The Cat Colonel of Syria
Farmer-turned-war commander battles regime, rescues kitties
by DAVID AXE
He commands rebel forces in the ruins of an ancient mountaintop village in northern Syria. He daily dodges bombs and rockets from regime warplanes and silent, invisible bullets from enemy sharpshooters. He leads his men in battle unarmed, equipped only with a walkie-talkie for issuing orders.
He also rescues abandoned cats. Hundreds of them, hiding out in the ruins of Areha, one of the most important battlegrounds of the three-year-old Syrian civil war.
His name is Jamal. He’s 56 years old. He was a farmer before the war, having retired from the Syrian army as a colonel. In 2011 the regime of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad began killing peaceful protestors demanding fairer rule. Jamal and thousands of other current and former Syrian officers formed an opposition army to fight back.
Today the 200,000-strong rebel Free Syrian Army holds much of northern Syria. But the regime clings to the northern cities of Idlib and Aleppo. A mountain overlooks the main road connecting regime-controlled western Syrian to the two cities. Areha and its surrounding villages, once a thriving community of 80,000, sit atop and around the mountain.
Control Areha, and you control the road—and by extension Idlib and Aleppo. Fighting in Areha spiked this summer, as government and rebel forces battled back and forth across the boulder-strewn slopes, narrow earthen alleys and low olive groves. Today the rebels hold the mountain’s southern side, squatting among the ruins of a village abandoned by civilians.
Civilians who left behind their cats when they fled.
The felines are everywhere. Slinking into rebel bunkers to meow at officers conferring over radios. Rolling in the sun-baked dirt between mounds of rubble. Lounging under trees sheared of their branches by gunfire and artillery. An accurate count is impossible, but during our daylong visit in early October, we saw scores of them in just one small section of the village.
Jamal loves cats. “Who doesn’t?” he says.
His family—his wife, two sons and two daughters—have two cats of their own at their home in southern Idlib. When his forces occupied the mountain village they found almost no people, but countless hungry kitties. The rebels in Areha survive on canned tuna, sardines and processed meat—and now so do the cats.
Jamal took us on a tour of Areha’s front lines, ducking to keep his head out of view of regime snipers. Later we broke for lunch, scurrying inside because someone had spotted a Syrian air force bomber flying overhead. The cats were already eating, crowded around open cans of tasty fish outside the headquarters building.
One latecomer—a noisy juvenile cat—nosed into Jamal’s office and loudly begged for some of the officer’s tuna. But the young feline was too spooked by the pair of visiting war correspondents to eat the leftovers the colonel’s assistant placed on the floor.
Another young cat living in Jamal’s media office—really, just a room with a computer and a satellite Internet setup—was less shy. She eagerly hopped into my arms for a cuddle, her affectionate nature nurtured by Areha’s cat-loving rebels, and unperturbed by the bloody war raging all around her.
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