First Lieutenant Darid Barakat sat on a foam mattress on the floor of a schoolhouse, men he once commanded alongside him, and his captors standing in a murky corridor outside.
There were 30 or so men held in the room – in what passes for a prisoner of war facility in a rebel-controlled part of Syria. Barakat and two others, both officers like him, were members of the Alawite sect. Another officer was a Shia, and the rest were all soldiers – and Sunnis – like the rebels now holding them.
The prisoners had been there since late July, not long after a plan by the Free Syrian Army to bring its uprising to the heart of the country’s second city, Aleppo, was put into action by the rebel force in the city of al-Bab. Until that point, the local guerrillas had not fired a shot in 18 months of uprising.
Barakat and some others had worked at the military security office in the heart of al-Bab, 30km north-east of Aleppo. With him in the makeshift jail were captives from the nearby political security building and from all other corners of the regime’s extensive police state.
The battle to take al-Bab had been a rout; the once formidable stretch of state buildings were destroyed and the defeated men who once worked inside were now at the mercy of an enemy whom they had dreaded.
“Of course, I know what happens in these situations,” said Barakat, as he sat cross-legged in the garden of the schoolhouse early last week. “Prisoners were beaten, dissenters were chased and jailed. I thought we were going to get the same treatment.”
The reputation for brutality in Syria’s civil war is growing. While captured soldiers generally are treated better than intelligence officers – or the loathed Shabiha militias – allegations of prisoner abuse are rife on both the regime and rebel side. The execution of the three men who controlled the Shabiha in Aleppo has drawn the same sort of outrage levelled at regime abuses throughout the revolt. At the main rebel base in Aleppo, screams of prisoners being beaten could be heard throughout the night early last week.
“We’ve heard about it,” said one of the al-Bab rebels. “That’s not us.”
Sitting next to Barakat, 35, was his jailer, a local Sunni sheikh, Omar Othman, who commanded the rebel unit in the area, named Katiba al-Ansar. Dressed in an exquisitely embroidered dishdasha and wearing a cast on his lower left leg, Omar asked Barakat whether he and the other men were fearful as the battle drew to a close.
“I swear, sheikh, that the guys were scared for a while,” he replied. “They were scared from all the fighting and they were worried about what would happen.”
The sheikh and his captive – the Sunni rebel leader and the Alawite officer – were getting deeper into conversation. Barakat agreed to let The Observer listen in and asked that his name be used.
“I didn’t expect you to treat us this way,” said Barakat. “You give us food three times a day, Qu’rans, and even cigarettes.”
“You would not have done the same for us,” Omar replied.
“That’s true,” said Barakat. “There was a culture there.”
“It was more than a culture,” Omar replied. “It had become a way of life. Cruelty and oppression were what you guys did by instinct.”
“It wasn’t me,” said Barakat. “It was the system. All I did is order guys to go out and beat people with sticks whenever there was a demonstration. I am not so connected to the regime, it was just a job to me.”
Omar lifted his dishdasha and pointed at his cast. “You guys shot me,” he said, pointing to the top of his left foot, which had been hit by a bullet during the fight for the military security building. “If you were not a big supporter of the regime, why did you work for military security [one of the most feared of Syria’s intelligence agencies]?”
“Sheikh, I had no choice. This was our reality.”
As the battle grinds towards a conclusion in Aleppo, Syria’s warring parties are increasingly being forced to confront some uncomfortable truths. Themes now being openly discussed in scenes like this, as well as in meetings between elders, and even during moments of introspection on the battlefield, include: how did the society slide this far towards the abyss, and can anything be done to rescue it now?
Whether it likes it or not, Syria’s Alawite minority was at the vanguard of the crackdown that followed the first stirrings of popular uprising in March last year, and which has now evolved into civil war. Also undeniable is that the opposition movement and guerrilla force is almost exclusively comprised of Sunnis, some of whom hold a grudge against the Alawites, whom they see as agents of a regime of persecution.
The spectre of of sectarian bloodletting looms as violence escalates nationwide and hopes for resolution continue to appear out of reach.
Yet both the sheikh and the Alawite lieutenant are anxious to dispel talk of longstanding enmity between their sects. The same case for cooperation is being made in political circles, although hardly with a booming voice.
“Do you hate us because we’re Sunnis?” asked Omar.
“No, my sheikh, I swear,” replied Barakat, leaning forward to touch Omar on the knee to press his point. “I don’t hate you at all. The regime created all these hostilities. We had always gotten on as communities.
