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Originally published Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 6:42 AM

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Commuting to war: into Syria, out again

Businessman Hussein Zoubi, 40, took up arms against the Syrian government almost two years ago. Since then, like thousands of Syrian men who fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, he has been leading the life of a commuter rebel, a fighter inside Syria and a family man across the border.


The New York Times

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RAMTHA, Jordan — The Syrian rebel leader was sitting comfortably on a cushion at his home here recently, his wife and children filling the rooms with conversation and laughter. Then one day he shaved off his beard and slipped back into Syria, where he leads a rebel brigade.

“I cried,” said his mother-in-law, Wesal al-Aweer. “I pleaded with him not to leave.”

“We were used to having him around the house,” said his wife, Montaha Zoubi, 34, “so now we feel there is an emptiness in the house.”

A hardware-store owner in Syria before the civil war, Hussein Zoubi, 40, took up arms against the government almost two years ago. Since then, like thousands of Syrian men in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, he has been leading the life of a commuter rebel, a fighter inside Syria and a family man across the border.

Men have long gone to war after packing off their families to safer places. But the war’s proximity here along the Syrian-Jordanian border has collapsed the distances. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children, who have sought safety here, while the men slip in and out of Syria.

Unlike the battle-hardened Islamist combatants who have made rapid gains inside Syria in recent months, these are ordinary men — small-business owners, plumbers, carpenters — caught up in the war. They fight for weeks at a time and keep in constant touch electronically, but then return to see their families, nurse wounds and take care of businesses that may have suffered in their absence.

Ramtha is the twin city to Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising just across the border. Errant mortar shells from Daraa fall with regularity inside Ramtha, and the intensity of fighting can sometimes be gauged just by lowering the television volume here. Just as significant, Daraa’s ability to tap Jordan’s mobile-phone network allows the divided families to engage in a nearly constant stream of text and instant messages, not to mention calls.

Like Hussein Zoubi, these part-time fighters, part-time refugees, belong to groups linked to the Free Syrian Army, the association supported by the United States and Jordan.

“It was very hard in the beginning,” Zoubi said of the formation of his brigade, Liwa Fajr al-Islam, in a rural area north of Daraa. “We had to sleep and make plans under the olive trees in a village.”

“No tables,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes. “No cappuccino.”

The war has quieted Ramtha’s traditional business as a major entry port of Syrian goods into Jordan. But out of public view, in small storefront offices and nondescript, barely furnished rented houses throughout the city, fighters and members of the opposition carry out the business of war — meeting, plotting, gathering supplies, taking care of their wounded — while returning at night to their wives and children.

Mohammed Askar, also of Liwa Fajr al-Islam, recently returned to Ramtha after two months and 20 days in Syria. He slipped back into paternal mode, playing with his six children and taking the oldest to school.

“Then when I went to pick up my girls on the fourth day, I heard a couple of Jordanian girls yell, ‘Syrian beggars, Syrian gypsies,’ ” Askar said. “So I pulled them out of school.”

Before the war, Askar was a part-owner of a tomato-paste factory with 30 employees in Tafas, north of Daraa. Everything changed after anti-government graffiti scribbled by adolescents in March 2011 led to a crackdown by government forces in Daraa, including, he said, the deaths of two people in Tafas. Like many men from Daraa, Askar said, he joined the fight against the government out of a need to defend his community and to right an affront.

“Before the revolution, I felt I’d reached the top,” he said. “I worked the hours I wanted, it was great. Then my factory was destroyed, and I found myself back to zero.”

For his wife, Madjoleen, 29, strong connections were a godsend. “I know he’s OK because he calls every few hours when he’s away in Syria,” she said.

Inside another house, the wives of two brothers fighting in a brigade called Al Mansour were living with their parents-in-law. Easa al-Masalmeh, 26, a plumber, went back to Syria in late August, a day before his brother, Qassem, a 33-year-old broker who helped Syrian businesses clear their goods through customs, was killed there.

In a room where she was observing the Muslim mourning period, Qassem’s widow, Fatima, 28, remembered how, when he was fighting in Syria, the couple exchanged constant messages on social-media applications such as Viber and WhatsApp.

Easa’s wife, Anwar, said she was struggling to raise her two young children by herself. “The girl wants her father, and my son says he wants to join the army and go back to Syria,” she said.

In the house of Zoubi, the hardware-store owner, several relatives were visiting.

“A house without a man is worth nothing,” said Aweer, his mother-in-law, unable to contain her distress.

“But he told me that he couldn’t go on living just inside the house,” his wife said.

Darkness filled the room. In another across the hall, a relative who had just lost her second son on the other side of the border sat silently in a corner with her face fixed in grief. Her uncontrollable sobbing soon began.

A couple of weeks later, Zoubi returned to Ramtha. His arm was hurting, he said by phone. He wanted to be on the battlefield. He was not happy that he was back. But, he added, his wife and children were.



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