As the conflict in Syria escalates, rebel forces are growing in strength and launching increasingly deadly attacks on government targets. But how do men go from “ordinary” life to combat, from grilling kebabs to building bombs in the back yard? From Idlib, the BBC’s Ian Pannell reports.
Omar has not been lucky. A large man with a shaggy beard and tight curly black hair, he emigrated to Libya to set up a kebab restaurant. It did well so he set up another one.
Then last year the Libyan revolution erupted and one restaurant was destroyed by Nato bombing, the other by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.
So he packed up his bags and brought his family back to his native Syria. The country was already in the throes of protests calling for change.
But as the government began to physically suppress its opponents so those calls became increasingly vociferous, by stages morphing into armed insurrection.
Like many men in his neighbourhood, he had not held a weapon since his two years national service.
But as the violence began to spiral, mechanics, shopkeepers and chefs like Omar took up arms, forming the rebel Free Syrian Army. He became a marked man and as government forces advanced he was forced to run away again, abandoning yet another business.
Over a lunch of salad, pitta bread, yoghurt and hummus, Omar draws a crowd in the kitchen as he effortlessly skins a tomato in one piece, expertly folding it into a decorative rose, his hands a blur as he chops cucumbers and fragrant mint leaves.
We talk about the differences between the two countries.
“In Libya you could talk about anything but not politics,” he says. “In Syria you could talk about anything but not the Assad family.”
It underlines the extent to which this has become a very personal struggle, not just against the Baath Party and Syrian government but also against President Bashar al-Assad and the family that has kept a tight grip on the country’s power and resources for more than four decades.
We build bombs because they give us strength”
Omar Rebel fighter
It has also become a violent struggle. Today Omar lives in a farmhouse, hidden amongst the vast olive groves in the north of the country. He doesn’t make kebabs anymore, he plants IEDs, improvised explosive devices. In other words, home-made bombs.
“Offence is the best defence,” he says, explaining a tactic that many find repugnant. The very letters I-E-D are redolent of the Taliban in Afghanistan or al-Qaeda in Iraq. For some Syrians, and certainly the Assad government, these men are simply terrorists.
But with little support from the outside world and just a small quantity of arms and ammunition now crossing the Turkish border, the fighters see the home-made bombs as legitimate weapons.
Fighting between rebels and government forces appears to be intensifying in Idlib, as Ian Pannell explains in this recent report
“We are weak,” he says. “We build bombs because they give us strength.” And he insists they only attack the army, not civilians.
We spent nearly two weeks with Omar and the self-styled Idlib Martyrs Brigade; men who regard themselves as freedom fighters, a latter-day band of merry men with Bassel Abu Abdu, their commander, as some sort of Robin Hood figure.
Curiously, in this corner of Syria, this very English folk tale of a group of outlaws taking on a wicked overlord and defending ordinary people has gripped the popular imagination.
And they certainly have some magnetism as they move through the countryside, drawing crowds of admiring children, grateful residents offering tea and bread.
Bassel leads hundreds of fighters. Like Omar, he has only limited military experience.
He used to sell spare car parts. But they have fought endless battles over the last year and have grown stronger and smarter all the time. Bassel also confesses that he draws inspiration from war movies.
I ask him which film in particular. He says he cannot remember the title and apologises because it is the story of a battle against the English.
He describes a strong leader hundreds of years ago, who took on a much stronger army, fighting for independence for his people. The film, of course, is Braveheart, the story of William Wallace, a 13th Century Scottish hero who fought for the independence of Scotland.
But the terrifying reality on the ground is not the stuff of romantic tales or historical drama.
It has become a seething mire of violence and bloodshed. Artillery shells destroying homes and lives, tank rounds blasting into villages, gunfire and bomb explosions.
Whatever the rights and wrongs or reasons, both sides are now locked into a fight to the death. Both sides believe they have right on their side, that the ends justify the means, and they are willing to do almost anything to win.
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