During ten years of war in Syria, there have been many stories told. And arguably as many remain untold. As there are still many areas where the public eye has not reached. Here the crimes were committed in silence and remain buried. Today, I will tell you one such forgotten story.
I am from a small village in the Daraa Governorate in southern Syria, where I witnessed numerous battles, which were mostly named after the location where they took place: the Battle of the School, the Battle of the Valley, the Battle of the Residences and the Battle of the Flags.
Our house stood in the middle of the village. Its strategic location allowed me to see most events with my own eyes. One day in September 2011, our family woke up to the sound of whistling and applause coming from our neighbors’ windows and roofs. Some women screamed.
So, without washing our faces we rushed out to see what was happening. To our astonishment we saw the revolutionary green flag with its three red stars raised on the top of the highest point in the village, a telecom tower that belonged to the regime-linked firm Syriatel. The giant flag gently waved in the wind.
You should know that, at that time, our village was still under government control. The army could have stormed us any moment. However, during the first months of the revolution, our village had remained calm, despite the rapid spread of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The sight of the flapping FSA flag with its three stars awed the people. The sound of the flag waving in the air mixed with the voices of the spectators. There was no sign of the person who had raised it. And no one knew what would happen next.
However, it did not take long before the houses started shaking, as tanks and armored vehicles arrived at the site of the tower. The tower stood at the municipality square, close to our house. In fact, when we were asked about our address we used to say: “Near the municipality, under the tower.”
This proximity allowed me to stand behind the window of one of the rooms overlooking the square and see the spectacle unfold. My father, uncle and the rest of the family gathered next to me.
We watched in fear the arrival of the security forces, while lines of pedestrians encircled the municipality building. At first, it remained suspiciously quiet. There was only the sound of the flag flapping at a height of some 80 meters.
Then we noticed a soldier who began to climb the stairs within the tower. His ascent is slow. He was clearly afraid. Yet the officers below him cursed him and urged him to hurry up.
When the soldier was at a height of some fifty meters, fear paralyzed his feet and made him cling onto the ladder. And thus he hung there, embracing the ladder, as if frozen. He begged to be brought back down, yet the voices down below continued to curse him and urged him to go on.
Then a bullet from a FSA sniper hit him. His fall was fast and terrifying and we heard his body crashing into the ground.
That was the moment the soldiers realized there was more at stake than just a raised flag and bullet fire started to fill the air. The clash lasted for more than half an hour before things calmed down.
To our amazement, another soldier started climbing the tower. But this time he was screaming loudly, trying to make everyone hear he was not a soldier. He begged people not to shoot him. “For God’s sake guys,” I heard him say. “I am so-and-so, son of so-and-so, son of your neighborhood, don’t kill me.”
As it turned out, he was a village youth who had been arrested prior to the drama. The army had taken him to the municipal square and dressed him in a military uniform to deceive the FSA. It was the dirtiest trick ever.
The young man, from whom we have not heard since that very day, reached the top of the tower and with great difficulty loosened the flag to let it fall down. It settled on the roof of one of the nearby houses. In its place the soldiers raised the official Syrian flag.
Next there was nothing but the sound of soldiers running between houses and armored vehicles plowing down the streets. It was the biggest military raid the village had ever seen.
One group of soldiers headed towards the house where the flag fell on the roof. They did not bother to go up, under the pretext of the sniper’s presence. Instead, they simply set the house on fire with all the furniture still in there.
The soldiers only left after they had made sure that the fire had reached the flag and the flames had consumed it all. Thus ended the Battle of the Flags.