“Who buried our dead after the fighting, the regime? They were nowhere to be seen. It was your men who dug the graves and gave my men a burial.”
Earlier that day, an old man in white desert robes arrived with a weathered elderly woman from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. They asked to see Omar, then pleaded with him for the release of three of their nephews being held upstairs. The trio, one a former conscript, just 17, and two other hardbitten men in their late 20s, who looked much older, were brought to the courtyard and sat on cushions against the wall.
One of their colleagues had been pardoned the day before. Hopes were high among the three that they would soon also be free. “Our family has never been with the regime,” said the old man. “It was just a job for these boys, and now it is finished. They are very grateful to be treated like this.”
Despite the couple’s 300km journey, Omar decided that freedom could wait for the trio – for now. “It won’t be long,” he said. “But we will let others go first.”
Later, Barakat was animated and expressive. He had heard about the pardon and the family visit and clearly wanted to please his jailer. “You haven’t told us anything yet,” said Omar.
“I’ve told you everything I know,” he replied. “Believe me.”
Throughout the day, Sheikh Omar had been toying with the idea of releasing all the Alawite prisoners and most of the Sunnis over the coming days. He said he did not fear that the location of his base would be given up. “It’s not a secret anyway. They know where we are, and if they don’t all they need is Google Earth.”
He stopped speaking for a minute, cupped his chin in his right hand, then said: “When was the last time you saw your family, your mother and father?”
Barakat looked at his feet and replied: “About two years ago.”
“Would you go back to the army?” the sheikh asked
“No, I swear, I want to finish with the military and with fighting.
“Would you join us?
“I can’t, sheikh. I just want to go home. I’ve had enough.”
By now, Barakat’s eyes were welling with tears. He stared straight ahead, doing all he could to maintain his composure. Then came the question that broke him.
“When was the last time you saw your wife?” Omar asked. Barakat managed the words “five months ago” before grief overcame him. As he sobbed into his hands, a young rebel brought him a glass of water and a napkin.
“You can go and see them,” the sheikh said.
“God bless you all,” Barakat said while wiping his eyes. “100 salaams (peace).”
“Can you take me to my village?” The question evoked laughter from all the five rebels sitting nearby. Barakat’s family home is in the centre of the Alawite heartland, near Latakia on the coast.
“We will take you to the countryside and you can make your way from there,” Omar replied.
“It isn’t always like this elsewhere,” said Omar after Barakat had left. “But they are military men and they must be treated well. We must show that we are better than what they were.
“Hopefully this small step will lead to something more. But I’m not sure.”
This cat was injured when a mortar shrapnel hit its back and as a result the cat became paralyzed
More than 100 animal rights organizations and other humanitarian organizations from all around the world contacted us regarding this cat. In fact, some of them even requested that we send them these cats so they can provide the cats with care and protection. What is shocking is this sudden international effort for the sake of a cat or several cats that were killed as a result of the shelling by Assad thugs, while at the same time not one country was moved to protect the Syrian people who are getting killed on daily basis. They pursued the injured cat’s case, but did not move a finger regarding the 24,000 Syrian martyrs. The life of this The life of this cat is not irrelevant to us, quite the contrary…but it is not more valuable than Syrian blood.
حمص / باب التركمان . 11/8/2012
Homs.Syria / Bab AlTourikman . 11/8/2012
قام بمراسلتنا أكثر من 100 منظمة رعاية للحيوان ومنظمات حقوقية أخرى من مختلف دول العالم من أجل هذه القطة حتى أ…
Bourj el-Barajneh, Beirut
Saturday 11 August 2012
Syria’s tragedy began 10 years before she was born. Her parents were driven from their home in Haifa – in that part of Palestine that became Israel – and fled to Lebanon in 1948, then to Syria in 1982. “God bless his soul, our Dad called me Syria and another sister he called Palestine,” she says, sitting in the corner of a hovel of oven-like heat in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. A fan fights the dust-filled 35C air. Syria’s sister Palestine lives down the same alleyway. Um Hassan, a third sister, listens with narrowed eyes, nodding in agreement, freeze-framed face for most of the time. Both wear black.
Syria – the country – was a welcome place when Syria the refugee arrived there with her young husband as a refugee from the Lebanese civil war. The early Hafez el-Assad years – how quickly the West and Syria’s Arab enemies forget this today – assured homes, equal rights as citizens, employment and free hospital services to the half million Palestinians who lived under the Baathist regime: better conditions than any other Arab nation offered. “The government was ‘strict’ but treated us the same as Syrians,” Syria says. “We were neutral in Syria.”
