Day 44: The insurgent – Part 1

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A friend told me about a paraplegic Syrian who had found accommodation at a residential home for theelderly and probably needed some support. Together with a helper, who is a friend of mine, I got on the way to Erding to see him and find out how we could help him. Even though he seems to be coping relatively well at the residential home, it was obvious that he was suffering from the isolation and was very glad to see us. He told us a lot about the circumstances that took him to Germany and how his injury had come about. We stayed for more than two hours with him and listened with curiosity, sometimes shock and mainly with grief to his stories. I told him about my blog and suggested to write down his story. He seemed to be pleased with the opportunity and I promised to come by during Ramadan and to bring the food.

On Wednesday, June 8, 2016, I set out to meet him after work. Prior to this, I bought some dates, pickled vegetables, hummus and Baba Ghannouch for a change from the otherwise for him so unfamiliar German food.

When I arrived there, one and a half hours were left until the breaking of the fast and so he began immediately to tell me his story. It was to be the most detailed and unsparing account of the life in Syria before and during the revolution I had heard so far.

***

In former Syria

I was born in 1983 in the Governorate of Idlib, in the town of Jisr ash-Shughur. I am the eldest of my siblings and son of a relatively poor family. Even as a child, I had to take care of the maintenance of my family, and so it happened that I travelled to Lebanon at the age of 14 to work there as a garbage man for some time.

At the age of 19, I was recruited to the army and completed my mandatory two and a half years of military service in Damascus. Since I was the eldest son and main breadwinner, my family followed me and left my hometown.
After finishing military service, I decided to stay in Damascus, and resolved to open a small shop. Therefore, I started to look for a store and found one in a quarter that was predominantly inhabited by Syrian Kurds. I agreed upon a price with the owner and we arranged for me to come there the next day to pay the money and sign the contract with his father.

The next day I went to the agreed meeting place and waited there for the owner with the equivalent of $ 750 in my pocket. On the other side of the street, there was a mosque and it was just prayer time. When the prayer was finished, the people left the mosque and spread in all directions. A somewhat older man came up to me and said, „Follow me!“
I assumed that he was the father and followed him without any worries, even more so since we went in the direction of the store. But to my surprise, the man walked past the store. Astonished, I asked „Where are you going? Won’t we have a look at the store?“

The old man just said, „Wait and follow me.“

Since I had no choice, I did what he said.

After a while we reached a narrow alley. He stopped in front of a house and knocked hard on the door, which opened shortly thereafter. A woman – a little younger than the man – looked outside. Beside her, there was a boy I assumed to be her son.

„Was it him?“ he asked the woman in a stern voice, pointing to me. The woman said nothing.

„Speak up! Was it him?“ he asked again, this time raising his voice, but the woman remained silent.

„Say that it was him or I’ll give you and your son a good thrashing, wife“, he yelled at her this time.

„Yes, it was him“, the woman said weeping and shut the door without saying another word.

I stood paralyzed beside the man and did not understand what was happening. When the door closed, I felt a violent blow on the back of my head. Before I could see where the blow came from, a group of men gathered around me. They battered me.

After a while, they let go and took me to the nearest police station.

„He burgled my home last night and stole $ 1,000. My wife has identified him“, said the old man.
At these words, I understood what was happening. I had blundered into a trap. It was a put-up job between the old man and his alleged son. I was never meant to get the store. They were only after the money.

The policeman searched me and found the 750 dollars that I had with me. He gave the old man the money and locked me into a prison cell.

Torture

Two days later I was taken to the Jinayat prison. This prison has three underground storeys. There, they use all kinds of torture so as to force the inmates to make confessions. It was a horror. Sometimes they undressed me completely, tied my arms and legs and plunged me into a tub, which was filled with ice-cold water. Another time, they hung me up by the legs, so that my head and shoulders still touched the ground. They then battered me with a thick stick or scratched the soles of my feet with an iron comb until they began to bleed. I had to go into a half-standing, half-crouching position, and then they beat my knees with a stick, until my legs were no longer able to carry me. For more than twenty days they subjected me to this torture to make me I confess that I had broken into the man’s house.
I did not confess and came free on the 22nd day without trial. However, I had to pay a bribe in the amount of approximately $ 11,000. To get the money, my father sold a part of our land in Jisr ash-Shughur to a cousin.

