When Assad al-Islam and Laila dreamed of their wedding day, they did not imagine it quite like this — at a rebel base in Syria’s Turkmen mountains, surrounded by members of Assad’s fighter brigade.
“We have nothing in common. The only thing that brought us together is the revolution against the regime,” the young couple says.
He is a former baker, imprisoned repeatedly before the uprising against the regime because he sports a long beard and helped organise protests against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
His religious tendencies were considered a threat in a country where the regime prides itself on a public show of secularism, and the Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed.
She is the daughter of a Syrian man and Macedonian woman — a multilingual former publicist for a major Syrian company, who was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia and did not discover Syria until 2001.
In front of the brigade’s resident sheikh, they recite their wedding vows as a small group looks on — two witnesses, the head of the brigade, who is standing in for the bride’s father, and a group of fighters on a roof terrace.
Far from the nearest city, the place is almost silent except for the sound of wind and the occasional rattle of gunfire or an explosion, echoing off the mountains.
“If God allows us to return to Latakia, we will organise a big wedding party with our families at the place where we held our first sit-in against the regime,” says Assad, who already knows what he wants to bake for the gathering.
“After all we’ve done for the revolution, it’s our right to celebrate… if God wills it,” Laila says, a large smile lighting up her big, blue eyes.
Sheikh Mustafa Mohammed Saleh Dibo, who presided over the marriage, wearing a black scarf on his head and a leather jacket, is delighted by the union.
“This marriage, it’s life going on, despite the oppression our people are being subjected to. It’s also a way of opposing the regime,” he says as another fighter distributes traditional sweets and cakes to celebrate the occasion.
Laila and Assad seem destined for each other. When they first became acquainted through the Ezz Abd al-Salam Brigade, they swapped stories of their adventures since the beginning of the revolution.
“We were in the same demonstration in Latakia — we were even in prison at the same time,” Assad says, wearing a chequered keffiyeh scarf on his head and an Adidas tracksuit instead of the standard wedding attire.
“But we never spoke until we ended up in the mountains.”
In the Jebel Turkmen in northern Latakia province, they live with the rebels. And the day after the wedding, Assad plans to go back to the front line.
Laila is the quartermaster. She looks after the rebel unit’s stock of weapons that includes cases of rockets, Kalashnikov assault rifles, Dragunov sniper rifles and even a heavy machinegun that fires armour-piercing rounds.
When a fighter returns from the front, he hands her his gun and she removes the magazine before putting weapon to one side and ammunition to the other.
“Everyone in the brigade loves her,” Assad says proudly. “When one of them arrives, he always brings a small gift.”
But it was not always easy for the 25-year-old Laila.
“They tried to get rid of her, making her march for hours in the mud and through the mountains, a massive load on her back, to see if she would pass muster,” recalls a laughing Assad.
And she did — with flying colours.
Laila feels it is “important that our revolution is not one of just men but of all Syrians, of all those who are free.
“I began by taking part in peaceful demonstrations, but when the revolution armed itself I followed… it was my duty,” she says.
“In 2001, when I arrived at Damascus airport for the first time, I immediately thought of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” she adds of the famed British writer’s apocalyptic take on totalitarianism.
“That was Syria.”