology.
I did it anyway.
Walking those streets, I felt I could do anything. I was free, I thought. I was happy, filled with the fragile, exaggerated belief that this time, this city would be ours.
Regime warplanes have started to bomb the city.
No metaphor captures that sound a plane makes when it dives, the moment before releasing its load. It is its own — a pure creator of horror. You anticipate the consequences. You hold your breath as you imagine where the bombs will fall. The planes circled above the city to taunt us, then flew closer, making our tables tremble from the force of their sonic booms. Once, the pilot looped low enough for me to see the plane’s number on its wing. His white helmet shone like an astronaut’s. Raqqa is small, and when bombs hit its center, the whole city shook. They might strike ten miles away, but I could feel them closer than my jugular vein.
We get our first ideas about aerial bombardment from TV. We imagine that fighter jets raze buildings, even neighborhoods. What we don’t see is how they raze hope as well. Each time the MiGs dove, their bombs burned the celebration from our countenances.
To take shelter from the bombs, my family retreated to my small basement room, where we were soon joined by my married sisters and their husbands and kids. We filed down below the earth, pressed against each other, breathing each other’s breaths. The children
who were usually so naughty, always playing tricks, improvising football games, and fighting wars on Eid with made-in-China squirt guns, now sat in an obedient row, frozen in fear, while my sisters stroked their heads and told them reassuring lies. “It will be okay, dear ones.” “It’s so far from here.” The jets echoed. My family wept and prayed. Their conversations interwove in hysterical bursts of speculation. The regime will retake the city any minute. They have sleeper cells inside. Army convoys are coming from Hama and Brigade 93 in the northern town of Ain Essa. They will gas us all to death. We should leave. To where? We must. My people spent the whole day in our basement, leaving only to rush to the kitchen and cook in a perverse relay race. On my laptop, I refreshed Twitter and Facebook for the latest news of the battle. We remained underground through the night.
The next day, I climbed up to the balcony again. “It’s not safe,” my father pleaded, but I didn’t listen. He seemed different to me now, clueless and worried in spite of all his years. He was no longer the wise, confident man who directed us to do this and that. Me? I was full of everything except fear. I imagined the bombs falling on me. I would be gone in a second. Death was not worth thinking about or hiding from in a basement. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. “Don’t worry,” I told him. Using facts half-seen firsthand, half-learned from the Internet, I explained how and whom the planes targeted, and how, even when plumes of smoke rose from the ground, our stubborn buildings remained defiantly upright.
I saw my first fighter jet bombing outside the besieged security branch. Every forty minutes, the MiG-21 drew lazy circles around the city. It was a dragon. A monster in the sky, toying with us, letting us anticipate its attack. Three minutes, then it dove. Two rockets shot out — flames from the dragon’s mouth. I captured the moment on my nephew’s cellphone. Then it climbed, in a slanted oval, looped back, descended, deposited more death. I didn’t yet know why, but I felt that it was important to capture it all.
In my father’s room, my family packed their bags. “Where can you go?” I asked. “It’s the same everywhere, the battle’s almost done.” The next day, my whole family left for the countryside, where a distant acquaintance had a spare room they could sleep in. I stayed in Raqqa, alone.
They returned a week later, full of regret.
Fighters and residents marched to the city’s main square and knocked down the statue of Hafez al-Assad — the same one that protesters died trying to approach during Ali al-Babinsi’s funeral the year before. This time, it was felled not by civilian axes and shovels
but by the rebels’ bulldozer. Rebels put a noose around Hafez’s neck and then pulled until he crashed face-first into the blue tiles of the fountain that surrounded him. Hafez’s face shattered. The stone must have been cheap.
We had nicknamed the statue “Hubal,” after the greatest god of the Jahaliyya, the pre-Islamic period of Arabia. Only when Hubal’s idols were smashed did Arabia find its place on the map of civilizations. That afternoon, we too felt that we were writing our way into
“God is great!” screamed the crowds of young men. They jumped on the sculpture, ecstatic, and clambered up its back like they were straddling the world. An old man pissed on it. Others took turns beating Hafez’s head with their shoes. A youth took out a can and spray-painted a message on the statue’s side in the distinct Raqqawi dialect. “Tomorrow is better,” it read. ●
From the book BROTHERS OF THE GUN: A Memoir of the Syrian War by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, Illustrations by Molly Crabapple. Copyrights © 2018 by Abdulkader Hariri and Molly Crabapple Inc. Published by One World, and imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Marwan Hisham is a Syrian freelance journalist who since 2014 has covered Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. His work has been published in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Intercept, and Foreign Policy.
Molly Crabapple, an artist and writer in New York, has drawn in Guantánamo Bay, in Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps, and with rebels in Syria, and received widespread praise for her illustrated memoir Drawing Blood. Crabapple is a contributing editor for Vice and has written for the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Vanity Fair. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Find out more about Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian Civil War.