Tailor shop

In the following years, I underwent vocational training as a tailor and worked as such in Damascus. I mainly tailored suits from A to Z. My specialty, however, was ironing. Ironing may sound unspectacular, but in suit tailoring it is an art in itself.

It was a good time and I earned decent money. Especially during Ramadan, this work paid off. Sometimes, I worked day and night and did not leave my work for a whole week. While I earned the equivalent of $ 900 in normal months, it was over 2,000 in Ramadan.

But times changed when the Iraq war broke out and many Iraqis fled to Syria. They offered their labor at low rates and because they had no rights, they were exploited. This exploitation hit us Syrians likewise since it caused the wages to dwindle more and more. Whereas a Syrian worked for eight hours, the Iraqi worked for twelve, yet earned a third less, even though he delivered qualitatively equivalent work. Eventually, tailoring was no longer profitable and I decided in 2005 to return to Jisr ash-Shughur with my family.

The project

In Jisr ash-Shughur we had a piece of land. I began to cultivate it. I planted vegetables and looked after the few olive trees growing on it. At that time, there was a government incentive program to encourage entrepreneurship. After much consideration, I resolved to set up a small dairy farm. I applied for the medium funding program which consisted of a loan in three tranches covering around 60,000 dollars.
To get the money, I filed an application, which was accepted in the first instance. Thereupon, they sent me four assessors who should check whether the land was suitable for my project. After seeing everything, they told me literally: „Bribe us and your application will be acknowledged, otherwise you can forget about the project.“
The approval by these assessors cost me the equivalent of $ 1,000 and I was promised the equivalent of $ 22,000. I began with the construction and had the foundations cast. But suddenly another group of assessors came and refused my application. After long negotiations, I had to bribe this group, too. They were content with $ 2,500 and approved my application. With the permission, I went to the treasurer who should pay out the money. He then retained another 15% of the sum as bribe money for himself.

Assessors and treasurer are actually officials; actually they are not entitled to anything like this. They do not receive any commission or the like either. But this is our country. They avail themselves of the people’s money, while the regime is turning a blind eye.

In the end, I had lost 40% of the loan amount in advance for bribes.

So I had the pillars cast and the ceiling filled up. And again, assessors who were to judge the progress of the project were sent to me before I was to receive the second part of the loan. This time, it was a group of nine men. After everything had been viewed, they demanded of me that I invite them to a restaurant. The banquet cost me $ 1,000. In addition, I should bribe each of them with 1,000 dollars. This time I did not pay. I told them that I would get in touch with them and went home to make calculations. I realized that I was no longer able to handle the whole project and that I got deeper into debt with every further day. So I dropped everything and found me another way to feed my family and repay my debts incurred.

I had relatives who lived in Turkey near the Syrian border. I bought cows and animals in Syria and smuggled them across the border to Turkey, where my relatives sold them. From Turkey, I mostly brought cigarettes back to Syria. I became a smuggler and remained one for a full five years. During this time, I made good money. I was able to repay my debts, got married and was planning to buy a car in order to work as a taxi driver. But then things happened…

The beginnings

In early 2011, we received reports about children, who, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, had written the following onto the school wall: „The regime must fall.“

Of course, the kids did not know what this phrase means and what consequences it might have. One could just have ignored the whole thing, but the children were arrested. They stayed in custody for several days and were released with torn-out fingernails and in a terrible state. One of the children was handed over to his parents as a lifeless body.
The sight tore me up inside. It was unbearable.

Weeks later, we received a second, worse report from Baniyas. There, a group of about 50 women and children were walking past a roadblock, when members of the security apparatus opened fire on them. Only one woman survived the massacre seriously injured. This time I said to my father: „I’m going to buy myself a gun and hide it. Who knows what will happen to us. We need to be able to defend ourselves.“ And even though my father was against it, I resolved firmly to buy a gun. But before I did so, several weeks passed.

At this time, more and more young men went onto the streets in protest in Jisr ash-Shughur. They demanded job opportunities and that the governor be dismissed. Nobody demanded the fall of the regime or even less, the dismissal of Bashar Al-Assad. The demonstrations were repeatedly attacked by the security guards and groups of thugs of the regime, the so-called Shabiha. The number of demonstrators, however, increased daily. Eventually, even I began to participate regularly in the demonstrations. During the week, there was a demonstration every evening and on Friday, after the Friday prayers.

