Unlike most of the jobless young men driving the Syrian uprising, Diaa al-Busti, 20, wanted for nothing. His family had money from years of working in Saudi Arabia. He’d trained to be an aircraft engineer. He had a car. Still, he became the unlikely powerhouse of the close-knit group of protest organizers in Homs, according to his partner in crime, 26-year-old Zakaria Moutlak. Together, they corralled demonstrators, made flags, and wrote graffiti on Homs’s walls. Busti was a relentless recruiter. He used to harangue any of the young men in Homs not participating in protests, recalled Moutlak. “He would tell them, ‘What are you afraid of?’” said Moutlak. “‘You could be killed or captured anytime in this country, randomly, for nothing. You only die once. Make it count.’” Each morning, he sent the other activists into fits of laughter as he reserved his first words of the day for cursing the president. He danced on the shoulders of other demonstrators. Determined to live without fear of the security forces, Busti never covered his face.
Today, Moutlak sits in a hospital bed across the border in Tripoli, Lebanon, a bandage wrapped around the hole left by the 23mm antiaircraft bullet that ripped through his thigh. When I visited him, cigarette smoke filled the room as other men wounded in the rebellious enclaves of Homs and Quseir hobbled in and out, wearing scarves of the pre-Baathist Syrian flag knitted by old women from their neighborhoods. He arrived there 11 days ago, after he was injured the day before in a clash between his Farouq Brigade, the Free Syrian Army militia guarding Bab Amro, and the government forces trying to enter the neighborhood from next-door Inshaat. While some men in Bab Amro have taken up arms since the beginning of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army force there only began to coalesce, organize, and take concerted action there about two months ago, according to about a dozen young fighters interviewed for this article. From protest leaders in jeans and gelled hair to Kalashnikov-toting rebels comforting themselves with the discourse of martyrdom, Busti and Moutlak were a part of that trajectory.
After Moutlak was arrested for a month in May while trying to deliver food and medical supplies to Daraa, the two friends left for Saudi Arabia, trying to drum up support among expats and raise funds for those they’d left behind inside. But they grew tired of watching from afar. Along with a third friend from their Inshaat days, Danny Abdul Dayem, 22, they decided to convene in Lebanon, then sneak back into Homs together. “When we reached Bab Amro, we couldn’t have been happier, despite the death spreading around us, more and more,” recalled Moutlak. “The world felt so small. Bab Amro for us was the promised land, on the way to heaven.” Abduldayem joined the media team. Busti went straight into the Farouq Brigade. Moutlak started volunteering in the neighborhood’s field hospital. A week later, he decided to join the armed forces, too. “I couldn’t take it, seeing all those bodies—women, kids, blood, severed limbs—without doing anything,” he said. The officer in charge pushed back at first; he was only supposed to accept defectors, not civilian recruits. But two days later, Moutlak was trained and outfitted with his own Kalashnikov.
He started off doing small, controlled attacks on security checkpoints at the edges of Bab Amro. At the time, the Syrian Army was already lobbing mortars on the neighborhood, killing at least two people a day. On Feb. 4, those forces launched a major offensive on Khaldiyeh, another restive neighborhood on the other side of the city; 181 perished, according to the Local Coordinating Committee. The Farouq Brigade of Bab Amro decided to counterattack. “Anytime they bomb one neighborhood, the Free Syrian Army branches elsewhere go after checkpoints, trying to open other fronts to ease the pressure on that one neighborhood,” said Moutlak. Three groups of Farouq fighters snuck through the gardens between homes until they reached the nine-story high-rises at the border of Bab Amro and Inshaat. Security forces had taken over the buildings, parked armored vehicles out front, and placed snipers up on top that could reach throughout Bab Amro. But the rebels had coordinated with some of the soldiers inside; on their signal, they attacked two of the buildings, killing about 60 security forces and capturing another six, whom they handed over to the brigade’s interrogators. Though they were outnumbered and outgunned, only three of the rebels died. “We are the children of the neighborhood. And God is on our side,” said Moutlak.
Two weeks later, he was not as lucky. By then, the shelling had started from villages located kilometers away, shaking the neighborhood with a steady drumbeat of explosions that shattered entire four-story buildings. “The first day, we thought they were just the normal mortars,” he said. “But when we started to see how big each bomb was, we realized this was something much heavier than we’d ever experienced.” The two were again on the border between Bab Amro and Inshaat, this time on the defense as ground troops tried to enter the neighborhood. Government forces fired on them using a Shilka tank, designed to take down helicopters and low-flying aircraft. Instead, it took out the wall behind which they were hiding with their Kalashnikovs. Moutlak was left with a gaping hole in his leg where one of the bullets hit. Busti and another rebel made him drop his weapon, then pulled him to safety and carried him to the field hospital. The next day, Busti came to visit the clinic, discarded Kalashnikov in hand. “I took your revenge,” he told Moutlak. He didn’t elaborate. Though Bab Amro was surrounded on all sides, Moutlak was transported out on a smuggling route later that day and taken to Lebanon. The route was used only to take the wounded out and reinforcements inside; civilians were trapped.
In the week and a half since then, the kinds of clashes that wounded Moutlak have essentially ceased, though Bab Amro’s casualties have skyrocketed. Government forces have opted simply to shell the entire residential area from afar, rather than keep battling with its fighters on the edges. With no one to fight, the rebels have instead turned their energies to collecting the wounded and transporting them to field hospitals, said others smuggled out more recently. They had captured armed vehicles and fired them out at government forces at one time, but the cannons have since been rendered useless; there is no more ammunition. The RPGs and Kalashnikovs cannot reach the rocket launchers at the source of the shelling, in villages two to seven kilometers outside Bab Amro. Though the Farouq Brigade is still in control of the neighborhood, its forces are clearly strained. On Friday, via Facebook chat, Busti told Moutlak not to worry about the increasingly bleak reports. “They won’t enter Bab Amro no matter what they do to us. We are in control here,” he told him. “We are a people who love to be martyred the way others love to be alive. I am in a hurry to follow a martyr’s path.” Moutlak warned him to be careful. Before they’d left Saudi Arabia, he’d promised Busti’s mother that he would protect of her son.
In the end, from his hospital bed across the border, he was not able to keep his promise. Pausing in the middle of the interview, Moutlak stared down at his smartphone, then began to sob. His screen had just flashed the news: Busti was dead.