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The bride wore an AK-47

In Syria, a marriage of convenience to a rebel commander is one woman's ticket to the front lines in the anti-Assad uprising.

October 09, 2012|Times Staff
  • Hanadi, a member of the Free Syrian Army, gave up law school to join protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hanadi, a member of the Free Syrian Army, gave up law school to join protests… (Los Angeles Times )

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The crack of a sniper rifle and the boom of exploding shells seemed to take turns as Hanadi slipped out of the apartment and onto the dark street.

Seconds later, a shell landed nearby and Hanadi groaned, worried that the Syrian army would storm the neighborhood that night -- before she got her camera back from the repairman, leaving her unable to record the fighting.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 12, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Syrian fighter: An article In the Oct. 9 Section A about a female Syrian rebel fighter said that she was originally from Quneitra in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, but has been back in Syrian hands since 1974.

Walking down the street, carefully planting her feet, she glanced left and right through open doors, concerned that her husband might see her.

At the corner, a few young Free Syrian Army fighters manning a checkpoint recognized her immediately.

"Abu al-Majid is inside," one of them said, referring to her husband and pointing in the direction she had just come from.

"What do I want with Abu al-Majid?" she replied. They warned her about a government sniper ahead, but she continued walking through the intersection.

When antigovernment protests first began in Dara in March 2011, the then-high school senior didn't join, believing that President Bashar Assad was blameless. That changed in June though, when Assad called the opposition "germs."

"From that point I joined the opposition," she said. "They came out asking for freedom, so I came out also asking for freedom."

The following school year, as a first-year law student at the University of Damascus, Hanadi, who asked that her last name not be used so as to protect her family, would skip classes to attend protests.

As the armed uprising that had devastated much of the rest of Syria finally made its way into Damascus in late July, she traded her placard for a syringe as a volunteer nurse at an opposition-run field hospital. Soon she put down the needle and picked up a camera to join a rebel militia and record clashes at government checkpoints and outposts.

Now, as the violence and bloodshed only grow, Hanadi, 19, has traded up once again: replacing her camera with a Kalashnikov.

Weeks ago, rebels clashed with government security forces in several south Damascus neighborhoods. As government forces bombarded the neighborhoods with airstrikes, the opposition fighters fled from district to district and eventually withdrew to the suburbs as their ammunition ran low.

Hanadi's rebel militia was one of the last to leave, from the district of Asali, and she left for the suburbs unwillingly.

"The worst thing for me is the tactical withdrawal," she said a few days afterward. "I swear the next time we attack I will be the first one in and the last one to leave until my last bullet."

Being at the front line was what she came for, she said.

After all, the Kalashnikov was her promised dowry.

Her marriage, Hanadi said, is simply one of convenience.

In August, she wed the commander of the militia she had joined, the 30-member Thul Nurain, based in the Tadamon neighborhood.

"It was to prevent people from talking -- 'Why is she sitting among all those men?' " she said.

"Tadamon is a conservative place and it's a big deal to have an unmarried girl among a group of men," said Abu Majid, 34, who worked as a deliveryman before he took up arms.

He asked her father's permission and was turned down, but a local sheik agreed to marry them anyway.

They publicized the marriage within the neighborhood and among rebel groups in order to stop the wagging tongues. For weeks, she didn't tell her family.

Abu Majid's first wife still doesn't know.

His wife and three young sons, who left Tadamon when fighting erupted there, are one reason Hanadi said the marriage won't last past the conflict. She doesn't want to be a home wrecker and added that Abu Majid's wife would "slaughter him if she found out."

"This is just a marriage for the revolution. After ... we will separate," she said, placing her index fingers side by side and then moving them apart, by way of visual aid. "Either I may die or we both may die, or at the end of the revolution we will say bye-bye but remain friends."

Hanadi inhabits a strange dynamic here: part wife expected to serve tea and prepare meals -- though she does so awkwardly, as if the role fits like a rumpled suit -- and part militia member. When fighters and rebel leaders gather in their living room, she sits with them, rarely speaking but giggling often.

She follows some orders from Abu Majid but ignores others.

"We will give her a rifle and she can go with the guys," he said a few weeks ago, lounging in a stuffy living room because the electricity had been cut. "Or maybe we will give her the detonator and let her blow up the bombs."

"No," she said, barely looking up from peeling potatoes for a lunch of French fries and pita bread.

"Why?"

"I don't consider that work. That's work without any risk," she said. "If you grab a Kalashnikov and go to the front lines, that's work. Being far away and not being able to see anything? That doesn't fly with me."

Outside, gunshots rang out occasionally and the walkie-talkie beside her regularly crackled to life as she continued peeling.

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