The bride wore an AK-47
The crack of a sniper rifle and the boom of exploding shells seemed to take turns as Hanadi slipped out of the apartment and onto the dark street.
Seconds later, a shell landed nearby and Hanadi groaned, worried that the Syrian army would storm the neighborhood that night -- before she got her camera back from the repairman, leaving her unable to record the fighting.
Walking down the street, carefully planting her feet, she glanced left and right through open doors, concerned that her husband might see her.
At the corner, a few young Free Syrian Army fighters manning a checkpoint recognized her immediately.
“Abu al-Majid is inside,” one of them said, referring to her husband and pointing in the direction she had just come from.
“What do I want with Abu al-Majid?” she replied. They warned her about a government sniper ahead, but she continued walking through the intersection.
When antigovernment protests first began in Dara in March 2011, the then-high school senior didn’t join, believing that President Bashar Assad was blameless. That changed in June though, when Assad called the opposition “germs.”
“From that point I joined the opposition,” she said. “They came out asking for freedom, so I came out also asking for freedom.”
The following school year, as a first-year law student at the University of Damascus, Hanadi, who asked that her last name not be used so as to protect her family, would skip classes to attend protests.
As the armed uprising that had devastated much of the rest of Syria finally made its way into Damascus in late July, she traded her placard for a syringe as a volunteer nurse at an opposition-run field hospital. Soon she put down the needle and picked up a camera to join a rebel militia and record clashes at government checkpoints and outposts.
Now, as the violence and bloodshed only grow, Hanadi, 19, has traded up once again: replacing her camera with a Kalashnikov.
Weeks ago, rebels clashed with government security forces in several south Damascus neighborhoods. As government forces bombarded the neighborhoods with airstrikes, the opposition fighters fled from district to district and eventually withdrew to the suburbs as their ammunition ran low.
Hanadi’s rebel militia was one of the last to leave, from the district of Asali, and she left for the suburbs unwillingly.
“The worst thing for me is the tactical withdrawal,” she said a few days afterward. “I swear the next time we attack I will be the first one in and the last one to leave until my last bullet.”
Being at the front line was what she came for, she said.
After all, the Kalashnikov was her promised dowry.
Her marriage, Hanadi said, is simply one of convenience.
In August, she wed the commander of the militia she had joined, the 30-member Thul Nurain, based in the Tadamon neighborhood.
“It was to prevent people from talking -- ‘Why is she sitting among all those men?’ ” she said.
“Tadamon is a conservative place and it’s a big deal to have an unmarried girl among a group of men,” said Abu Majid, 34, who worked as a deliveryman before he took up arms.
He asked her father’s permission and was turned down, but a local sheik agreed to marry them anyway.
They publicized the marriage within the neighborhood and among rebel groups in order to stop the wagging tongues. For weeks, she didn’t tell her family.
Abu Majid’s first wife still doesn’t know.
His wife and three young sons, who left Tadamon when fighting erupted there, are one reason Hanadi said the marriage won’t last past the conflict. She doesn’t want to be a home wrecker and added that Abu Majid’s wife would “slaughter him if she found out.”
“This is just a marriage for the revolution. After ... we will separate,” she said, placing her index fingers side by side and then moving them apart, by way of visual aid. “Either I may die or we both may die, or at the end of the revolution we will say bye-bye but remain friends.”
Hanadi inhabits a strange dynamic here: part wife expected to serve tea and prepare meals -- though she does so awkwardly, as if the role fits like a rumpled suit -- and part militia member. When fighters and rebel leaders gather in their living room, she sits with them, rarely speaking but giggling often.
She follows some orders from Abu Majid but ignores others.
“We will give her a rifle and she can go with the guys,” he said a few weeks ago, lounging in a stuffy living room because the electricity had been cut. “Or maybe we will give her the detonator and let her blow up the bombs.”
“No,” she said, barely looking up from peeling potatoes for a lunch of French fries and pita bread.