She started her family – she has five boys and two girls, she says – in the refugee camp at Deraa, the southern Syrian city where the revolution started nearly 18 months ago, when government agents tortured an 11-year-old Syrian boy to death for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall.
“After 1982, they were beautiful years and we had a very nice life,” she says. “We were treated well and with dignity – and my children, they feel they belong to Syria, not to Lebanon where their parents came from. My sons married Syrian women.” She has not yet spoken of her tragedy.
Um Hassan agrees. She is 48, the youngest of the sisters, now the mother of five sons and five daughters. She settled in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar which came under siege by the Christian Tiger militia of Dany Chamoun in 1975.
“My two brothers died in the massacre there the following year,” she says. “Their names were Nimr and Korfazeh.” She speaks without emotion. Nimr, ironically, means “tiger” in Arabic. A tiger killed by a tiger. She and her family moved to Deraa in 1981; her memories are the same as Syria’s. “A secure life; as a Palestinian, everything was available to us, any job opportunity, hospitals were free…” Her smile does not last long.
“Things started to go wrong 18 months ago. We were treated well, but the shooting started in Deraa and we sympathised with the Syrian people. We tried to bring them medical supplies and to help the wounded. Then the armed rebels came to our camp last month and the word went round that the Syrians wanted us Palestinians to leave our homes.
“Some left, some stayed. Then helicopters came and started to bombard the houses. I ran away with my family, so quickly I even left the key in the house and the door unlocked. When I returned briefly, I found the house destroyed and all our furniture and property looted – stolen by the rebels, by the regime, even by our own neighbours.”
Syria has sat through Um Hassan’s account in silence. “The government thought some Palestinians were with the protesters and some were arrested. They took one of my sons to the prison and tortured him for two or three weeks. Then he died from the torture.” There is silence in the room.
So she has four sons out of the five she originally mentioned, I say quietly. “No, I already took him from the total number,” she says. “I have five sons living. I had six sons.” Her surviving children are now living in a school and a mosque in a village outside Deraa. They all have Lebanese identity papers. She came to Beirut to find the documents and take them back to Syria so her sons and daughters can enter Lebanon.
The Palestinians of Syria have been treated well by Lebanon’s border officials, allowed to enter the country after recording their names and ages. Ahmed Mustafa, who collates details of all the Palestinian refugees arriving in Beirut from Syria, says that there are 80 families registered in Bourj el-Barajneh, 70 in the Sabra and Shatila camps – scene of the 1982 massacre by Israel’s Christian militia allies – and 10 in the tiny Mar Elias camp. Three hundred more Palestinian families from Syria have settled in the huge camp at Ein el-Helweh outside Sidon, another 60 in Rashidieh, scarcely 17 miles from the Israeli border.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, says that his country will accept no refugees from Syria. The Palestinians of Syria – there are more than half a million of them – believe that Mr Barak’s comment was directed at them. The homeland of the Palestinians will remain forbidden territory.
Um Khaled arrived from Deraa this week but her tragedy began, of course, 23 years before she was born when her grandfather, a camel-dealer, fled with his family – including her eight-year old father – from the suburb of Tir al-Haifa in what is now Israel’s largest northern city: first to Jordan and then to Egypt, where her grandmother’s family lived. When she died, the family moved to the Damascus suburb of Doumar and then into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. Um Khaled was 17. She now has 10 children – her husband set off for Europe four years ago to find a job. She fled Damascus just four days ago and her story is as instructive as it is tragic.
“I suppose we were sympathetic to the protesters in the streets and we were probably upset that unarmed people were being killed. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command were with the regime, but some of their officers were not. Even some of the Palestine Liberation Army (part of the Syrian armed forces) are not with the regime. Violence began in Yarmouk two weeks ago. PLA men came to protect the camp. Shells landed on the camp – we don’t know who fired them.
“Then Syrian helicopters flew over us and dropped leaflets. They showed a picture of a boy smiling, and the caption said: ‘If you want to keep your son smiling, evacuate the area’.”
Irony again. In 1982, the Israeli air force dropped almost identical leaflets over civilian areas of besieged Beirut which said: “If you value the lives of your loved ones, leave West Beirut.” Did the Syrian authorities learn from the Israelis?
“Syrian tanks then came to Arouba Street and started firing. A neighbour of mine, Maafeq Sayed, was in the Araba area and was hit in the neck by a sniper and died. His mother said the government television claimed he was a terrorist. The government hospital registered him as the victim of a heart attack. The ‘GC’ Palestinians did not shoot back.
