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Al-Dunia, a pro-government television channel, broadcast a video of al-Hilali carrying water spray to try and cool off demonstrators in the heat of the summer in 2012. They said he was adding narcotic substances to the water to make the people demonstrate without control of their own behavior.
The publicity earned him the nickname the “Freedom Pesticide,” after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad referred to demonstrators as “germs.”
Al-Hilali is well known among activists in Qamishli, a majority-Kurdish city in Syria’s north. He worked as a painter until moving to Saudi Arabia in 2005. In 2008, he returned to Syria.
In March 2011, at the start of the conflict, Hilali called for peaceful demonstrations in Qamishli. Eventually, he bought water spray and started splashing demonstrators with it to ward off heat. Syrian authorities then accused him of adding drugs to the water to make people demonstrate against their will, leading to his detention, for 15 days, by the military security branch in Hassakeh province.
Following his release, he went back to spraying water over the demonstrators. He was arrested twice more by September. got arrested, again, by the riot police for 10 days at the end of July, and once more in September for one and a half months.
From Water Spray to Banners
By the time he was released the third time, summer was over so there was no need to use water spray. Al-Hilali began drawing banners for demonstrators. Following a government assault on Homs, he built a small statue of the city’s famous clock. Al-Dunia published his picture again, saying that the demonstrations in which he participated were taking place in Qatar, not Syria.
Al-Hilali then moved slightly below the radar, dedicating time to local councils and civil administration trainings in Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh.
In August 2012, he was en route to a workshop in Turkey when he stepped on a land mine on the border, allegedly planted 30 years ago by the Turkish government. He was in the hospital for the next two months.
From Activist to Fighter
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After Hilali recovered, he changed tactics. He left his wife and two daughters in Qamishli and went to join the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and Idlib. He was injured in the Idlib countryside before joining a new brigade in the Kurdish-majority city of Ras al-Ayn.
At that point, Syrian-Kurdish television channels accused him of allying with extremists, and claimed that he helped extremists enter Kurdish areas. He was declared a traitor and sentenced to death by Kurdish leaders.
He was prevented from entering Qamishli and forced to stay in Ras al-Ayn until July 2013. For more than a year, he could not see his wife and daughters. He said that his family was forced to disown him and sign a petition for the PYD, Syria’s PKK-allied Kurdish militant group, asking to kill him without a trial.
From Regime to ISIS
Al-Hilali eventually fled the Kurdish northeast for the opposition-held province of Raqqa. There, he was arrested by the al-Qaida affiliated ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) for being both Kurdish and secular.
For 40 days he was tortured. “In prison, you do not have a name,” he said. “They give you a number and you get called by it to your interrogation.” His number was 73. “When I was in the regime prisons, I was not treated as badly as this,” he said. “Yes, they broke my leg once, but it was not as bad as this. At least I was not whipped.”
After his release, he “went to Yaroubiyeh, on the border with Iraq. I stayed there for one month and then went back to Tal al-Abyad, where ISIS arrested me again, confiscated all my belongings and tortured me without charges.”
But al-Hilali says his winding journey, from FSA fighter to ISIS prisoner, is no different than the struggles of most Syrian civilians.
“I spoke out loud without fear against a regime that met us with fire and killing,” he said. “They forced us to carry our weapons and kill them. I tried to come back to my area to free it, and I was declared a traitor and sentenced to death. They even published my pictures to make everyone hate me.
“When I went to a ‘liberated’ area, I was arrested by ISIS, tortured and humiliated. In Syria now, we have more than just the opposition and the regime. On one side, we have the regime, supported by Russia, Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. On the other side, there are the FSA, armed groups, Islamist extremists, and al-Qaida. All of that is making the war go on and on, increasing the number of martyrs, injured, displaced and missing people.”