Monday, February 22, 2016

A Syrian Loyalist Convulsed With Fear

"I saw ten Daesh fighters with their horrible faces, one holding the sword. They beheaded him in front of my eyes."
Local Syrian woman, Palmyra

"He kept calling all the way from the bus, 'We're going to die', repeating those words. I told him to give the driver any excuse, like he wants to buy cigarettes, and then run away, but he never listened to me."
Syrian military officer

"Please, tell me the latest news. We don't have TV here, no electricity, I'm living in exile. I'm dead, dead."
"If I die, would  you say, God bless his soul'?"
"One shouldn't turn against his government whatever they do. There's nothing called 'with' or 'against Bashar. There's something called patriotism, nationalism, loyalty -- something called 'we are Syrians and we should defend our nation'. You are either with the state or with the terrorist groups."
"I'm not a coward, but I'm a human being who sometimes gets scared. Am I right?"
"I'm committing suicide. I'm walking on my feet toward death, but I can't do anything. Don't ask me what time I'm leaving; I hate this question I wish I wouldn't wake up tomorrow."
"Precious, don't be sad for me. We are from God and to God we return."
Abu al-Majd, Syrian soldier
Palmyra, Syria, in March 2014, before it fell to the Islamic State. The city is where Times reporters met Abu al-Majd, a Syrian officer, in April 2014 — and where witnesses said Islamic State beheaded him last year. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
He was a Palestinian Syrian, living in southern Damascus. He was the son of a retired low-ranking army officer, a regime loyalist, and so he too was a regime loyalist. He was part of a police unit before joining the military, but that was before the civil war began. As a police officer he focused on drug dealers and prostitutes. As a military man he was deployed to front-line checkpoints. He was sent on patrol to check for front-line activity by insurgents east of Homs, around Palmyra.

Whenever he got the chance, when he had leave, he returned home to the cosmopolitan vibe of Damascus. There he saw troops stationed in the capital. They were able to go out on the town, drink, have dates, "as if they are in Europe", he thought with envy. Why not him? Posted later near the Shaer gas field, Islamic State attacked the post killing several of his friends. He was himself surrounded by militants, where his group awaited reinforcements.

A year ago he got into a fist fight with aid workers in Damascus. He saw that they were hoarding, at the very least, misdirecting food rations. "They're giving two families one portion. Not only that, they are saying dirty words to people, as if the civilians are beggars", he raged stung by the unfairness of it all. Little wonder his frustrations went to the boiling point, leading him to be physically violent with the aid workers, who likely wondered what his problem was.

When Islamic State reached the edge of Palmyra, he was on leave in Damascus, and his mother, knowing her son would soon be moved there, hid his ID card. He could have asked for a transfer, but decided  he wouldn't. Soon enough he heard that his unit was being sent to Palmyra, and he was fearful, hardly knew how to react, and then, didn't. A friend posted something on Facebook he really thought hit the nail on the head: "O God, homeland, your heroes are living in graves, and your thieves are in castles."

Abu al-Majd and his unit ended up in Palmyra. Western reporters who had befriended him and with whom he had corresponded by email wanted to know the details of what had happened to him after having heard from his family that the military had notified them that their son was officially missing and presumed dead. Accordingly, the family went into mourning, and received sympathetic visitors to traditionally support them in their mourning process.

And the journalists did a little bit of information-digging. They contacted two police officers who said they'd seen him  in  Palmyra, wounded. They recounted that 60 officers and soldiers had boarded unarmoured buses to take them to Palmyra. They wore flak jackets, but had no weapons with them.  They reported that their friend, Abu al-Majd had been terrified. The men were dropped off at the military airport located on Palmyra's outskirts. An attack took place that night and many of them were killed, while others fled.

Abu al-Majd took refuge in the home of a family known to him. He called home to Damascus from a land line, asking that a car be sent for him. His father responded by telling him not to surrender, while his uncle referred him to a reading of the Koran. He knew the Islamic State had threatened to kill anyone harbouring a government fighter, so he decided he could no longer risk his friends' lives, and left their home.

Out on the street, he heard the call to prayer. And knowing that the Islamic State requires everyone to attend prayers, he entered a mosque, where a fighter approached him asking if he was with the police. "He said, 'Yes, I'm here and I'm praying and I didn't do anything'", a Palmyra resident who had witnessed the incident reported. The response from the fighter was "Now, you remembered to repent?"

Outside the mosque he was arrested. His body lay in the street for days.

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