A Syrian Soldier on Being Arrested for Refusing to Shoot Civilians
A former Syrian soldier describes the awful reality of the Assad regime’s war to Andrew Slater.
The following is the second part of an interview conducted with a former Syrian army sergeant, “Heen,” whose name and identifying details have been altered to protect his identity. The interview, which has been edited for length and to preserve the voice of Heen, is a testimony to the evolution of events in Syria. Click here to read the first part of the interview where Heen describes his unit's role in Dara'a, where the protests started and the war began, and the events that led to his arrest.
In this final part, Heen describes his arrest and imprisonment for disobeying orders to shoot at civilians and his eventual flight to Iraq, where he settled in a refugee camp.
They arrested me in November. It was a Friday and we saw a group of 30 men come out of a mosque and some of them had pistols. When the order to fire came, I told my five guys I trusted to shoot over them. The captain was there at the time and saw that they were doing this. Later that day, my five soldiers were arrested and taken away. We were not told why. They were tortured in prison for three days, and one of them eventually confessed that I had told them not to shoot people. Then they arrested me.
I knew the mukhabarat prison where they took me; I had been there before. I knew exactly what kind of men worked there. It was a squat building with two floors above ground and two below and the grounds surrounded by a wire fence. After my initial beating they brought me into the interrogator’s office blindfolded.
My blindfold was not well secured, so I could see over the top. The interrogator was a heavyset man in a civilian suit, green jacket and pants. From his coastal accent it was clear he was Alawi. He had dyed black hair that was gray at the roots and a thick mustache. There was a television on in the corner with a government station on, Ad Dunia. He did not turn it off for the session. He was very calm when he spoke to me and never got angry.
“Did you order those soldiers not to shoot?” he asked.“No,” I said.The interrogator smoked and paused, “Are you sure?”“Yes, I am sure,” I said.
The interrogator walked out, and I was left standing there for six hours, never knowing when he would return, listening to the television in the corner. Then I was taken to a room where I was hung by my arms from a pipe for what seemed like five days. I don’t know how long it was. My legs were swollen and the pain was incredible. I was completely broken by this. I thought I would go crazy from the hanging. When I passed out they woke me with a bucket of cold water. When they let me down I signed the confession immediately.
I spent two months in the basement of the mukhabarat prison. There was only enough room to sit or stand because the cell was so crowded. All of us become covered in lice and insects, which became maddening. It was a mix of military and civilian in the prison. Some soldiers were there for selling military supplies on the black market. Everyone had a single blanket, which was inadequate for the cold of the winter. Eventually, most of us wanted to die rather than continue life there.
The food was half-cooked and revolting. You were given five minutes to eat it. A lot of prisoners began to get sick and there was a man with an open bullet wound that got infected. Some nights I would hear people in other sections screaming like they had gone insane.
Every ten days I was taken up and tortured and interrogated again. These sessions usually lasted five hours. There were no windows or clocks so we had no idea how much time was passing down there.
In January, I was finally transferred to the regular prison at Sayyed Naya under a charge of disobeying orders, cursing the president, and gathering in a group to plan seditious activity. I spent four months at Sayyed Naya, where conditions were slightly better, but not much. There were periodic beatings where the guards would enter with canes. Everyone had to put their hands on the wall and get on their knees, facing the wall. Anyone turning around or not assuming the position would be severly beaten. In this position, they would arbitrarily hit us on the back and head.
I don’t know all the circumstances, but one of the five soldiers had his family hire a lawyer that petitioned for our release. I never saw the other five in prison, but the lawyer came to see me. He told me to stick to the story that my confession was extracted under torture, and if we all stuck to this, the charges would be dismissed and I would be sent back to my unit. I did as he said and I was released on a lesser charge. It was a military-affairs case, and they released me from prison while the case was ongoing. I had to return in a few days when they would either send me back to prison or release me back to my unit. I don’t know which one I was more afraid of. I went back to the old neighborhood in Damascus where I used to live.
I knew I couldn’t go back to my unit, so I contacted a friend who worked in administration to write up a fake leave paper for me. With this fake leave paper I took a collective bus back to Qamashli. There were many checkpoints, but thanks to God the paper worked. I met my uncle near Qamashli, and he knew how to get around the checkpoints to the border with Iraq. The crossing point is called Skoda. He took me there in his pickup truck and dropped me off at Skoda, where I crossed into Iraq on foot, and on the Iraqi side the Peshmerga [the military of the Kurdish Regional Government] were waiting to help us get to the refugee camp. This was June of 2012, and I have been in Iraq ever since.
This interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator, Usama Al-Haddad. Usama is an Iraqi-American currently residing in Erbil, Iraq. He has conducted research at Harvard University and holds a master’s from the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.