ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - As Syria's rebellion has slid from peaceful protest into all-out war, women have had to find new roles in the struggle to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Umm Hassan, wrinkled and stooped, spends her days in her tiny concrete home, cooking rice and lentils for her sons and their comrades fighting in northern Syria to push government soldiers out of the frontier region.
"I am a committed revolutionary. I used to go to every protest with my sons last year," says the smiling 65-year-old, recalling the street demonstrations that marked the beginning of the revolt against Assad. "But protests can't do much once the fighting starts. Now my role is cooking. And worrying."
She is joking, but her words are also deadly serious. While men now fight the government on the front line, it is their mothers, sisters and daughters who worry about how to feed their families or where to hide their children from the daily air raids.
Perhaps because they are not pumping themselves up for battle like their men, some women can give a more honest portrayal of the emotional turmoil Syrians must endure as their country is torn apart by a conflict that has already lasted for 20 months and taken more than 38,000 lives.
Other women have sought a more direct role in the armed rebellion. Aya, an 18-year-old volunteer medic, was in jail when rebels entered her home town of Aleppo three months ago. She was imprisoned for 40 days for hanging a rebel flag on the city's ancient citadel.
"I knew at some point I would need to do something more serious. So as soon as the revolution became militarised, I planned to do first aid at the front."
In neatly applied makeup and a crisp white lab coat, Aya tours the bomb-damaged school that has become her second home. It is a makeshift clinic with only three rickety gurneys. Sterilised needles are stored in plastic water bottles.
As a gathering point for rebels, Aya's clinic is a target for army fire. Some rebel hospitals have craters all around them from the rockets that have crashed nearby.
Bravery can be found in unexpected places here. Aya's co-worker is Jumana, 28, a shy law school graduate who used to be afraid of needles. Jumana now spends her days stitching up bullet wounds and picking shrapnel out of fighters.
"We know we're at risk here even when things seem quiet. At any moment a plane with a bomb could come," she says, as a mortar streaks overhead. "That actually makes it less scary, it breaks the fear barrier. The worst that happens is we die."
Aya and Jumana wanted to be as close as possible to the front line. But the field hospitals are more challenging than they expected. Bombs, blood and guts are all things they have grown accustomed to, but not the emotional toll.
"We can only treat five at a time so when a bomb hits there are so many people they have to wait, bleeding, outside on the sidewalk. But it's not the injuries you remember," Aya said.
"You see dozens dead at a time sometimes. Women weeping over their children's bodies. Or a dead mother, her kids all around her. Every time, it gets harder to watch."
RELUCTANT REBEL MOMS
Even if they were not activists, the revolt has forced women to adopt new roles. Umm Majed hardly used to leave home before, but now she regularly braves the checkpoints in the neighbouring army-controlled city of Idlib.
Umm Majed, conservatively covered from head to toe, feeds her newborn son as she plans a foray to buy groceries and clothes. She is the only one who can make the trip now - her husband and teenage sons are wanted. She smiles and coos at her baby as she speaks, but there is a sadness in her dark green eyes.
"My husband is a rebel commander. When I first found out I was pregnant, I cried. I didn't want to bring a child into this unknown future. I hoped it wasn't true," she whispers, covering her face in shame.
"So many of my neighbours had miscarriages because of the fighting and the shelling. Maybe it's the stress. The whole time you are pregnant you are wondering: What happens if I have to escape a jet bombing, or an army raid? If the hospital nearby is taken by the government, who can drive me there?"
From her tree-shaded patio overlooking the Turkish border, Umm Hassan, the cook, bursts into tears as she recalls the recent death of her oldest son. She pulls a picture of the dark-haired young man from her sweater and touches his face.
"May God accept him as a martyr. I congratulate you Umm Hassan," says a smiling fighter who has stopped at her house for tea. A crowd of rebels with him echo his words.
But no amount of piety or commitment to the cause can erase her pain. She ignores their encouragement, tears rolling down her wrinkled face, and strokes the picture: "My son, my heart. I'm sorry." (Editing by Giles Elgood)
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