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In 'Free' Syrian Village, A Plea For U.S. Help

Jul 23, 2012
Originally published on July 24, 2012 2:52 pm

First of five parts

It's sunset in the village of Atima. The old police station clearly was part of the government at one point. The police basically left and now the police station itself is a headquarters for the rebels.

The flag on top of the police station is no longer the Syrian flag, but the flag of the revolution. It's a bit in tatters, but it's still there.

Inside the police station, Syrians line up to meet a local commander named Zaza, who sits at the only desk in the room. He's small, wears camouflage pants and an ammo vest with a grenade on the right, a pistol on the left. His long hair and long beard are black-and-silver. He combs them a lot.

The people who have come to see Zaza are either leaving Syria or coming into the country. They have to pass through this village on their way.

One man's father just defected from the Syrian army and escaped to Turkey. Now the rest of the family is asking Zaza's help to get out of Syria, for fear President Bashar Assad's regime will punish them. People coming in could be anyone from journalists to medics to fighters to gunrunners.

U.S. Role

The village has been "free" for many months now. The sense is that the Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere in the country to retake control, and that the Turkish military, perched just on the other side of the border, is providing unofficial cover. That plus the mountainous terrain and presence of other rebels groups nearby gives this village a confidence that it will remain in rebel hands.

It was this confidence that sparked the rebels here to launch their first ever operation against the regime last week, on an army checkpoint just north of here. The regime's army fought back, though. The rebels lost eight men and retreated.

Inside the rebel headquarters, the men waiting to talk to Zaza grill me about why the U.S. isn't doing more to help the rebels hold this territory and topple Assad's regime.

You can't send troops, you can't enforce a no-fly zone, they say. We know that. But why not send more weapons? The rifles and rocket-propelled grenades we're getting from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not enough, they say. Why not help us coordinate our operations, like NATO advisers did in Libya?

One resident later tells me he has seen two undercover Americans passed through here. He says one gave the rebels a couple of high-end sniper rifles. The other was interested in the types of helicopters used by the Syrian regime.

Mourning Family

Later that night, I go to where the women of the village are sitting in mourning for one of the men lost in the checkpoint operation. It's the first time a rebel from this town has died in a firefight.

The man's young wife sits with a blank look on her face, her 2-year-old son splayed on the floor, fitfully sleeping. When I ask for the dead man's name, his steely sister says it as if she wants the world to hear, and then breaks down.

A young girl who's volunteered to translate asks me the same question the rebels asked in the police station: Why won't anybody help us?

I tell her it's complicated. I say I don't speak for the U.S. government, but I do know that many people don't want to see the U.S. get mired in another Iraq or Afghanistan. I feel like I'm saying something totally normal, but it shatters the girl. She starts to cry and can't stop. She eventually tells the other women in the room what I said.

The women stare at me. We won't forget this, the sister of the dead man says finally. When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have an eyewitness look inside Syria. NPR's Kelly McEvers has spent a week with that country's rebels. The government holds the cities but the rebels control considerable territory in rural areas, and that includes the area where Kelly begins a series of reports not far from the border with Turkey.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So here we are, it's sunset in the village of Atima. This is an old police station that clearly was, you know, part of the government at one point. The police basically just left and now the police station itself is a headquarters for the rebels. The flag on top of the police station is no longer the Syrian flag, it is the flag of the Syrian revolution. It's in tatters a bit, but it's there.

Inside the police station, Syrians line up to meet a local commander named Zaza. He sits at the only desk in the room.

He's small. He wears camouflage pants and an ammo vest with a grenade on the right, a pistol on the left. His long hair and long beard are black and silver. He combs them a lot.

ZAZA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The people who come to see Zaza are either leaving Syria or coming into Syria. They have to pass through this village on their way. One man's father just defected from the Syrian army and escaped to Turkey. Now the rest of the family is asking Zaza's help to get out of Syria, for fear the regime will punish them. People coming in could be anyone from journalists to medics to fighters to gunrunners. The village has been, quote-unquote, free for many months now. The sense is that the Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere in the country to retake control here and that the Turkish military, perched just on the other side of the border, is providing unofficial cover. That plus the mountainous terrain and presence of other rebels groups nearby gives this village a confidence that it will remain in rebel hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND SHOUTING)

MCEVERS: It was this confidence that sparked the rebels here to launch their first ever operation against the regime last week, on an army checkpoint just north of here. The regime's army fought back, though, as we hear in this video filmed at the scene. The rebels lost eight men and retreated. Inside the rebel headquarters, the men waiting to talk to Zaza grill me about why the U.S. isn't doing more to help the rebels hold this territory and topple the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We know you can't send troops, we know you can't enforce a no-fly zone, they say. But why not send more and better weapons? The rifles and rocket-propelled grenades we're getting from Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not enough, they say. Why not help us coordinate our operations, like NATO advisers did in Libya? One resident later tells me he has seen two undercover Americans pass through here. He says one gave the rebels a couple of high-end sniper rifles. The other was interested in the types of helicopters used by the Syrian regime.

Later that night, I go to where the women of the village are sitting in mourning for one of the men lost in the checkpoint operation. It's the first time a rebel from here has died in a firefight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: His wife.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The young man's wife sits with a blank look on her face, her two-year-old son splayed on the floor, fitfully sleeping. When I ask for the dead man's name, his steely sister says it as if she wants the world to hear, and then she breaks down and says it again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: A young girl who's volunteered to translate asks me the same question rebels asked in the police station: Why won't anybody help us? I tell her the U.S. doesn't want to get mired in another Iraq or Afghanistan, especially not now, in an election year. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: McEvers prefaced her response by saying she doesn't speak for the U.S. government. She also said "many people don't want to see the U.S. get mired" in another conflict.]

I feel like I'm saying something totally normal, but it shatters the girl. She starts to cry and can't stop. She eventually tells the other women in the room what I said.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The women stare at me. We won't forget this, the sister of the dead man says finally. When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.