Hotel Omar.
Mountains of Aleppo, December. 2012.
RPG Ahmed tells me he prefers blowing up tanks over small arms firefights. He makes a pistol with his left hand and pretends to shoot, shaking his head in disapproval. Through sign language and a little intuition we communicate. For him, destroying tanks seems like a just act of violence. Ahmed is a force equalizer. He even boasts that since leaving Assad's military and joining the Free Syrian Army he has personally destroyed three armored vehicles. With a chinstrap beard and a stocky build Ahmed is all smiles. The beard has become a popular symbol of the revolution, like in the times of Che and Fidel. At 23 Ahmed is a kid. He is still infatuated by girls and self-portraits, but he is growing up fast. His innocence is being lost in battle. He was beginning his obligatory military service when the revolution began. Caught in the middle he chose the Free Syrian Army. This is not an unfamiliar dilemma as many of this war's combatants are ex-military, enhancing the destructive nature of the conflict. Ahmed says shooting soldiers is not why he joined the revolution. There is no bloodlust in his motivation to fight.
The fire in the wood stove that heats the room is burning low. In the corner sits a sniper rifle and two AK-47's. A Turkish 9mm handgun hangs from the wall in its holster, together with handcuffs taken from a captured regime soldier. Foam mattresses are spread around the wood stove. A thick cloud of smoke hovers in the room as the group burns through packs of Syrian cigarettes. On the wall behind me there is a homemade black flag with white letters in Arabic. I'm told it's praising Allah and the holy war. In front of me three adolescent rebels snuggle around a laptop playing the infamous video game PES 2012. Messi just scored a goal. On the other side of the room Ahmed prepares chai for the group. New faces have just arrived. They stare happily at us. Western journalists obviously draw a crowd.

Nestled in the mountains some 30 kilometers from Aleppo, it is here where this brigade finds a certain normalcy in the perversions of war. They call the half finished cement building “Hotel Omar”. The Free Syrian Army has controlled this region between Aleppo and Idlib for more than three months. It is historically a more conservative Sunni region, with traditions of resistance against both Assad regimes. The rebels fight for up to a week, either in Aleppo or Idlib, and then rest here for a day or two. This group recently returned from the frontline, yet the air is light with cameradarie and welcoming looks. We are questioned about where we're from, and how many children we have. We exchange languages, translating apple in Arabic, English, and Spanish. We joke about each other's nationalities, and our politicians. My earrings are entertaining everyone.

The “hotel's” namesake is an older man. In his fifties, Omar's hair and must-
ache are greying. He is wearing a camouflage waterproof overcoat, a 9mm sits under his arm. He portrays a relaxed father of the family sort of feeling. The younger men call him “the general”. While by far the eldest, Omar enjoys a good laugh just as much as the others. He stealthily lifts our translator's scarf, who's talking in his sleep curled up next to the wood stove. “Hotel Omar, Five stars, five stars...” There's a wave of giggles that spreads across the room.

I look for a lighter and Nasid passes me a lit cigarette. Originally from Latakia, Nasid was forced to flee to Reyhandli, Turkey with his family when the war broke out. He is a soft spoken, gentle man and knows the most English of the group. Originally a shopkeeper, Nasid is the second oldest here. In the months following the regime's first violent crackdowns Nasid spent time in Assad's famous detention centers. He was arrested after helping distribute medicines to injured protestors. Upon his release he joined the armed struggle. Today he laments his home has been destroyed and he has nothing left but the revolution. Latakia is a stronghold of the regime with a its large Allowite population. Going back to the region will probably never be an option. When we ask if he thinks the end is is near, he smiles, “Inshallah!” He wishes for a future in Syria for his daughters, a free and secular Syria.

It is brisk outside. There is a clear sky and a full spread of stars. Ahmed and another man wrestle with the generator. It is being particularly uncooperative. More men and adolescents trickle in. PES 2012 has been replaced by videos of car-bombings and IED attacks. Regime vehicles are sent flying into the heavens and it is difficult to keep count of how many people we've watched killed. The videos are well produced, with flashy graphics and soundtracks from the revolution. We are told that several of the attacks are the work of this very brigade. The instantaneous gratification of watching and re-watching their own war is un-nerving. But, I can understand the power of these videos and how they boost rebel morale. I try to shoot a few pictures, but it feels awkward. 

There is a knock on the door and when it opens everyone in the room rises to their feet. Two men enter and shake hands with the group. The older of the two is in his early 50's, with grey hair and a well trimmed beard. He has a patch over his left eye. The younger is stouter, but very serious. He has a chinstrap beard as well and strong hands. Both men are wearing black turbans. The region's culture of deference and respect makes this simple introduction seem almost ceremonial. Omar and Nasid and the other older men in the room chat with the two new guests. I realize that suddenly no-one is smoking or giggling, the warm feeling has evaporated. The younger men watch the news and talk calmly amongst themselves, responding every so often to the questions or errand requests from the other side of the room. My partner and I are excluded from both conversations. The cameras are stashed for the night, and we drink another round of chai.

Forty minutes pass and the two VIP guests finally get up to leave. Again everyone in the room stands. There are the hand shakes, hugs and kisses and they walk off into the night. There is a silent sigh and the cigarettes are out in force again, and Messi is back scoring goals on the laptop. I try to get an explanation from Ahmed. He timidly tells me the older of the two is a veteran mujahideen, though he won't tell me with which militia. He also doubles as a judge in the local Sharia court. Ahmed says he lost his eye to a sniper in Aleppo.

I have to prod Ahmed to tell me anything about the younger man. He mentions he is an Egyptian “journalist”, but evades any further conversation. This would not be the only foreigner we met on our short stay in Syria. There were men who claimed to be from Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Palestine. Fighters from other parts of the Arab and Muslim world have come to join the revolution. Some are guided by religion and a belief in the new Caliphate, but many came because they feel a fraternity to this fight. They have been inspired by the Arab Spring. Unfortunately there is no way to independently confirm where this particular man was from, or what organization he and his partner belong to. However, their importance is made obvious by the respect they are given.

Today in Syria, everyone is aiming for Assad. It is virtually impossible to imagine what the country will look like once the regime falls. The moving parts are many. The war has displaced over a million people and is entering its second year. The bombing has left vast swaths of land leveled, nothing remaining but rubble. There are many combatants with many competing ideologies. Secularism is just as popular as religious tradition. Regional identities and national demands remain unresolved, and extremism is lurking everywhere. Complicating more the country's future is it's geographic location as the door to the Middle East, and proximity to Israel and Iran. 

My eyes are getting heavy and I decide to go to bed. I say goodnight and slip into an unheated room next door. Only a blanket stops the cold from pouring through an unfinished window. However someone has generously made me a bed, complete with sheets and covers. I curl up in my down jacket and pass out. Morning comes early. I wake up and step outside. There is a dense fog below the house. Visibility is no more than 30 meters. In the distance I hear men singing. It sounds like they are marching. There is a brief spurt of automatic fire from even further. My brain plays tricks on me and I return to bed to escape my paranoia. The rest of the group is clueless, their snoring uninterrupted. I am the only one that forgot I've been sleeping in a country at war.

After breakfast we exchange Facebook names and emails. I promise to send photos and together we hope for a free Syria. Inshallah! I get into the SUV we came in and we head off to shoot the bombed out remains of Aleppo's suburbs. There, we hope to find why the men we spent the night with are willing to risk their lives to rid Syria of Assad, and his regime. From their stories and our connection with them, their decision to take up arms does not appear illogical. However, war has a funny way of turning logic on its head.

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