When a landmine blew Syrian rebel Jamil Lala’s foot off, he expected to be relegated to a non-combat role far behind the front lines and away from his comrades.
Instead he learned to walk on a prosthetic limb and headed to the front to be closer to his men.
Lala’s return inspired awe in his troops, who remember the 33-year-old Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander writhing in pain on a stretcher, still asking after his comrades.
Lala had been on patrol in northern Latakia province, the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite community, when he ordered his men to wait while he crept up on a regime outpost.
He approached within earshot of Assad’s men to try to gather intelligence on troop deployments in the area, when he stepped on a landmine.
He heard a deafening boom and blacked out.
When Lala came to, with a searing pain in his leg, he found himself lying outside the outpost where the blast had caused mayhem among the regime forces.
Fearing capture, he crawled into a ditch to hide, where his patrol later found him and whisked him away.
He did not realise he had lost his foot until he arrived at a hospital in a Turkish border town and noticed a child flinching at the sight of his bloodied leg.
“At first I thought my life was finished. I told my men if I don’t survive tell my pregnant wife to name our child Maya,” said Lala, a slight man with a keffiyeh headscarf wrapped around his neck.
“The FSA assigned me a non-combat role to manage logistics inside Turkey. It would have been a more comfortable life.”
Instead Lala, also known by his nickname Abu Hudo, returned a few weeks ago to the base in Latakia province of the FSA’s Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade on the front line.
Returning has been difficult, as his mobility has been impeded. He has struggled to adapt to Latakia’s hilly terrain and is forced to rely on others for things he once did effortlessly, such as clambering into the back of a pickup. And he loathes asking for help.
But Lala, who now coordinates military strategy and finance for the brigade, said his own difficulties seem irrelevant as the Syrian civil war drags into its third year.
“I cannot forget the immense sacrifices ordinary Syrians have made for this revolution — people have lost their homes, their families,” he said, sitting on a rock near the brigade headquarters.
“That cannot be overlooked just because I’ve lost my foot. The fight must go on until Assad is overthrown.”
He ducked for cover under a tree as a regime helicopter flew overhead. Seconds later plumes of smoke rose above the rocky outcrops of the Kurdish mountains as the machine dropped a bomb on a village perched on its slopes.
“This is like an alarm clock. We wake up with the sounds of explosions,” Lala said.
Inside the headquarters, a whitewashed house on a hillside of olive groves and orchards, his comrades had just returned with new secretly filmed footage from a regime-controlled city.
He limped with the help of his cane into the projection room where fighters were listening to Bob Marley’s “Get up, stand up” playing softly from a laptop, interspersed with the crump of distant shellfire.
“The local people are being held like hostages in their own town,” Lala said, reviewing the footage on the screen. Filmed from a high vantage point, it showed a maze of residential buildings and desolate streets.
A taxi screeched to a halt on a street where armed men darted around a checkpoint. The rebels said the taxi was carrying “shabiha”, the regime’s feared militiamen.
Lala nodded in agreement when someone in the room suggested the city desperately needed to be “liberated”.
Later, the fighters gathered for a lunch of fresh olives, hummus, green chillies and bread, where one of them recalled a pre-revolution incident that made Lala a “real hero” in his eyes.
It was in Latakia city, an Assad stronghold, where someone bet him 500 Syrian pounds to slap a statue of late president Hafez al-Assad.
If caught in the act, the authorities would have arrested him. But he had the nerve to pull it off as they looked the other way.
“He slapped the statue, grabbed the money and then ran like a madman before anyone had the chance to catch him,” the rebel said, prompting hoots of laughter from the group, including from Lala himself.