Ahmad, now 24, was a student at the Hotel Management Institute in Damascus just before the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. At the end of his first school year he dropped out to be an opposition activist, then picked up arms as a fighter with the Islamist rebel brigades Liwa al-Tawhid and Ahrar al-Sham. Later, he joined more moderate units of the Free Syrian Army.
After two years on the battlefield he is now returning to civilian life, living in the al-Rahibeh neighborhood of Qalamoun. Here, he shares his journey from peaceful activist to rebel fighter, to his attempt to transition back to “normal” life in the mountains south of Damascus.
At the beginning, I had an overwhelming desire to be part of those building a [new] Syria. I decided to join the protesters and participated in several demonstrations before becoming a member in the coordination committee responsible for organizing demonstrations in the Qalamoun area. We organized protests, distributed flyers that were against the regime, and wrote slogans calling for the toppling of the regime on the school walls and public buildings.
The idea of joining the fight first occurred to me after I was stopped at a checkpoint in the al-Mazraa area in Damascus. I was on my way to a guitar lesson. My ID card was broken, so they beat me up with their sticks and fists. They kept cursing me. After four hours, they let me go. I thought about it for days but decided to stick to my activism and to help provide medical and other forms of aid to displaced families.
One day, a reporter from state television tried to interview me about what was happening in the country and what the “terrorists” are doing, as she called them. I refused to be interviewed, only to have the security officers arrest me meters from where the reporter was standing. They took me to one of their branches but I didn’t know which one because I was blindfolded. They kicked me, hit me with electric rods, stubbed out their cigarettes on my body, and showered me with obscenities.
Several days later they released me, by kicking me out of their [moving] car. For a long time afterwards, I received treatment for my broken shoulder and the burns that were evident on my body. Upon recovery, I decided to join the armed brigades thinking they were the sole solution to stop these monsters.
In the beginning I joined the Liwaa al-Islam brigade, then the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. In the end, I was fighting with the brigades under the Military Council of Qalamoun.
Initially, I wanted to join a brigade with an Islamist orientation because I wanted to be among people who feared God, people who weren’t seeking money or power. I wanted to be among people who were aiming for reform in Syria. I was surprised when I learned the strict rules of the brigade: no smoking, no bad language, anyone who consumes alcohol will be considered an infidel. Lashing was the standard punishment for anyone who broke the rules.
I stayed with the brigade and fought with them on the Yabroud front when the city was under siege. As time passed, the commanders met to decide that we should retreat from one front to another. On one occasion, I spotted two bags full of U.S. dollars in the commanders’ room, and I couldn’t help wondering where the money came from and whether we had been paid off to retreat from Yabroud. Was a group financing us? Was it robbery? I couldn’t remain silent and asked the commanders where they got the money from. Their answer came in a single statement: It is money for Muslims. I felt they resented me for questioning them.
That’s when I decided to join the Military Council [in Qalamoun], which answers to the Free Syrian Army. It’s true I wanted to get away from the radical way of thinking and the harsh treatment, but I truly started to feel they weren’t honorable. I felt they were stealing money from Syrians and considering it “money for Muslims,” and therefore, they believed they had a right to it. I left them and joined one of the brigades run by the Military Council in Qalamoun. The treatment there was nicer and we could speak more freely. We were also able to live our lives normally.
I felt the Military Council’s leadership was hungry for power. They weren’t interested in [improving] the lives of civilians. All they cared about was controlling new areas. They also talked about establishing an Islamic state. I discovered that while the brigade commanders pretended to be under the FSA’s authority, they in fact had Islamic inclinations. I felt I was just a pawn being moved by people’s greed for power and money, while no one cared about Syria and the fact that it had completely disintegrated. Soon, I felt the armed opposition wasn’t very different from the regime: they both sought power. The only solution must be based on discussion and negotiation. That’s why I decided to end my stint as a fighter and return to civilian life.
Most of the guys I met in the brigades were just like me. They wanted to get rid of the Assad regime. They also wanted Syria to be a state where freedom is for all. The problem was with the leadership, the commanders and their orientation. Their Islamic sermons talked of nothing but fighting: of permitting the killing of Syrians who had joined the regime ranks, of how the minorities in Syria would be held accountable for their silence, and that the only salvation is in establishing a just Islamic state. It was as if their sermons were an attempt to brainwash the youth, but only the very young and those with the inclination to accept such [drivel] would be affected by it.
Today, I’m working on refining my musical talent. I sometimes work with youth who help the displaced, the needy and the ill. I realized that helping, not fighting, is the only path for me.
(Edited by Karen Leigh.)