“Then came rumours that the Alawi in the Syrian army were going to massacre us. Some women were slaughtered in the Asali area next to the Yarmouk camp. Palestinians came to rescue people trapped in their homes. Then there were more rumours that people had come with knives to slaughter the Alawis.”
On Friday of last week, shells fell across Yarmouk, killing 20 and wounding 54 Palestinians, 18 of whom lost limbs. There were women and children among the victims. Um Khaled sold her family furniture and set off to friends in Beirut, praying that her husband – now an unemployed refugee in the Swedish city of Malmo – might be able to help her. She still insists that life was good before the conflict in Syria. “We had dignity,” she says. “But this is our tragedy.”
ALEPPO, Syria | Wed Aug 8, 2012 5:05am EDT
(Reuters) – Abu Bakr, a Syrian rebel commander on the outskirts of Aleppo, is a devoted Islamist determined to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But the radical allies that have joined the rebels in recent months alarm even him.
“Let me be clear. I am an Islamist, my fighters are Islamists. But there is more than one type of Islamist,” he told Reuters. “These men coming fought in insurgencies like Iraq. They are too extreme, they want to blow up any symbol of the state, even schools.”
Seventeen months into the uprising against Assad, Syria’s rebels are grateful for the support of Islamist fighters from around the region. They bring weapons, money, expertise and determination to the fight.
But some worry that when the battle against Assad is over they may discover their allies – including fighters from the Gulf, Libya, Eastern Europe or as far as the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area – have different aims than most Syrians.
“Our goal is to make a new future, not destroy everything,” Abu Bakr said, sighing as he rattled his prayer beads. “As bloody as it is now, this stage is simple. We all have the same cause: topple the regime. When Bashar falls, we may find a new battlefront against our former allies.”
Abu Bakr and his comrades say they envision Syria as a conservative version of Turkey’s moderate Islamist rule, not an autocratic theocracy. They are unnerved by a recent kidnapping of foreign journalists and attacks on state infrastructure.
Western powers have warily watched the signs of an increasing presence of foreign Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria.
They fear a repeat of the mass sectarian slaughter that followed the American invasion of Iraq. Sunni Islamist suicide bombers affiliated with al Qaeda there are still targeting security forces and Shi’ites in large-scale bomb attacks.
Some fighters who have come to Syria are idealists who believe in jihad, or holy war, for oppressed Muslims, and would probably return home in a post-Assad era. But others are al Qaeda-linked fighters who may want a base in Syria.
Their numbers are still low, but enough to worry countries fearing Iraq-style bloodshed in Syria, a country straddling the lines of most ethnic and regional conflicts in the Middle East.
LOOK FOR THE BOMBS
Abu Bakr, a short man with a long black moustache, says right now there is no choice but to allow foreign fighters. On a summer night, he and his small daughter waved off a truck crammed with rebels heading into Aleppo.
The fighters have brought in rocket propelled grenades and boxes of homemade explosives. And wherever you find improvised bombs, you’re likely to find foreign fighters, says a rebel called Mohammed in another local unit.
“They brought a lot of bomb making experience from the insurgency in Iraq. With their help, our bombs have 3-7 kilometer detonation range. Now, we can even set them off by mobile phone,” said Mohammed, who still walks with a slight limp from a freshly healed wound.
He was shot when his unit planted bombs near an airforce base. Like other fighters interviewed by Reuters, he denied that he had worked with radicals from abroad.
In some Aleppo neighborhoods hit by heavy army shelling over the past week, there were signs that foreign fighters appeared to be present among rebels.
Some men crouching among gutted buildings wore shalwar kameez, the loose trousers and shirts worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan but uncommon in Syria. They had long beards cleanly cut along their jaw line, a style associated with Salafism, an austere Sunni school which seeks to replicate life in the age of the Prophet Mohamed. As soon as journalists approached, the men vanished into buildings.
Not all rebel groups work with foreigners, and not all Syrian rebels work well with each other. In Aleppo for example, the largest group is the 2,000 strong Tawheed Brigade. It says it accepts foreign fighters, but only if they play by its rules.
“There are some really extremist battalions that don’t cooperate well with us. They stay on their own,” said a fighter from the Tawheed brigade.
“We’re trying to fold jihadis into our group so they back off their more aggressive tactics. That doesn’t mean we aren’t nervous. They could still turn and rebel against us,” he said.
