HOMS, Syria: At 40 years of age, Abir Ramadan joined the all-female unit of Syria's new paramilitary force, pledging loyalty to Bashar al-Assad in the armed struggle against those seeking to topple the president.
Dressed in camouflage, she marches at a stadium in the central city of Homs, raising her fist and chanting "Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa bas" (God, Syria, Bashar -- that's it), the rallying cry of the embattled leader's supporters.
The stadium's entrances are guarded by women armed with Kalashnikovs, while others search cars at a checkpoint. They present themselves as "fedayat", which in Arabic literally means those who sacrifice themselves for a cause.
"My husband encouraged me to get involved and I liked the idea. I introduced myself to the recruitment centre and was easily accepted," explains the "fedaya" Abir, who has kept her day job as a technician in a radiology laboratory.
"Before I did not know how to handle a gun and I did not dare stay at home alone for fear of being attacked. I wanted to learn and to help. I volunteered because my country is suffering," she says.
The first women's unit of the National Defence Forces in Syria, founded in the central city of Homs, has 450 fighters from 18 to 50 years of age.
Nada Jahjah, a retired commander who oversees the training, says Homs was chosen "due to the tragic circumstances experienced by the city".
"This is not a normal war, it looks nothing like the October (1973 war against Israel). It is not the enemy we knew. This time the enemy is from our family, our neighbours and neighbouring countries supplying arms and spreading fundamentalist thinking. They kill and slay Syrians. This is a savage war," she says.
Since the outbreak of peaceful anti-regime protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have dismissed the revolt as a foreign-funded conspiracy and referred to opposition activists and armed rebels alike as Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists.
The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP the regime has created a paramilitary force to supplement the army in its fight against the rebels.
Dubbed the "capital of the revolution" by the opposition, Homs has been at the forefront of the uprising.
It was the first to pay dearly when Assad's war machine unleashed its firepower on rebel-held areas, retaking a large part of the city.
This industrial heartland is also a diverse centre of 1.5 million people, Sunnis, Christians and Alawites, whose sectarian fault lines have become entrenched with time.
In this charged environment, none of the combattants revealed where she lives, because pro- and anti-regime fighters use captives' ID cards to figure out their sectarian identities.
Sunnis, who represent 80 percent of the population, largely support the revolt, while 10 percent of the population are Alawites like President Assad, and the Christians at five percent mostly back the regime.
"The training includes shooting Kalashnikovs, machineguns, handling grenades, attacking opposition checkpoints, controlling our checkpoints, conducting raids and courses on military tactics," says commander Jahjah.
The force is voluntary and the fedayat serve four-hour shifts in the morning from or in the afternoon to permit the women to carry on with their normal profession.
Etidal Hamad, a 34-year-old government employee and mother of three girls, says while her husband also encouraged her, her primary motivation to sign up three months ago was "a desire to support the army and defend the fatherland".
In the stadium parade that marks the end of the training, the women shout at the top of their lungs: "With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar!"