The protesters were attacked repeatedly and even after the demonstrations, individual participants were caught and imprisoned. The whereabouts of some of them are still unknown to the present day.
We set up road blocks and guarded these mainly at night, to keep the groups of thugs away from our homes and families. Many of the young men at the barriers were armed with hunting rifles.

Report from Baniyas

At that time, I was still pursuing my smuggler’s activities by night. A man came to me. He wanted to cross the border illegally with his family and leave Syria as soon as possible. I promised to help him with his plan and asked him to hold himself in readiness. Before we parted, he took me aside and asked me: „Brother, I would like to explain my situation to you so that you know what drives me. When the demos went off here in Baniyas, I was arrested. They retained me for several months and tortured me. Then a prison officer came to my wife and told her that if she wanted to ever see me again, they should pick me up with our three daughters. It was of course clear to her what he wanted, so she hesitated several weeks. Then, when she had lost all hope and was desperate, she gave in to his will. They hung me up on my arms in a room and brought my wife and daughters into the room. There, they were raped in front of me and by several prison guards. Then they released me. And as soon as we could, we took to flight. Brother, please have mercy on us. We need to get out of here.“ His report shocked me deeply. His daughters seemed traumatized and absent-minded. The youngest was eleven years old.

Al-Mastouma

A few days later, when we were at a demonstration, a few men came and reported that the village of Al-Mastouma was besieged by the regime and randomly shot at to force three men to surrender. We decided to intervene. Anyone who had a gun took it with him, and we got on our way to distract them from the village and to disturb the siege. We were a very large group. Only very few already possessed a weapon and these were mostly hunting rifles. So we went off and had no idea what awaited us there.

As we approached the village, we could still hear the explosions of the artillery. Then we saw about 30 cars driving towards us at high speed. We suspected that they were armed Shabiha who wanted to attack us. Therefore we spread in the olive groves that lined the roadside and waited until the vehicles approached. We wanted to be no easy target for them.

However, our assumption was not confirmed. There were no armed regime supporters in the vehicles, but two or three seriously injured people from the village. Some were dying. We asked them about what was happening in the village. They told us that after the three men had surrendered to the regime, the members of the security apparatus had nevertheless attacked the village. They went from door to door and shot indiscriminately at people in every house. The village was massacred and half of the former 1,000 residents were killed. The other half either fled or stayed behind severely injured.

Although some smaller skirmishes between us and the regime took place, we were unable to achieve anything. So we set off for Ariha. Ariha is a small town nearby, from which most of the attackers of Al-Mastouma had come. There, we attacked several police stations and destroyed them. During this attack, we were able to seize about 40 Kalashnikovs. In addition, we found 700 hunting rifles, which had been confiscated by the regime in the houses shortly before. With respect to ammunition, our loot was somewhat scantier, as we found just some 2,500 shots.

From then on, more and more people armed themselves, and every day we got out into the streets to demonstrate.

The sugar factory

My smuggler activity always took place at night. During the day I often worked as a day laborer in a sugar factory. One day when I worked shift there, a group of 20 members of the Syrian security apparatus came and had one of my colleagues called to them. The colleague was about fifty years old and had two sons, who participated in demonstrations regularly. They questioned him about his family in the control room of the factory and finally demanded that he should bring his family. Apart from the sons, he had three daughters, who shortly afterwards appeared in the factory and were brought to the control room. The control room consisted of a large glass front and rose several meters above the ground, so that the employees could watch everything that happened in the room. The men began to grope the daughters, undressed them, and ordered them to dance before finally repeatedly raping them in front of the entire crew. The whole thing went on for two or three hours.

I felt like I would explode. But I could not do anything but look at the floor. What would I or the other employees have been able to do against about 20 heavily armed men? To boot, there was a small military base with about 250 soldiers next to the factory. We were powerless. It was a feeling of absolute injustice, oppression and humiliation. What had these girls done to deserve this? They had nothing to do with the entire thing.

