Tea breaks, video games: Syria rebels use truce to unwind



ALEPPO, SYRIA, Karam al-Masri- Their guns propped up on a mattress nearby, Tarek Muhrem and his fellow Syrian rebel fighters plop down on their couch along Aleppo city's front lines for an evening of football video games.
Instead of rifle triggers and walkie-talkies, they grasp small glasses of coffee and sweet tea between PlayStation sessions in their makeshift base in a battle-scarred neighbourhood.



Since a fragile truce came into effect across parts of the country on Saturday, rebels in Syria's second city say the decrease in bombing has allowed them time to recover and visit their families.
"Things have gotten better over the past four days, as aerial bombardment of Aleppo city has stopped," Muhrem, 35, says.
He heads the "Dawn of the Martyrs" Brigade, which has signed on to the cessation of hostilities deal brokered by the United States and Russia.
Although his fighters remain at the ready, anticipating possible regime violations, many are taking the opportunity to recover from wounds or take a long-awaited break from clashes.
"Now, I spend my time checking up on the different forward positions that I'm responsible for to make sure fighters have everything they need in terms of food and drink," Muhrem says.
"We drink coffee late into the night and sometimes play PlayStation together," he says, smiling.
"Dawn of the Martyrs" militants are based in a crumbling apartment block in the Karam al-Turab neighbourhood of the city.
White sheets dotted with bullet holes hang across the neighbourhood streets to hide the remaining residents from snipers.
- 'Join us for a cup!' -
Dressed in military gear, bored rebel fighters scroll through Facebook on their mobile phones and chat with family on the messaging application WhatsApp.
They sit in what appears to be an ornately decorated sitting room in the middle of a bombed-out district in Aleppo city.
Abu Nura, a 38-year old commander in the Jabhat Shamiyah rebel group, says he decorated the base himself in his spare time.
"The threat posed by the regime army on my front line has been nearly halved," he says.
"Before the ceasefire, we clashed with the regime and exchanged artillery on a near-daily basis. But now there is a lot less shelling and there are no air strikes inside the city," Abu Nura tells AFP.
Fighting has not stopped altogether.
Abu Nura accuses the regime of violating the truce in its first hours and says the rebels under his command are even more vigilant than ever before -- even if they have more free time.
"Since the truce began, I spend some of my time drinking tea and chatting with my fellow fighters. The rest of the time, I go home and spend time with my four children," he says.
Even pro-regime Facebook pages have posted photos of beaming government soldiers, reclining on plastic chairs and sipping glasses of tea.
"Join us for a cup, it's still our first one!" the caption reads, above several posts accusing opposition militants of truce violations.
- 'Calm before the storm' -
Abu Fajr, a bald fighter of medium height with the Northern Division, says he spends his time reminiscing with his comrades about years of clashes in Aleppo.
Ahmad Jalal, meanwhile, uses his free afternoons to play football with the other fighters in his brigade.
"I think the war will last a long time and will not end soon, but I hope it will be over so I can go back to regular work and get married," he says.
Many fighters have dropped off their weapons for cleaning at local depots, says Oday, who manages an ammunitions warehouse in the city.
"The owners of these weapons are now on break. This is why they left their weapons at the depot," he says while wiping down a sniper rifle.
Nearby in the rebel-held Ferdaws neighbourhood, rebel fighter Osama, 25, picks up small bags of vegetables from the souk for his wife.
Osama got married two months ago but has yet to take his honeymoon because of the intensity of the fighting around Aleppo city, particularly in recent weeks.
"But a few days ago, the commander of my brigade allowed me to take a week off," says the fighter.
"Now, I spend most of my time at home and I feel like life is normal without the sound of airplanes and shelling -- but I'm afraid that this is the calm before the storm."
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Thursday, March 3rd 2016
Karam al-Masri
           


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