Aleppo: When the Syrian uprising started, Fatima Zahra sent her five sons off to join the rebel forces and battle the regime, but she wanted to find a way to do more.
So over the course of several months, she transformed her house into a rear base of support for the Free Syrian Army, cooking up massive meals for distribution to the rebels, offering basic medical treatment and care, sheltering army defectors, and even storing weapons in the rooms of her home.
“Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to see the end of the regime, so when my chance came, I knew I would help any way I could,” she says, as her husband prepares coffee and offers it around to guests.
Zahra’s father went into exile in Kuwait in the 1980s as the regime cracked down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He wasn’t part of the group, but he was an educated, religious man, and feared he would soon be targeted.
“We lived in total fear before the revolution, even behind closed doors you wouldn’t utter the name Bashar or Hafez,” Zahra says, referring to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez Al Assad.
But now, Zahra says, she is no longer afraid, proudly describing her decision to stay and aid the rebels, even as her neighbours fled security raids and nightly shelling.
“I cook, I treat wounded people as best I can, and I provide a place for people who are defecting from the army to stay, as long as they need.”
Two of her sons are fighting on the frontline in Aleppo, two others are helping refugees cross into Turkey, and the youngest, a 16-year-old, ferries messages and weapons to the rebel forces.
Zahra’s husband Ahmad looks on proudly as his wife describes the family’s sacrifices.
“What my wife is doing is normal. We would give the rebel forces our eyes if we could,” he says emphatically. “I only wish there was more that we could do.”
Among those benefiting from the help provided by Zahra are two army defectors currently using her home as a safe house.
Abu Mohammad defected from his Damascus unit two months ago, when they were stationed nearby.
“What Fatima is doing is unbelievable. She helps us enormously. She treats us even better than family,” he says.
The 23-year-old was manning checkpoints for the army when he decided to switch sides.
“I defected when I realised we were protecting certain people, not the nation. They told us to shoot any car that approached our checkpoint, whether there were women and children inside or not.”
Abu Fahd was stationed in the area with a unit from Homs, and decided to defect after managing to sneak a phone call to his family and learn about the revolution.
“We didn’t have television or radio or any communications inside the army. They told us we were fighting terrorists and everyone believed them, me included,” the fair-skinned 24-year-old says.
“But when I spoke to my family, I realised what was happening. I found out I’d been shooting innocent people and I decided I had to leave.”
He got in touch with a friend who had already defected, and prepared to jump the wall of his base and rendezvous with a rebel contact.
But as he threw himself over the top of the wall, his former comrades opened fire, forcing him to scramble through fields for kilometres, fearing for his life.
“These are my sons,” Zahra says proudly, “all the rebel forces are my sons”.
There are a handful of other women providing similar support to the Free Syrian Army, but most of them offer only food, she says.
“They are scared, a lot of them have left already. But I draw my strength from God, and when I see what the Assad troops do, my strength is renewed by the injustice and oppression.”
Zahra’s sister, 40-year-old Um Ahmad, walks into the house, ready to help with the daily cooking duties.
She sent four of her nine children to join the rebel forces, and lost one of them two months ago to a sniper bullet in the city of Al-Bab.
“Whenever my four-year-old son sees a plane overhead, he picks up a stick and points it like a gun,” she says, beginning to weep. “He keeps asking me ‘Why did they kill my brother?’”