The Survivors of Kuweyres

The Survivors of Kuweyres

All around us are corpses. Fleshless bones and skeletons still bearing the Islamic
State uniforms scattered along the defense lines of Kuweyres military airport,
26 kilometers east of Aleppo. In the area surrounding this base which was trapped
behind the Caliphate lines for nearly three years one of the longest and most fierce
battles of the Syrian conflict was fought.

Here 1200 men of the Syrian air force defended for 1215 days the three kilometer by
two perimeter of the military airport situated along the highway to Raqqa and
besieged by Islamic State militants since 2013.

“We were surrounded, but never once did we think of giving up, even when everything
seemed lost,” remembers 62-year-old general Munzer Zamani who for all that time never
abandoned the command of his men. To better make us understand what kind of battle was
fought around the airstrips of his base the general personally takes us to the edge of the
field. There, beyond the runways, the base’s front line stretched out until a few weeks ago.
And just 150 meters beyond it were positioned the Caliphate’s military posts. “We didn’t
know how many of them there were, nor where they came from. It was like fighting against
an army of rats which suddenly erupted from the earth’s bowels,” confesses general
Munzer showing us the entrance to a tunnel dug exactly beneath the trenches and through
which the Caliphate’s men moved.

There, beyond and beneath that daunting abyss another world opens up, an
obscure labyrinth excavated into the earth’s entrails. “We couldn’t believe they
were able to dig such long, deep and well-structured tunnels, “says major Yad, one
of the few officers at the base to have explored nearly all of them. “We are three
meters below the surface and we will descend to five,” explains the major as we
move along a narrow tunnel, our heads bowed. Then following a curve the passage
way widens and on its sides a series of room-sized underground cavities open up.
“See, this is where they slept, ate and rested. They had created a parallel world

under our feet without us ever realizing it. Thanks to these tunnels the bombs
launched by our air force were practically useless, as soon as they heard them
coming they would throw themselves down here. When we still knew nothing about
their ploys they were able to sneak into our barrack areas and attack us by surprise.
From then on we started a real war on tunnels. As they dug we would follow the
sound of their machinery in an attempt to locate the air vents. When we found them
and blocked them we didn’t even have to kill them because as soon as they
understood they were trapped they would blow themselves up. “

The hardest battles however were those fought face to face on a no man’s land no more
than 150 meters wide. “They had top class gun men, most of them Chechen, who didn’t miss
a shot. I lost a great many soldiers to them,“ admits the general, “Of the 600 dead fighters of
this base at least fifty were killed by these infallible snipers.” But the Chechens were only
one of the many foreign groups participating in the siege of the airport. “They came here
from all over the world to give us a thrashing – jokes the major, “The Saudis made up
the majority, but believe me, behind them there were all sorts, fighters from Mali to
Tunisia, from China to Afghanistan. When we picked up the bodies and checked their
documents we would discover people from everywhere except for Syria. On balance, the
percentage of foreigners was over 70 per cent. And the main problem during battle was
the indifference of all those people in the face of death. When they launched an attack they
were all under the effect of drugs and so they just went on until they were stopped by a
bullet or a bomb. The weapon that most soldiers defending Kuweyres feared were the
deadly armor-plated car bombs which the Islamic State tried to ram into the base’s western
side defense.

“We had never seen anything of the sort before. They would use armored vehicles stacked
full of explosives which would bring down entire buildings,” says major Yad as he
accompanies us through the rubble of a cement edifice hit by one of these devastating
devices. The anti-tank missiles were not able to stop them and so our soldiers too learned to
sacrifice their lives. Our volunteers stopped 15 of those horrors by throwing themselves on

them and causing them to explode before they were able to reach the base perimeter. If we
have been able to survive we owe it to the sacrifice of those martyrs.”