Syria, Making Love And War

As Syria's civil war rages on, soldiers and supporters manage to finding coves of intimacy amidst the violence around them.

A couple at the Citadel of Aleppo.
A couple at the Citadel of Aleppo.
Omar Abdullah

Amid the rubble and wreckage, the fighting and the fury, rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) still long for love and intimacy. On the front lines, some dwell on the loss of wives and children left behind. Others have found their ways into new relationships, affairs of the heart that don't necessarily adhere to conventional Syrian norms. Several of these young fighters shared their stories with Syria Deeply. Their accounts offer a rare view of how the conflict is reshaping Syrian life, in the most intimate of ways.

Abdel Qader, late 20s, Deir Ezzor

Abdel Qader left his job as an auto mechanic to join the Qaaqaa brigade. He left his 23-year-old wife and two children, aged three and five. He took part in the Deir Ezzor battles before moving to Aleppo to join the Islamic Front. After months of being away from his wife, he decided to remarry.

"I married when I was 20 after I finished my compulsory military service. My wife is my cousin; we're uneducated, but we get along well. After I joined the Qaaqaa brigade, my life wasn't affected very much. I used to fight in Deir Ezzor and would visit home frequently. However, when the siege of Deir Ezzor started, I was scared that the regime forces would take over the area where we lived and would arrest my wife. So I sent her to our relatives in the countryside and my visits became rare because the roads were often blocked.

We couldn't have sex every time we met up. I remember that more than once we couldn't even kiss because the house she was staying at was full of displaced people. We didn't have sex for seven months. After that I was able to get an hour of romance with my wife at a relative’s house after I openly asked the house owner. I felt like it was my first time.

Then I moved to Aleppo and I couldn't go back, especially after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over Deir Ezzor. My life continued here. I don't know if my wife is able to go on without me. After five months of deprivation, I couldn't take it anymore. I decided to remarry. I don't want to sleep with a prostitute. There are many women looking for money, but I just don't want to. I want to feel stability again. I married the daughter of a fellow fighter. She's young, barely 18. I remember the first time I kissed her, she cried like a baby. She was terrified of me.

Our life is here and we have a baby. We see each other a lot because of my constant traveling between the areas and villages of northern Aleppo. But when I come back home I feel a security and comfort I miss on the battlefield. In case I move again, I will take her with me. I won't marry a third time. I can't.

Sometimes I feel that my first wife, whom I haven't heard from for over a year, is constantly cursing me. I do hope to return to her soon. I am scared of looking her in the eye. I realize she's patient and is waiting for my return, but I couldn't wait any longer."

Mahmoud, 24, Aleppo

A graduate with a degree in banking, Mahmoud wants to get married but is unable to. He doesn't have enough money and, after regime shelling destroyed his home and killed his family, he no longer owns a home to move into with his future wife. After their death, Mahmoud decided to join the FSA.

"I was dreaming of the day I would graduate and start building my future house, have a wife and kids and a job. But all my dreams turned out to be a mirage with the onset of this bloody war. Last February, when I turned 24, I hadn't kissed a woman before. I sat by myself at the entry of a medical point after I had transported one of the injured who was wounded during a barrel bombing of Aleppo city. I was sad and feeling very lonely. The idea of death terrifies me, even though I'm used to seeing death and body parts.

That night, a girl stepped out of the medical point. She looked like the sun in the middle of the night. She asked me to look for people with A positive blood type. I told her that I'm A positive, so she asked me to go in. It wasn't the first time I entered the medical point, but it was the first time I saw her. I asked her, "Are you new here?" She answered, "Yes, I arrived a few days ago. I'm a nurse and I joined the medical point. I don't know if I'm useful, but I do what I can."

I wasn't listening to what she was saying; I was looking into her eyes. She asked me to stop looking at her like that, but I couldn't. I visited the medical point almost daily, whether I had a reason to or not. I just wanted to see her. After two weeks, I decided to make my move. She was on her own in the room, so I walked over. I felt like a teenager seeing a girl for the first time. I said, "I'm Mahmoud. I'm 24 and I have a degree in banking." She said, "I'm Loubna. I'm a nurse and I'm 22." Then I asked her a crazy question, "Would you marry me?" She looked at me and said, "Yes, I'll marry you."

We headed to her parents' house and I asked for her hand in marriage. Her family accepted, but until now, we're not married. I don't have a place for us to live in. I sleep at the brigade's headquarters. I can't rent a house now. We're both saving so we can afford to have a place of our own. A week after I met her, I kissed her for the first time. It was my first kiss and it was the most beautiful thing. We couldn't stop. We had sex on one of the beds at the medical point when she was on shift. There were no patients or wounded. I never felt like this before. It was one of the most beautiful nights. I remember she told me afterwards, "What if someone walked in? What will we say? What will we do?" I told her, "I don’t care. I just want to stay with you."

