Zabadani, Syria—Abu Amer sits among strangers in the courtyard of a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain spanning the Lebanese-Syrian border. It’s just after sunset. Young children scamper around a mother and grandmother as they clear plates of food off a plastic sheet spread on the concrete floor. The men smoke and drink tea.
The mood is relaxed, but Abu Amer is getting anxious. He has been away from Syria for six months and tonight he will journey back in on foot under the cover of darkness. The fighting has reached Damascus and he’s headed to rejoin his family there. His response to why he left Syria is curt: “circumstances.”
A friend of Abu Amer’s in the Syrian town of Zabadani, twenty miles northwest of the capital, has helped to organize his return trip through a smuggling route used by the Free Syrian Army to ferry in weapons and supplies from Lebanon. As night falls, a car pulls up with its headlights off. Four men hop out and join the group. They are all Syrian, between 20 and 24 years old, and they crack jokes as they prepare for the trip. Three of them are from a small Syrian town across the border that has a long tradition of aiding smugglers. Its residents pride themselves on their knowledge of the surrounding mountains and their ability to traverse them unnoticed by army soldiers or border guards. The fourth, 21-year-old Ghazwan, is returning home to Zabadani.
Everyone is dressed in dark colors, except for Abu Amer, who wears a white T-shirt that practically glows in the moonlight. “You have something darker?” Mohamed, the 24-year-old lead guide, asks. Abu Amer nods, pulls out a black T-shirt from his backpack, and slips it on.
The group walks back to the car and the driver opens the trunk. Inside are two assault rifles, an AK-47 and a German-made H&K model G3, fitted with a scope. Mohamed’s face breaks into a wide grin. “Ya Allah,” he says with appreciation. Everyone piles into the car. Two of the men hold assault rifles on their laps. Cellphones are turned off.
The car stops some 200 yards away from a Lebanese army checkpoint. “Hurry, hurry!” says the driver. The group scrambles out and walks quickly to the foot of the mountain, where they begin the ascent. Mohamed leads. Abu Amer follows the group at the back. They climb straight up for ten minutes, then start to cross. The terrain is rugged, filled with loose rock, thorny bushes and steep inclines. They keep a fast pace. When the Lebanese soldiers are out of view they stop for a break. Everyone lights cigarettes.
Ghazwan introduces himself and talks about life in Zabadani, which has been under constant shelling by the Syrian army for months. He recounts being detained by security forces three months ago, casually describing how he was hung from the ceiling by his wrists and repeatedly beaten and electrocuted. After two days he was let go.
The two carrying the assault rifles are 20-year-old Rashad and 22-year-old Hassan. Ghazwan asks if they are fighters with the Free Syrian Army. “We’re support,” Rashad says.
Abu Amer says he is returning to Damascus to be with his family, though he’s ambivalent when the others ask whether he will take up arms against the regime. Like nearly all Syrian men his age, Abu Amer, 25, had done mandatory military service. To change the subject, he asks where the Syrian border is. Mohamed points westward in the direction of the Lebanese capital. “The Syrian border is over there at Beirut,” he says, laughing.