Like Ghassan and every one of the young fighters in here, Rafiq appears to have something that many young men of his generation elsewhere in the world are struggling to pin down. The boys in the hospital may be damaged and locked into one of the most lopsided wars on the planet – as far as resources and weaponry goes – but their eyes sparkle when they talk of the fight, of toppling the tyrant. They are without distraction. No tiresome job, looming dole queue, just departed girlfriend or worries about some distant intangible future clouds their worldview. Unlike most twenty year olds, they know exactly what it is they’re supposed to be doing. They have a purpose.
“Come,” says Dr Mu’tazz shoving a plastic spoon into my hand. “I want you to eat with me.” We sit and dig into a communal foil tray of moghrabieh – giant Lebanese couscous and chick peas. The doctor jumps up and runs into a nearby office, then returns with a bag of kabees, hot pink chunks of beetroot-dyed radish, that he pours onto a plate. “You’re welcome,” he says. “Eat, eat.”
I ask him how it feels patching up young men to send them back into battle. He chews his food and huffs out an edgy sigh. “We will defeat the regime,” he says. “We must.” He tells me he has a wife and two young girls, a four and two year old, back in Baniyas.
“Are they safe?” I ask.
“No they are not,” he says, the thought of their predicament making him stand. “They are in very, very great danger. If the Mukhabarat [Syria’s secret police] finds them, they will…” he hunts for the word, “capture them.”
“Why?” I ask.
“So I should give myself up.”
The next day we head north to Wadi Khaled. We stop to take a picture and get immediately confronted by an agitated local. People are justifiably paranoid about strangers with cameras. Yesterday Syrian agents slid over the border and shot three FSA fighters.
Friday prayers at the Wadi Khaled mosque is a noisy, heartfelt affair. The Syrian sheik conducting the service, Abed al Rahman, lost his wife three weeks ago to a sniper as she tried to cross over. Chests are clutched, tears flow and the sheik’s calls for the faithful “to take up arms and fight the regime that has killed your brothers and raped your wives,” are met with passionate cries of “Allah o akbar’.
“A tank against a young girl?” he shouts. “Al Assad, you are the dirty sperm, the son of pig. Your father killed the fathers and now you kill the sons.”
The sheik implores Allah to “paralyse the hands of the torturers” and tells the faithful not to hide their faces from the camera but to take pride in their defiance. It seems you don’t even need to be that faithful. “Even non believers who die fighting this tyrant will go to paradise,” he intones and I wonder if that’s aimed at me.
Up the road from the mosque, around three hundred people are charging down the street shouting “Death to the cockroach al Assad” and waving Syrian, Lebanese and jihadi flags.
“We have come on the street because they killed our soldiers,” barks Khaled eyes blazing behind his Kaffiyeh mask – as much a defense against the mountain cold as against Mukhabarat agents that may be secreted in the crowd. A couple of tractor tyres are torched and small boys are hoisted onto shoulders to lead complex, frenzied call and response chants that all end in frantic, repeated howls of “Allah o akbar”.
We trundle through what could pass for a sleepy overgrown frontier village, now the de facto Lebanese base of the Free Syrian Army. The road names are less than bucolic: ‘Obey God’, ‘Fear me’, ‘No Fear’, ‘Pray before we prey on you’, and the inimitably titled ‘Remember Death’ street.
We’re invited into the home of Ahmed al Arabi, a portly, balding captain in the Free Syrian Army, who was one of the first to defect from the regular Syrian forces. He was fortunate enough to bring his family with him and sniggering children scurry about the kitchen. He tells us he’s pleased one of his brothers was released from a Syrian jail the previous day. He’d been arrested, along with the rest of the captain’s family, immediately following the captain’s defection. He tells us his brother was tortured and other relatives remain in custody, but he was lucky enough to get his wife and children out. Many defectors aren’t and the regime thinks nothing of imprisoning, torturing or killing defectors’ families. Many of the young conscripts who manage to escape the barracks are caught in their homes and shot.
The captain tells us how the discrepancy in firepower means they have to wage a guerrilla war against the regime. Striking and falling back. What about the rich Sunni countries and ex-pat Syrians who are calling for the overthrow of the regime?
“If there is money it is not getting here,” he says. “Sometimes my men have to go out on patrol without eating.” He says he thinks the head of the local municipality, the Mokhtar, who is distributing funds among the refugees is stealing money. He’s probably right.