Marc Bastian, AFP
Last updated: 15 July, 2012

Syrians take up arms and dig graves

The loudspeakers of a mosque break the dawn silence, urging the people of Atma, a village near the Syrian border with Turkey, to take up arms and help rebels surrounded by regime forces.

“People of Atma! Regime forces are surrounding a group of revolutionaries. All those who have arms, come for help,” says the message on that Saturday morning.

Within seconds, women and children rushed to climb roofs, anxiously looking at a hill of sand and rocks, as army helicopters buzzed over the area, while the sound of automatic weapons and explosions crackled all around.

Young men with kalashnikov rifles strapped across their shoulders get on motorbikes and rush to help the rebels.

“Atma has never been attacked since the beginning of the uprising” in March 2011, says Shadi, 24, who, like everyone else, is afraid that government forces will use helicopters to attack his village of 8,000 people.

A few hours later a new ominous message crackled over the mosque’s loudspeakers.

“To those who have no weapons: go to the cemetery, dig graves and prepare to bury the martyrs.”

Less than an hour later the third message is delivered as the fighting apparently worsens.

“You have to dig more graves! Those who do not have guns, please help dig graves. There are many martyrs. And please go to the hospital to donate blood.”

Overnight, 25 fighters of the rebel Syrian Liberation Army (SLA) attacked with small arms a Syrian army checkpoint located a few kilometres (miles) away from Atma between the Kurdish villages of Diwan and Talsallur.

It was the third assault in recent weeks by the insurgent army against regular troops.

The rebels lost at least 10 men, according to medical sources and an AFP reporter who saw the bodies, while 15 others were wounded.

“We attacked the checkpoint, killing eight soldiers and forcing 15 others to flee,” said one of the fighters, calling himself Abu Mujahed.

But just as the rebels thought they had overrun the troops, Kurds armed by the regime came to help the government soldiers, several fighters said.

According to Shadi the rebels launched the attack because troops manning the checkpoint were arresting travellers and disrupting trade.

“We warned them on several occasions but they didn’t listen,” he said of the government forces.

“We had no choice,” but to attack, added the young fighter dressed in camouflage, who managed to walk away from the fighting unharmed.

Other rebels says Kurds “armed” by government forces outnumbered the rebel fighters who had to rely on reinforcements from Atma and other Sunni villages — and the help of Kurds from Diwan — to evacuate the dead and the wounded.

If it had not been for that assistance, none of the fighters would have survived, they said.

“But in the end, it was all useless,” said a fighter, his arm wrapped in bandages.

“We had to abandon the checkpoint because of the helicopters and the Kurds withdrew back to Talsallur,” he added.

Later in the morning, hundreds of people gathered at the Atma cemetery to pay tribute to the dead.

“God bless the martyrs,” the mourners chant, saying millions of anti-regime forces are ready “to go to paradise” fighting the troops of President Bashar al-Assad.

Under a scorching sun, men line up to recite Muslim prayers for the dead in front of the remains of a fighter.

His father and son cry and kiss the cheeks of the dead man, Abu Abdo, before he is lowered into the grave.

Nine other graves have been dug to receive the remains of the other dead fighters.

“Since the start of the uprising only 10 people were killed,” said Mustafa, a 19-year-old SLA fighter who quit his studies in economy to take up arms against regime forces.

“Our people are murdered, we must fight and defend ourselves. Bashar is killing us like sheep. But we are human beings.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 17,000 people have been killed since the anti-regime uprising in Syria broke out last year.