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."
A family in Aleppo — Photo: Pau Rigol/ZUMA
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."