Married at 17, Rashan had become accustomed to hearing she was too young to be a wife. Now, still 17, she’s having to get used to being a widow.
On a windswept afternoon in early May, the young woman from the Zahra neighborhood of the Syrian city of Homs stands over the freshly dug grave of the man who was her husband for five months, a dashing young soldier fighting in the army of President Bashar Assad whom she met through friends. He has been dead a week, shot by a rebel fighter. Rashan opens her hands in prayer as an Imam recites verses from the Koran. At the foot of the grave her mother-in-law burns incense. The pungent fragrance wafts over the graves of some 1,500 other young soldiers in the Syrian army, similarly cut down in a war that has taken more than 160,000 lives in three and a half years. The Martyrs of Firdous Cemetery was established three years ago, when it became clear that the numbers of dead Syrian soldiers would soon overwhelm Zahra’s local graveyard. Six freshly excavated graves lie empty. Cemetery caretaker al-Abdallah, who offered only one name, says that with at least one burial a day it is all but certain they will soon be filled.
Assad’s government has not produced a formal death toll for its security forces but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based, pro-opposition monitoring organization with a network of reporters on the ground, says it has counted the deaths of 37,685 government soldiers in addition to 23,485 members of pro-government paramilitary groups. Those soldiers are fighting some 1,000 loosely aligned opposition brigades determined to oust Assad, including the Free Syrian Army, which is made up mainly of military defectors, and the Islamic Forces, an umbrella group that has conducted some of the fiercest fighting in the past few months. The Syrian Observatory, in the same report released on May 19, says that 42,701 Syrian rebels and foreign combatants have died in the conflict. The Observatory only counts those deaths it can confirm with two independent sources. Director Rami Abdul Rahman estimates that there are tens of thousands more dead unaccounted for, along with 18,000 in government detention.
The Syrian uprising, which started in March 2011 with calls for reform, morphed into a full scale insurgency when government forces violently cracked down on peaceful protestors. The Assad regime maintains that all of its opponents, from armed fighters to peaceful opposition activists, are foreign-backed “terrorists” and thus legitimate military targets. In an effort to regain terrain and cities lost to the rebels, it has unleashed a vicious bombing campaign over the past several months that has resulted in accusations by human rights groups that the government is unfairly targeting civilians. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad dismisses those allegations as Western, anti-government propaganda, telling TIME in an interview in Damascus that in the areas where the military attacks, “There are no civilians left. When terrorists attack our people, do you expect us to respond by throwing flowers?”
Communities like Zahra, where the Alawite sect of the President’s family predominates, have been disproportionately hit by the rising death toll. Many of their young men were already soldiers when the uprising started in March 2011; thousands more rushed to join either the army and other security forces when the war escalated, driven by a desire to protect their religion and their way of life, which they believe to be under threat. For many here in Zahra, the conflict is increasingly seen as a sectarian uprising by Sunni extremists out to eradicate Syria’s Alawite minority. Most Syrian soldiers believe they are not just fighting for Assad, but for their very survival — and they are determined to win, no matter the cost. This community of 200,000 has lost some 4,000 men to the war, either as soldiers, members of pro-government militias or as victims of the snipers that were holed up in a nearby rebel-controlled enclave of Homs’ Old City, according to local mayor Mustafa al-Aboud. “Go knock on every door on my street,” he urges. “Not a single home has been spared.” Portraits of the dead are pasted on walls along the city streets.
Rashan, who asked to go only by her first name to protect her privacy, says her husband was killed by a sniper while patrolling the edges of a rebel-held neighborhood in Homs. She received the news from her husband’s friends, who called her when they had retrieved his body. Days later, on May 6, a cease-fire went into effect. Under the terms of the agreement, insurgents who had held a handful of strategic neighborhoods of Homs’ Old City for more than two years were allowed safe passage out, and civilians were able to return to their homes. The government called it a victory. For residents of nearby Zahra, the relief was two-fold: The government’s daily bomb attacks were over, and the rebel snipers who had taken the lives of some 100 Zahra residents were gone. But for Rashan, the cease-fire, coming just a few days after her husband’s death, is bittersweet. “I am happy that we can walk freely in our neighborhoods, that there is peace. But it came too late for my husband,” she says.
Rashan takes a moment for her tears to pass. She hopes that her husband’s efforts, along with those of the other soldiers who led the fight in Homs’ Old City may have helped convince the rebels that continued fighting would achieve nothing, and that reconciliation would save more lives. “When we have peace again in Syria, we will know that the lives of our husbands and fathers and brothers and sons will not have been wasted,” she says as a way of assuring herself that her sacrifice was not in vain.
Syrians on both sides of the conflict are tired of war, and many see hope in the Homs example. Negotiated reconciliations and cease-fires are unlikely to work everywhere — other factors, such as the presence of extremists more interested in heavenly gains than terrestrial peace, are a significant obstruction — but for many Syrians they offer an attractive alternative to continued conflict. “We want more of these cease-fires all over Syria,” says Rashan. “Maybe political solutions are more difficult than fighting. But we must try. The political solution preserves Syrian blood. I think we have had enough martyrs in Syria.”