|"A member of the Free Syria Army walks past a destroyed Syrian forces tank in northern Aleppo province." (Lolo/AFP/Getty Images)|
By Martin Chulov
The Guardian, July 11, 2012
"Fuel oil for cooking began to run out in Derat Azza about a month ago. Now, nightly meals in this village near Syria's second city of Aleppo are prepared with scavenged firewood in the courtyards of people's homes. Thin black columns of smoke start to rise at dusk and are soon absorbed by the gathering dark. Then the only lights visible in this blacked out village on the outskirts of Aleppo are the orange flames of the cooking fires. Most people here say they have not received a salary since 2011 and even the basics of life are well beyond their reach. Where fuel oil can be found it costs about £9 a litre. Meat is also prohibitively expensive, so the people eat eggs or potatoes. Even these are now in short supply. Bootleg petrol costs around £2 a litre, more than 10-times its pre-revolution price, and the few cars that move in Derat Azza run on improvised benzine, crackling and thumping their way around Derat Azza's narrow lanes like cartoon jalopies. The story is the same across a swathe of northern Syria. Villages under siege, dangerous roads and scarce fuel have slowed commerce to a halt. Apart from the crash of the occasional artillery shell, the opposition-held village is eerily quiet. After the paper factory was shelled early this month almost all women and children left. Only men of fighting age remain. Earlier that morning, in a dark, dank meeting room below street level, the weary guerillas of Derat Azza were rallying for another day guarding their town. Their headquarters is a vast, gloomy expanse of upturned plastic chairs, foam mattresses and Kalashnikovs scattered to all points like children's toys. In better times, it acts as a wedding venue and a focal point of community life. A dried and brittle bouquet dated March 2011 lies long-discarded against a wall. Two haggard men sat behind a wooden desk, one of them tapping a Chinese-made walkie-talkie, trying to get it to work. 'Mahmoud!' he yelled into it, trying to summon the local guerrilla leader. 'Report to the desk immediately!' Mahmoud eventually stirred at 1pm and roused five of his colleagues. All, like him, were students from nearby Aleppo university, although they had not turned up for weeks. Nor did they think that their admission to one of Syria's most coveted academic institutions amounted to much anymore. 'The revolution means more than the university,' said Ahmed, 22, a gangly fresh-faced chemical engineering undergraduate. 'I didn't go to my exams and nor did most people. This is a price that I'm more than willing to pay for now.'
Another man, Haithem, had a small pistol strapped to his hip. 'The head of the faculty carried one of these too,' Haithem said. 'Can you imagine that, a lecturer with a gun? He loves Bashar [al-Assad, the Syrian president] from the bottom of his heart and he will fail all of us in the revolution [in our exams] or tell the Shabiha where to find us.' According to the students, the Shabiha, the regime militia that has been at the vanguard of many atrocities since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, has had a central role in intimidating them during regular student protests in the city. 'They stand near the gates with some of the people from air force intelligence,' said a third student, who did not want to be named. 'They pick their targets and they go after them. It's usually anyone connected to the protests, but sometimes it's just girls.' He showed his right forearm, which was disfigured by four bulging scars. 'They caught me then they stabbed me,' he said. 'I was rescued by girls.' Grainy mobile phone footage of girls from the university wrenching the male student from the grasp of the militia earlier this year has been etched into folklore on campus. For a time, the footage seemed to embolden the students in their war of attrition against the security forces. The incident happened in February, when many on campus believed they had an unstoppable momentum for change. But activism or defiance had never before been a rite of passage during student life on Syrian campuses. Students and security forces remain locked in a standoff and teaching in the faculties has largely ceased. 'It has become relentless ever since then,' said Mahmoud. 'Yes, we can still fight with them and protest, and yes around 60% of the university is with the revolution, including many of the lecturers. But most are staying quiet for now. It's too much for them to do what we have done. Now if I went back to Aleppo I would be caught and put in prison, or killed. There are hundreds of checkpoints there. Some of them are only 20 metres apart. The city is locked down.' Instead the university rebels remain on the outskirts of the city, where there are fewer checkpoints but where it is also harder to find food. [...]"