Zabadani, Syria—Mustafa al-Dahab, 58, drives past shuttered shops on a deserted street in Hara, a neighborhood in this picturesque resort town located twenty miles northwest of Damascus. His nephew, 5-year-old Adee Adalati, is next to him in the passenger seat. It’s just after 11 on a Wednesday morning.
More than two miles away, hidden from view, a soldier overlooking the town from a tank on an eastern mountaintop opens fire, launching a shell into the sky that arcs towards them.
The car takes a direct hit, ripping apart from the force of the blast and bursting into flames. Mustafa’s lifeless body lands aside the wreckage, his face smashed in beyond recognition. Adee’s legs are crushed inside the car, his head is blown off entirely.
Moments later, two more shells follow. One crashes into the front porch of a neighboring house, sending shrapnel and debris into the living room, from which a pair of children emerge miraculously unharmed. The other strikes the first floor of an abandoned apartment building.
Local residents rush outside, carrying buckets of water and fire extinguishers to try to retrieve Mustafa and Adee’s charring bodies. But the faint boom of a tank firing in the distance signals another coming shell, sending them scrambling for shelter before an ear-splitting explosion rips through the neighborhood seconds later. Indoors, young children huddle beside their mothers. Wide-eyed and afraid, their hands cover their ears as they wait for another strike.
Eight shells are fired within forty-five minutes before the assault ends and the sound of chaos finally subsides, replaced by the rising wails of those mourning the dead.
This is life in Zabadani.
Seventeen months after the Syrian revolution began, the people living in this town have grown grimly accustomed to a daily routine of indiscriminate violence, of shelling from afar.
Unlike the raging street battles in the nearby capital or in Aleppo to the north, the armed struggle for strategic control of this town of 40,000 people has effectively reached a stalemate. The town is, by and large, controlled by residents and fighters with the Free Syrian Army—which in Zabadani are made up almost entirely of local volunteers and defecting soldiers hailing from the area.
“Zabadani is largely ours, we control it,” says Khaled al-Tinnawi, a 65-year-old influential town elder. “Yes, they shell us but if they try and come in they know we are all prepared to die.”
No longer interested in engaging on the ground, the regime has taken to assaulting the town from a distance, delivering a daily barrage of tank and artillery shells from the mountains above.
“Nowhere in the area is secure. Every time I hear shelling I think it could land on me and my family,” says Abo Hakim, a 54-year-old father of three. “It comes in a completely random manner. They hardly target, they just fire.”
Nestled in a valley in the Syrian countryside, Zabadani was once a popular summer destination for tourists from the Persian Gulf. Renowned for its water, cool climate and striking scenery, with mountains of rock and reddish earth towering over low-lying apartment blocks and villas that give way to lush green orchards. “Zabadani is heaven,” says 21-year-old Ghazwan Rahmi, echoing a phrase favored by local residents.