At 53, Um Omar has decided to wage her own type of “jihad” in Syria’s northern Turkmen Mountains, toiling over pots and pans every day to cook for the area’s rebel fighters.
“I wake up at 5:00 in the morning to prepare their meals, and I haven’t missed a single day’s work in almost a year,” she says, ladling diced potatoes she sliced earlier that morning out of a pan of simmering oil.
“In the snow, the rain, and even under a hail of rockets, she never once stopped cooking for us,” says Assad, a young rebel from the Jabal al-Turkman (Turkmen Mountain) area in Lattakia province, the cradle of the al-Assad clan that has ruled the country for over four decades.
Abu Khaled, a sniper from a nearby rebel unit, is also full of praise for Um Omar, who, he says, is like a mother or a sister to the fighters.
“She does the impossible to get what we want. Once someone asked for rice pudding and although she struggled to find the ingredients, the next day, he had his rice pudding,” he says.
“Here, people who can't bring themselves to say that she cooks better than their own mothers still say “it’s just as good as my mother’s cooking.”” he adds, serving a group of young men the potatoes and seasoned rice that Um Omar made that morning.
However, her work does not give her any special sense of pride. Heaping spoons of salt into a pan, she says: “Feeding the troops is just my way of helping the revolution. And it keeps my mind occupied, so that I don’t worry about the bombing and the humiliation we suffer at the hands of the regime every day.”
Um Omar, who ends all her sentences with “God curse Bashar (al-Assad, Syria’s president),” took the decision herself to leave the western town of Lattakia, where she lived, and which has largely been spared from fighting so far.
Much of Jabal al-Turkman is currently rebel-controlled. The area is bordered by Turkey to the north, which supports the uprising, and the Alawite-inhabited mountains to the south, home to the Assad’s minority.
Intense fighting has raged around the southern limits of Jabal al-Turkman for the past nine months as rebels have tried to push towards the town of Lattakia, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
“I swore to myself that I wouldn’t leave the mountains until the tyrant has fallen. Then we can return to our homes as victors,” she says with conviction.
“To begin with, my children didn’t understand, but I explained to them what I was doing and now even my husband has come round to the idea,” she adds, moving from one bubbling pot to another. “Anyway, I make my own choices, I do what I want.”
The feisty 53-year-old follows a strict routine every day in the mountains, rising to pray at dawn, before drinking her coffee and getting down to work.
“I go and see the neighbors, and they each give me a little for the day’s meal, which I hand out to the rebels and people living nearby,” she explains.
In the garden of a Turkmen family, she uses a small knife to cut away a few stalks of mint, parsley and a few lettuce leaves. Then she heads back to her “kitchen” a few breeze blocks stacked together with a canvas sheet as a roof.
This improvised chef has no toque or apron, but instead goes to work in a set of combat fatigues given to her by the rebels to wage what she calls her “jihad.”
Shoveling branches and pine cones into the flames under her pots and pans in the middle of a field next to the headquarters of a local brigade, she says: “At home I had a gas stove in the kitchen, but here I have had to learn to cook over a wood fire.”
Um Omar sometimes goes to cut the firewood for her mountain kitchen herself in the nearby woods. “This revolution has really forced me to toughen up,” she laughs.