Abu Jaffa met his future wife at a government checkpoint in Aleppo. She was alone in the street, and he noticed that she looked distressed. So he stopped his taxi and let her in, and she told him that members of the Free Syrian Army had just broken into her house and stolen all her money and gold.
“I told her that couldn’t be possible,” he says. “Her house was next to a regime checkpoint, so how could it be opposition fighters who had done that? I promised to help her and look after her, and then I gave her my number.” Soon they were a couple, in love. But it took several months for Abu Jaffa to find the courage to tell his new girlfriend that he himself was a fighter with the Free Syrian Army. “When he told me that I was so afraid of him at first,” she says. “He was the first person I’d met who was fighting for the opposition.”
Theirs is a most unusual love story, and one that sums up all the schisms in Syria today. Um Jaffa’s father is a prominent regime Ba’athist, and until she met Abu Jaffa she herself was a supporter of Bashar Al-Assad. “When Bashar made his first speech after the demonstrations started two years ago, when he said ‘God, Syria, my people’, I loved it,” she says. “And I was against the protests.”
But when Abu Jaffa took her to a demonstration in the Salaheddin district of the city she saw with her own eyes how the regime’s security forces were firing at unarmed protesters. It was a moment that flipped her thinking entirely, and she decided to run away with Abu Jaffa and join the revolution. Five months later, they were married.
Um Jaffa has not spoken to her father since. “I feel nothing for my family any more,” she says. “My father has offered five million lira to anyone who catches and kills me. I’m with my husband now, and we love each other.”
The price that her father had placed on his new wife’s head made Abu Jaffa fear for her safety. So her taught her how to use a gun—first an M16, then a Kalashnikov—and she found that she was good at it. A few weeks later she started following her husband to the front line. “I didn’t want her to at first,” he says. “I feared for her safety. But when I was injured one day she took me to the hospital, and then I was glad that she was there.”
But when Um Jaffa told her husband that she wanted to be a sniper and fight alongside him, the couple had their first marital row. “He told me no, but I wouldn’t listen to him,” she says. “I wanted to work for the revolution. So we went to see the Sheikh, and he told me that on this occasion I could disobey my husband.”
So Um Jaffa has become the Free Syrian Army’s first known female fighter in Aleppo. Before the revolution she was a hairdresser; now, she regularly fights alongside her husband on the city’s front lines, dressed in her hijab and flak jacket. “I’m a little scared sometimes,” she says, “but this is what I want to do.” A year ago she had never even picked up a weapon; now, as well as fighting on the front line, she has recruited and trained nine more female snipers. Her old friends from the salon know nothing about her extraordinary new life.
And now Um Jaffa has flipped her husband’s thinking, just as he flipped hers at the start. “I didn’t want her to fight,” he says, “but now she’s changed my mind, and I’m so proud of her.”