The incident drove me mad. The next day, I quit my job in the factory and together with other men made every effort to organize the defense of the city. I rented an apartment in a small village at the border with Turkey and brought all the women and children of the family there.

We men stayed behind and created roadblocks. At night, we watched the neighborhood and during the day, we slept. I mostly also cooked for the men in the daytime.

The funeral

On a Saturday – it was nine o‘ clock in the morning – someone pounded at my door. For a moment I thought, it was people from the regime, but it was just my cousin.

„You have to come into the city today. Last night a car drove past one of our roadblocks and shot at the boys. Four were hit, one has died, and the others are seriously injured. This afternoon, there is the funeral. After that, there will be a large demonstration.“

The funeral was the biggest crowd I had seen since the beginning of the incidents. Tens of thousands of people had gathered to accompany the fallen man to his final resting place after the funeral prayers. The crowds moved slowly through the streets, crossed a large old bridge to get to the other side of the Orontes (Nahr al-‚Asi) to the cemetery.
A larger number of young men and I were armed on that day to protect the crowds from the Shabiha and the regime’s henchmen. Out of respect for the dead and the funeral, we did not cross the bridge, but gathered in a small park in front of it. The park was just before the bridge and was surrounded by several tall buildings.

While we were waiting there, we heard loud pounding against a door. I tried to find out what was going on. I quickly learned that some men were trying to break into the post office to steal the computers they had there. A dispute arose because I had not come to support such actions. Finally, the men from my family, brothers and cousins and I, decided to withdraw and to leave the park.

Just at the moment when we wanted to get on our way, I heard a first shot. Then all hell broke loose. They shot at us from the roofs and windows. The regime knew of the funeral. They had prepared and set up a trap there.
All around me bullets were hitting. The floor looked as if it were boiling.  Right in front of my eyes a friend, with whom I had just been speaking, was hit by a cartridge, splitting his head. I saw another man trying to secure an injured person when he was struck himself in the chest by several bullets. Then I saw a man who was hit in his mouth, by which his jaw was shattered completely. The cartridges did not merely perforate the bodies, but seemed to explode causing even more damage every time. The whole park was full of blood.

I immediately threw myself onto the ground and entrenched myself behind a stone bench, which happened to be close by. From this position, I tried to make out the shooters. I discovered a sniper at a window, so I aimed my gun at the window and then blew up one by one all the windows of the building.

The rifle I had was new and was difficult to load. So I sat down to be able to apply more force. At that moment, I felt something cold on my neck. With my hand I felt blood on that spot and assumed that it was a slight grazing shot. But before I could lie down again, I felt something that penetrated deep into my shoulder. I was paralyzed, my body became limp and my rifle immediately fell out of my hand. I thought I would die. Almost simultaneously I felt how my body was shaken when something exploded in my chest. My head felt as big as if it had expanded to the size of the park. I looked at my shoulder and saw the blood spurting in a thin stream, like a fountain, one meter high. From my mouth and nose blood was flowing. I thought I would choke on it. I wanted to scream, but brought forth no sound. Then everything went white before my eyes and I saw only dimly what was happening around me. Somehow I recognized my brother. With my last strength I raised my arm and called his name. At this moment a third bullet hit me and pierced my forearm. I had no strength anymore and I fell face forward to the ground.

I cannot tell how long I lay there, unable to move. I heard voices calling that I had died. Others said, „No, he’s still alive.“

Then some young men approached, while others fired at the surrounding buildings to cover the first. They tied a sling around one on my legs and then pulled me gradually out of the firing line. Then they sat me into a car and drove off.

After about a hundred meters I lost consciousness.

***

Meanwhile it was one o’clock in the night. We had interrupted the story only for a short time in order to eat together. While he was recounting, you could see every now and then how the experience moved him again and again. For many long years, he had not spoken about many things. But in his head he had gone through everything over and over again. I promised him to come back and to support him with official errands and hospital appointments. We agreed to continue with his story on another day.

When I wrote this text, I often wondered about its truth, because much of it seemed to be so utterly extreme that it was sometimes hard for me to believe him. So I spent hours trying to find out about the events in the year 2011. I searched for the names of the villages and the cities, which he had mentioned in connection with the events of which he told me. I came across several videos, confirming most of them.

Continue with part 2

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