The Tawheed brigade’s leaders, none of whom were military officers, are trying to keep the battle in Aleppo more organized than previous campaigns. Commander Abdulqader Salheen says they aim to divide the city into nine administrative districts and set up leaders for each area to streamline communication.
But there are several other brigades and dozens of independent battalions working independently, and fights are common. The Tawheed brigade’s advances in unifying the three-week-old battle for Aleppo began to fall apart when smaller groups complained they were not getting a fair share of the weapons spoils from ransacked police stations.
Some units have even withdrawn back to the countryside over disputes. Tempers are short and everyone has lost siblings, cousins and friends. Most fighters are young, anywhere from 15 to 28 years old, and they are grappling with one of the bloodiest conflicts in the region. Confusion reigns.
At an abandoned military site held by rebels in Aleppo, one young fighter with a scuffed up kalashnikov drew a blank when asked what unit he was in. He consulted a comrade, who told him they were part of a newly formed “Victory Battalion”.
One of the most effective and elusive groups in Aleppo now sending reinforcements into Damascus is called Ahrar al-Sham, “The Free Men of Syria.” Its fighters accept the bulk of jihadist foreign fighters in Idlib and Aleppo, rebels say.
“They’re extremely effective and secretive. They coordinate with us to attack the regime but they don’t take orders from anyone. They get weapons and explosives smuggled from abroad that are much better,” said a rebel in Aleppo called Anwar.
Other groups are amateurs working alone, and it shows.
When the army fires its helicopter gunships and mortars on them, they crouch in an alley while dust and concrete rains down on them. They peek over their rifles or grenade launchers, and fire randomly.
It’s little surprise then that battle-hardened fighters from abroad, with wads of cash from the Gulf, appeal to rebels. One opposition activist said that groups like Ahrar al-Sham get money from Gulf Islamists in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“In a period of several months when I was checking, they sent about 3 million Kuwaiti dinars ($10.6 million) to hardliners like them,” he said, requesting anonymity.
At a hotel in one Turkish border town, men in short white robes and Salafi beards whisper in the lobby as the reception desk sorts a stack of Saudi and Kuwaiti passports.
“We’re getting so many guests from the Gulf now, and Islamists from Europe too. Sometimes groups as big as 25 people. And if they get chatty they tell me all about the money they’re sending in. One guy told me he alone brought more than $100,000,” said a hotel employee who also asked not to be named.
Given their willingness to put their money and their lives on the line, foreign radicals and the ideas they represent could have a growing influence.
The concrete alleyways of rebel-held areas are now littered with graffiti slogans such as “Hey apostate regime, the Islamic Syria is coming,” or “The people demand (Islamic) Sharia law”.
But most rebels don’t have clear answers for what they mean when they say they are Islamist or want an Islamic state.
“We want to build a state where our citizens are equal, Muslims and minorities,” said the young rebel Anwar, as he watched an Islamic TV station from a safe house in Aleppo.
“We want to be able to choose our own future, not have it be determined by poverty or our religion.”
The fighters from Syria are mostly poor, uneducated young men from rural areas. Decades of repressed anger have helped shape their ideas. Most say that as members of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, their families were harassed and discriminated against by security forces.
Elite members of President Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, hold most of the power in the security forces and government. The Assad family brutally crushed an Islamist Sunni uprising in the 1980s. Tens of thousands were massacred in the city of Hama.
“My brother was tortured and arrested for a year in 2008 for criticizing the regime in a cafe. I had neighbors interrogated for growing a beard and going to prayers more often,” says Anwar, who comes from a tiny farming and smuggling town on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Like most rebels, Anwar and his friends have grown long dark beards, which they see as a defiant fashion statement.
“We could never grow them before the uprising. This is the tough rebel look,” laughs one of his friends.
Commander Abu Bakr says that while he objects to the severe radical approach, he too hopes for an Islamic state.
“Let’s first get rid of the regime, re-establish stability, have national dialogue, and then gradually try to create the Islamic state and give people time to get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t want to immediately impose Sharia law and start cutting off people’s hands for stealing. I believe in Sharia. But if we force it on people, we will create fear. We have to assure minorities we will treat them well.”
Rebel fighters are exhausted and can’t afford to take on new opponents, said fighters from northern Idlib, in a convoy heading to the battle in neighboring Aleppo. Amr, a 20-year-old rebel, said his comrades had their hands full trying to topple the government and maintain order in areas they control.
“We already are fighting the regime and now we’re fighting crime. We just don’t have time to deal with these extremists,” he sighed. “But don’t worry, their day will come.”
(Editing by Peter Graff)