Lightly-armed Syrian rebels who face the warplanes, artillery and tanks of loyalists have turned to making their own weapons, even rigging a video game controller to fire mortar rounds.
The ragtag forces fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime face shortages of almost everything, including ammunition, but they especially lack longer-range, heavier arms, and anti-aircraft weapons.
At a location in Aleppo province that rebels asked not be identified by name, arms-maker Abu al-Fadhel showed off a row of homemade weapons including a hand-grenade, a portable rocket-launcher, and various rockets with explosive warheads he said have ranges of up to several kilometres (miles).
He said that as the range of the rockets is known, they can be aimed with the help of Google and a compass.
Abu al-Fadhel, who wore a keffiyeh scarf over his face so his identity was not revealed on camera, said he was a scientific researcher and inventor who has worked in a number of fields.
But he has other experience also relevant to arms-making.
“I was an engineer, an explosives engineer in the Syrian Arab Army” in the 1970s, he said. “I graduated from the School of Military Engineering, in explosives engineering.”
But Abu al-Fadhel has since turned strongly against the Syrian regime.
“I did not decide to make rockets or weapons only, I decided to fight this tyrant and unjust ruler who is raining shells… on his people, who killed our children and displaced our women. Even my son was martyred in one of the battles,” he said.
A Syrian fighter jet could be seen carrying out strafing runs as Abu al-Fadhel spoke standing near his row of locally-made weapons — a stark illustration of the disparity in arms in the conflict.
It is necessary for the rebels to make weapons “because we lack all Western or foreign aid,” he said.
Abu al-Fadhel said he worked on the first rockets by himself, but working with others, as he does now, is far more productive.
“If I was (working) alone, maybe I would make one per day, but I have the capability to make hundreds per day,” he claimed. “We have a production line, we have technicians.”
Abu al-Fadhel said the materials for the weapons can be locally obtained: “We have the materials available, as we make them with our hands,” or can buy them.
The weapons have been sent around Aleppo province and to Idlib, and he is even in contact with people in the embattled city of Homs, he said.
In Aleppo, a main battleground between the rebels and Assad’s forces, various homemade weapons are in use, though some display problems that still need to be ironed out.
In the Old City area, rebels struggled to unload a grey-painted mortar — which is powered by a car battery and fired using a PlayStation video game controller attached to a long cable — from the back of a small truck.
They cleaned its two tubes, then loaded it with locally-made mortar rounds for a strike against regime forces.
From a safe distance, a rebel who gave his name as Abu Hurriyah (Father of Freedom) used the controller to trigger a spring-loaded rod on the end of one of the tubes that strikes the end of the round, firing it.
It launched with a boom followed a few seconds later by a blast as it landed.
The rebels shouted “Allahu akbar (God is greatest)!”
But an attempt to fire a second round failed, and the mortar was packed up for later use.
“Our revolution, as God knows, is a poor revolution. We have arrived at one year and eight months, and our people are being struck by the… highest types of weapons, you know, MiG aircraft, helicopters, missiles, tanks, and artillery,” Abu Hurriyah said.
Asked how the mortar came to be, he explained: “Some of the guys who have an idea about this work brought a mortar… captured from the regime, and… saw how it was made,” and tried to make one.
“The mortar we took from the regime has one tube. Now, by the grace of God, we made a mortar with two tubes, and two days ago, we made one with four tubes,” he continued.
A less-effective locally-made weapon was in use not far away.
A rebel fighter, Jumaa Mustafa, checked the weapon — a large slingshot, its metal frame weighted down with rocks — then took a small, cylindrical bomb out of a bag nearby.
He placed the bomb in a pouch on the slingshot, pulled it back, and another fighter lit the fuse.
Mustafa released the bomb, but instead of flying toward Assad’s forces as intended, it went across the courtyard in which the slingshot was set up, exploding in a cloud of dust. As it was a small bomb, no one was injured.
Mustafa then took practice shots using stones but was not satisfied, eventually throwing bombs by hand instead.
Rebels carry home-made hand grenades across Aleppo, and have fashioned wooden stocks to replace those missing from the end of some Kalashnikov assault rifles.
In the Sakhur area, a fighter named Thair proudly showed off a bomb made out of a small gas canister, a fuse sticking out of the top — perhaps not the wisest thing to do in the street when the area is under artillery bombardment.
More such improvised bombs are stored in a nearby building.
But however many rockets, bombs and other weapons the rebels make, they will not be able to close the massive gap in arms between Assad’s forces and theirs, except by foreign assistance — a fact Abu al-Fadhel seems to know all too well.
“Help us,” he pleaded, as the jet circles nearby.