After eight years of military service, one Syrian soldier prepares for a long-awaited return to ‘normal life’

Somur Abu Fida never expected his engagement to last so long.

But just months after the Syrian Arab Army soldier proposed to his fiancée in 2010, protests and violence spread across the country and plans made in times of peace fell by the wayside.

As the Syrian war dragged on year after year, so too did Abu Fida’s mandatory military service, long after he and his fellow recruits in the army’s Group 102—enlisted in 2010—completed the standard two-year period of service required of all Syrian males aged 18-42.

In 2014, members of Group 102, which is reportedly the army’s longest-serving active recruitment class, launched a public campaign demanding their right to be discharged.

Four years later—and eight years after Group 102 was first recruited—those demands appear to have been granted. On Saturday, pro-government media reported a state decision providing for the soldiers’ release, effective June 1.

The UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates some 15,000 soldiers will be affected by the decision.

“At first, I didn’t believe what I heard,” Abu Fida tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad al-Haj Ali from his barracks in Damascus. Rumors of the long-awaited release were not uncommon in recent years.

But when he saw his name on an official list of soldiers slated for release, Abu Fida—who asked to be identified with a pseudonym—says he knew this time was different. He immediately called his fiancée back home in Latakia province.

“My first plan is to get married,” he says. The wedding date has already been set for next Saturday. “It will be a celebration of my marriage as well as my release.”

Afterwards, the 30-year-old economics graduate plans to look for work as he transitions back to “normal life.”

“Now, I can take on anything,” he says.

A pro-government fighter walks through East Ghouta in March. Photo by AFP.

Q: How did you feel when you heard about the release? How did you know the news was real, and not a rumor like previous times?

At first, I didn’t believe what I heard, since we’ve heard the same rumor a million times. Before, our officers would immediately deny the rumor each time. This time, however, no denial came for a long time, and then the decision reached my regiment and my name was on the list.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to do, or who to tell first—my family or my fiancée? I couldn’t decide how to act. But after a half hour, I spoke to my fiancée and told her the news, and then I spoke with my family. I could hear the sound of people ululating in the background as I talked to my dad on the phone.

Thank God, I’m preparing my documents and my things so that I can return to my family and my fiancée.

Q: What will you do now? What are your plans?

There are many plans in my mind right now. But of course, the first plan is to get married. I agreed with my family and my fiancée that [the marriage] will be the day after I get out [of the army], which is June 2. It will be a celebration of my marriage as well as my release from the army.

After my honeymoon, I’ll have to look for work. I’m especially excited about this, to return to normal life.

For now, these are the most important things that I’ll do after my release. I have many ideas in mind, but marriage and work are the most important. My wife and I are planning to immediately have a child.

Q: How did your extended military service affect your engagement? How do you feel now that you can finally get married?

The feelings are indescribable. Finally, I’ll be getting married after my fiancée and I waited eight years. I’ll settle down in a normal home and live a normal life.  

It also means my fiancée will no longer fear for me like she did when I was in the army.  I won’t be in danger anymore.

I’ll be able to sleep on my own schedule. I’ll be able to stay up late or go to the market. Many things will change.

Life in the army is really hard. For us, sleep is never really sleep. Food isn’t food. Life isn’t what it should be. Sometimes, we have gone two weeks without access to a bathroom, or a full day without a meal. All of this will change now.

The army didn’t negatively impact our engagement. Of course there were some issues, but in the end we grew to love each other even more, especially because of the distance between us. Days would pass without us speaking, and our longing for each other would grow until we finally spoke again. And whenever I had leave, we spent all our time together.

Our relationship matured a lot. Now, after all this waiting, we’ll get married.

Q: Did your view of military service change over the past eight years serving in the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army?

At the start, I just wanted to serve like anyone else—I mean before, when there was no war in Syria. But about one year after beginning my service, the war began, and the situation grew more and more difficult.

Before [the war], we only had simple tasks—some projects and exercises. But after the war began, we were on high alert, especially when the terrorists spread throughout Syria.

I won’t tell you that morale started to decline over this long period, but I did get bored. There was no set leave. Every two or three months, I got the chance to visit my family for a couple days. Even then, sometimes work would come up or the road [home] would be cut off.

I constantly thought about my family and my fiancée. But of course defending the homeland was my top priority, and everyone in my family—and my fiancée—understood the situation. Through them, I found the strength to continue for so long.

Q: Do you have fears about the transition back to civilian life after so long in the army? Do you feel like you benefited from your time in the army?

After eight years of service, I certainly won’t forget what happened to me in the army, especially since my service was during an exceptional period for Syria. I’ll never forget the guys who served with me, or the guys who died. I’ll miss the times when we would hang out together for hours on end during night shifts.

I really benefited from military life. Now, I can take on anything that I might face in life, no matter how difficult and hard, since I faced many difficult situations while serving and learned from them. I can shoulder any responsibility, no matter how large. The army taught me a lot, and I learned from the guys who were with me, who were from different cultures and provinces.

Don’t forget that I’m really proud of what I achieved. We served the country for a very long time, and we sacrificed a lot from our lives. This is something that my family and I—and my future children—can be proud of. This pride helps me to move past the difficulties and hard times, and to forget the years of my life that I lost.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.