Syria: the former English teacher turned Aleppo’s female sniper – By Ruth Sherlock, Aleppo
Her fame has spread throughout Aleppo. Her comrades have nicknamed her ‘Guevara’, but to many of the city’s residents she is known simply as: ‘the female sniper’.
Standing stock still, her finger suspended over the trigger, she stared through the sniper sight of her Belgian FN rifle. Her view framed by the jagged concrete edges of the fist-sized hole that has been cut into the wall of her hideout on one of the most dangerous front lines in Aleppo, Guevara, named after the revolutionary, watched the enemy – government soldiers – moving along the other side of the street.
« I like fighting. When I see that one of my friends in my katiba [rebel division] has been killed, I feel that I have to hold a weapon and take my revenge, » she said.
Dressed in green khaki trousers, a grey jumper dress, tight fitting hijab and a camouflage combat jacket, Guevara, 36, cleaned and loaded her gun, sitting in a half demolished building just metres from where government troops patrol.
Despite the war, she was immaculate – eyebrows perfectly plucked, blusher and a little eyeliner. Small leather boots with heels, and a gold bracelet are touches of her feminine side.
A female fighter in Syria’s conservative Muslim society is rare, often not considered proper behaviour for a woman. But Guevara commands the respect of her fellow fighters – a group of some 30 men and boys, some as young as 16.
It is not easy to be a sniper, she explained. « You have to be quick, careful and smart not to let them shoot you.
« And you need to be patient. I wait for hours at a time »
Through the small hole in her hideout, she sees government soldiers less than 700 feet away across the street, mingling among civilians who move swiftly, trying to continue their livelihoods despite the war.
« The civilians go home in the late afternoon. When the streets clear it is a very good chance to shoot the soldier. I think I have killed soldiers. You can never be one hundred per cent sure that they are dead, but I have hit them at least four or five times. »
Her tone as she spoke of killing government troops was dogmatic; almost fanatical: « It makes you feel good. Whenever I hit one I shout ‘yes!' »
Personal tragedy motivates Guevara, a former English teacher. Months ago, her children, a boy and girl aged seven and 10 were killed when an airstrike demolished their home.
« My boy used to be frightened of the bombs, and ask me what was happening. I said ‘my boy, I promise that I am going to defend your future’. Now, I will not forget my children’s blood and I promise to take revenge. »
A Syrian of Palestinian origin, Guevara first learned how to use a gun and operate in a war, in a military training camp in Lebanon run by the Palestinian militant faction Hamas.
In Syria, she had long fought for her cause: « When I was a student in Aleppo University – years before the uprising began – we created an underground opposition newspaper. We formed a political party for Palestinians and held secret, underground meetings to discuss how to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
They took part in the protests that began in March 2011, bought video cameras and filmed the crackdown by Syrian security forces.
She left her first husband for not being ‘revolutionary’ enough. And when her new husband, the commander of the rebel brigade of which she is part, initially refused to let her fight with him on the front line, she threatened to leave him too.
« I said; ‘I have the strength to hold a gun, so why can’t I fight? »
Bowing to his wife’s iron will, he trained her in the art of sniping.
At night sometimes, she admitted, she wakes up crying, traumatised by personal loss and the horrors she has witnessed.
« I have seen more than 100 bodies in the last few months. So many people were killed in shelling and air strikes. And I have had many near misses. Once a bomb exploded nearby, wounding people who I was with in a car and I thought ‘oh my God death is near' ».