The rebels keeping watch were momentarily confused, then concluded that he had defected from a nearby army checkpoint.
New front lines were drawn in this town when regime troops pushed into the south of Aleppo province earlier this year. Defections remain frequent, usually during battle or through a prior arrangement between the soldier and a local FSA brigade.
At the checkpoint, FSA fighters pointed their guns at the young soldier, who raised his arms in the air. As he inched closer, he threw himself on the ground. “Kill me if you want, but feed me first,” he begged.
The fighters were convinced he was harmless, and they gave him some water and leftovers. He was thin, with a sallow face and tattered clothes. They said he looked too young to be in military service. From his accent, they deduced that he was from Damascus province. His name was Mahmoud.
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“I’m from Daraya. I used to lacquer furniture. I left with my parents before the army stormed the city,” he said, “but they arrested me at a checkpoint in Kfar Sousa.” He said he was then forced into the Syrian army.
Every defector has a different story, as every province, town or military barracks has its own situation. Some are living in normal conditions with open supply lines. But for those who were besieged by rebels, like Mahmoud, food is hard to come by. He said meals are served once or twice a week, with the food arriving by helicopter or plane. Without regular supplies, he and other soldiers depended on grapes, figs and unripened pistachios from nearby orchards.
In August 2012, the army launched a five-day assault on the southwest suburb of Daraya. Activists said it left hundreds of residents killed, including children, and included shelling, house-to-house raids and executions. It was the biggest reported Syrian massacre of last year.
Ironically, Mahmoud became part of the army that destroyed his hometown and forced his family to flee. He said there were many more like him, wanting to defect, but that it was not an easy feat.
He asked the fighters if he could call his parents. He tried the few numbers he could still remember, but reached no one.
Mahmoud said that men detained at regime checkpoints or during home raids were given a quick 20-day training course before being assigned to man checkpoints or fight on the front lines. There, they operated under the supervision of senior soldiers known for their unshakable loyalty to the regime.
Fear, he said, was the single most important factor that prevented soldiers, especially new recruits, from defecting.
“How do you expect us to fire at the [regime] without hurting guys like you?” one of the FSA fighters asked. “How are we supposed to know the difference?”
<i style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”><em>This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.</em></i>
<i style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”>Sari Youssef is the pseudonym for a Syrian journalist in Aleppo province who contributes to Syria Deeply in partnership with the Hivos Foundation.</i>