“I don’t consider that work. That’s work without any risk,” she said. “If you grab a Kalashnikov and go to the front lines, that’s work. Being far away and not being able to see anything? That doesn’t fly with me.”
Outside, gunshots rang out occasionally and the walkie-talkie beside her regularly crackled to life as she continued peeling.
Hanadi has a wide smile and runs her tongue over her teeth when something amuses her, which is often. She has a girlishness even as she talks of wanting to be a martyr, the rashness of a teenager intermingled with the militant’s willingness to die.
She wears tight jeans and tunics and her hair always pokes out from under her hijab.
Originally from Quneitra in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, she grew up in the poor Damascus neighborhood of Asali. As a child she remembers attending anti-Israel rallies where the crowd chanted pro-Assad slogans.
Though her father supports the opposition, he doesn’t want any of his eight children risking their lives. When he found out Hanadi was attending protests, he suggested she become an activist online instead.
When fighting began in Damascus a few days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, her father took the family to stay with relatives in Quneitra, including Hanadi and her three brothers who had also joined Free Syrian Army militias. But an hour after arriving, Hanadi got on a bus and returned to the capital.
Her father brought her back to Quneitra four more times, but each time she returned to Damascus.
As a pretext for one escape from a relative’s home, she volunteered to help her elderly great-aunt to the outhouse, she said. While the woman was inside, Hanadi climbed over the outer wall of the house and ran to the bus station.
“We were raised in a conservative society where a girl has to heed her mother and father, but I no longer recognize their authority,” she said, underscoring what some describe as not only an uprising against the government but also a revolution that has upset the balance between generations. Many of the activists and fighters have joined the fight against their parents’ wishes.
The parents belong to a generation of Syrians who remained silent after an uprising against the Assad family in the early 1980s that was quickly and brutally suppressed.
The role of women in the revolution has diminished as it has become violent, but Hanadi is not the first to join the Free Syrian Army. Other women have taken up arms and there is even a females-only rebel group, made up of the widows of fighters, in Idlib province.
In a YouTube video posted in July, a Syrian woman identifying herself as an engineer from Canada announced she had joined the Martyrs of Aleppo brigade to “answer the call of the country.”
“There are girls that come that are stronger than many of the guys,” said Abu Jaafar, a member of the Tadamon Local Coordination Committee who knows Hanadi. “They can carry weapons or a video camera.”
But the percentage is still tiny.
Befitting her youth, Hanadi seems unsure of what she wants: whether she is looking to be a martyr or looking forward to the freedoms -- both politically and personally -- of a post-revolution Syria. She talks about finishing law school, but because of her involvement with the Free Syrian Army, this academic year has been lost.
A few weeks ago, the university held a makeup exam for summer school students, but she didn’t show up, worried about arrest.
There have been moments when she was in the midst of clashes and felt a bullet coming for her, she said.
But she has not been shot, she said, sounding somewhat disappointed.
“I’ve come out wanting to be a martyr,” she said. “I’ve been living for 19 years. That’s enough, don’t you think?”
‘She’s more of a revolutionary than Abu al-Majid,” said Abu Rahaf, who leads another Tadamon militia and, like Abu Majid, goes by a nickname.
When Hanadi heard what he had said, she saw it as an opportunity. Even though she agreed to marry Abu Majid on the condition that he not prevent her from going out with the rebels, he tells her to stay home sometimes.
Crossing the sniper-manned intersection safely, Hanadi sought out Abu Rahaf.
“Abu al-Majid won’t always take me out with him,” she told him as they stood in a dark alley, the only light coming from the tip of his cigarette.
“I want to [go] with your group,” she said, shifting her weight from side to side.
He skirted the question. “There may not be an operation tonight; the situation is unstable.”
Standing more than a foot shorter than Abu Rahaf, Hanadi looked like an athlete begging a coach to put her in the game. Abu Rahaf seemed both amused and impressed.
“I swear,” he said, “you are something.”