We no longer have sex at the medical point after one of the nurses found out what we were up to. So she suggested we have sex at her house instead. We dream of having our home and children. I wish we could get married today. I hope someone would help us; we only have our dream. I fear I'll die before this happens."

Abu Ahmad, 33, Homs

Abu Ahmad's wife left for Turkey with their children. He stayed behind in Idlib to fight in Wadi al-Dayef camp.

"After my wife left for Turkey, I stayed in Idlib and fought there. I used to visit my family whenever possible. Lately, I haven't been able to because traveling to Turkey is expensive and I can't afford it. I started helping out the brigade I'm in by delivering aid to the families of those killed. One time, I was delivering fuel to some families and I knocked on one of the doors. A child opened the door so I asked her who the person responsible for the family is. She called her mother and when I told her I'm delivering fuel, she let me in. I hadn't seen a woman so beautiful in my life. Everyone says Homsi women are the most beautiful, but I have never seen anyone like her.

I frequented her house, delivering food, money, clothes, anything I could. After two months, I asked her to marry me, but she turned me down. She said she didn't want to marry another man who would die in this war. I told her we could go to Turkey and live there. She said, "If you could do that, you would have gone to your wife and children." That day, I thought a lot about what the woman said. She was sincere and that night I sent her a text message. It read, "I love you." She responded, "I love you too. Come to my house." I couldn't believe it. I went there and she was waiting for me. She opened the door and as soon as I stepped in, she kissed me. It felt like it was a bullet, not a kiss. I felt burning up with desire for her. We went into her room.

The next morning, she asked me to leave before the children woke up. She said she didn't want anyone to see me there. So I left and headed to the brigade headquarters. Then I received a text message from her saying, "It was a wonderful night." It really was. We met up often, almost daily. We're like lovers, afraid people would find out about us. Still she refuses the idea of marriage. I'm scared someone would find out about us and it would cause her problems. I really love her but I can't be with her. I don't know if this is considered cheating, but I can’t visit my wife. The last I visited her in Turkey she was living with three other families in the same house. I couldn't even kiss her."

Abu Ahmad finished the conversation, then left the room in despair.

Omar, 21, Latakia

Barely 21, Omar was studying pharmacy at Teshreen University. When the revolution started, the southern bit of the al-Ramel neighborhood was heavily bombed. He dropped out and joined the FSA. Omar told us his story as the regime air force dropped barrel bombs overhead.

"When the siege on the al-Ramel neighborhood started, my family was stuck there. I couldn't get them out. I used to sit at one of the cafes in downtown Latakia feeling powerless. I used to notice a girl looking at me, but I wasn't in the mood to even look at her. I didn't know the fate of my family so I was surprised when she made her move. She walked over and pulled out a chair. She sat down and said, "I’m Dalia. I'm 19. What's your name?" Choking, I told her, "Let me be." She looked at me and said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you." I told her, "My name is Omar, and I'm 19 too. You didn't bother me, but my family is stuck in the al-Ramel neighborhood and I don’t know their fate."

She said, "I can help you. My father has connection with the military intelligence." I told her, "I don’t want help from the regime." She laughed and said, "Don't be silly. You must get your family out of there. Yes, my father is in the military intelligence and I'm a supporter of the regime, but I don't accept death to spread like it has in our country. Every person has the right to live and express their views. No one should die for their views." I told her, "No person who's pro-regime can say something like this."

She said, "Let's get out of here and talk somewhere else." We went in her car and then she called her father asking him to get the family of a close friend who had nothing to do with what's happening. I couldn't believe it when she told me, "We can go there and you can receive your family." I didn't feel comfortable, but the hope of having my family rescued made me believe her. We headed to al-Ramel neighborhood and I found my family at the entrance.

A few days later, Dalia called me asking me to meet her. We met at one of the cafes and then left in her car. She drove to outside of the Latakia city limits, I didn't know where she was going. When I asked her, she said, "You'll know in a bit." She then stopped at the Meridian Hotel in Latakia. We went in and she headed to reception to pick up a room key. She asked me to come with her. When we got to the room, I asked her why we came here. She didn't answer. She kissed me and we had sex all day. I had never experienced this before.

We're still together. All the fighters in the mountain know her because she visits me here. In the beginning, I used to be scared she'd be harmed, but today, I patiently wait for her. She's still a regime supporter and I'm still an opposition fighter. She told me once, "I realize that we can't get married. You're Sunni and I'm Alawite. You're with the opposition and I'm with the regime, but I promise you that I will never give you up, no matter what." I can never forget those words, and I will never forget what she did for my family. I am forever indebted to her."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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