Former rebel reflects on new life under regime control: ‘Fear of the intelligence services has returned’

After three years of fighting, 30-year-old rebel fighter Mohammad al-Moadamani surrendered his weapons last month to the Syrian government in exchange for a full pardon.

In 2013, he witnessed the aftermath of a reported sarin gas attack in his hometown, the Damascus suburb Moadamiyeh a-Sham, which killed hundreds of people. Throughout a three-year encirclement, mass starvation and regime barrel-bombing brought international attention to the town, Syria Direct reported.

This past October, opposition officials handed over control of Moadamiyeh to the Syrian government, making it the fourth rebel-held Outer Damascus town to surrender to the regime in recent months.

Mohammad, like the other 45,000 residents of Moadamiyeh, was given a choice: accept the return of state institutions and security forces, or head north, to rebel-held Idlib province, and continue to fight the regime from there.

In the end, 1,600 rebel fighters and Moadamiyeh residents took the trip to Idlib. Some who departed last month told Syria Direct they feared government retribution. Others cited their commitment to the Syrian uprising.

Mohammad accepted an government amnesty in order to stay in his hometown. Now a civilian, he describes life in Moadamiyeh under regime control.

“Issues we dealt with before the revolution, like people being afraid to associate with anyone who insulted al-Assad, have returned to the forefront,” the former fighter tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

“After five years of absence, the fear of the nightmarish mukhabarat [intelligence services] has returned to the city,” he says.

“People avoid talking about anything related to the revolution because they are afraid of getting arrested.”

Q: How is life in the city different under regime control?

The difference is enormous—and disquieting. Before the truce, it was easy to insult Bashar al-Assad. Now, fear of the regime controls us once more.

Issues we dealt with before the revolution, like people being afraid to associate with anyone who insulted al-Assad, have returned to the forefront.

What I’m trying to say is that, after five years of absence, the fear of the nightmarish mukhabarat [intelligence services] has returned to the city. People avoid talking about anything related to the revolution because they are afraid of getting arrested.

But after five years of chaos brought on by war, there’s no denying that law and order, in addition to basic government services, have returned to the city.

 Moadamiyeh residents gathered to receive Syrian government officials on November 17. Photo courtesy of the United News Networks of Syria.

Q: What is your opinion of the picture of rebel leaders shaking hands with Fourth Division officers after the truce agreement?

Unfortunately, the opposition leaders are the ones who’ve brought us to this point, even though they claim to be flag-bearers for Moadamiyeh.

[Ed.: In October, social media accounts circulated a picture of Abu Ali Yousef, a leader of Ajnad a-Sham, a Free Syrian Army faction that fought in Moadamiyeh, embracing Fourth Division officers.]

For my part, I’m convinced that it would be impossible for the rebels of Khan a-Sheh to reach us, so it is better to keep hold of our country and not to lose it like we lost Darayya.

[Ed.: In August, the Damascus suburb of Darayya surrendered to the regime after four years of siege and aerial bombardment, Syria Direct reported that month. As a part of the truce, all 4,000 fighters and civilians evacuated the town.  Rebels in Khan a-Sheh, another Damascus suburb, are currently fighting the regime.]

If the opposition cared about Moadamiyeh and its people, we wouldn’t have been starved and humiliated in 2013.

Q: After four years of fighting the regime, why did you decide to stay in Moadamiyeh?

We joined the revolution to defend our city and demand our rights. For us, our nation is Moadamiyeh. Our people and fellow fighters—who died defending us—rest in its soil.

It would be very difficult for us to walk away and leave after we sacrificed our blood for this city.

Whoever kills children in Aleppo won’t have mercy on the youth of Moadamiyeh.

Besides, even if we go to Idlib we won’t achieve the goals of this revolution. If the three brigades in Moadamiyeh didn’t unite during the siege, how can we expect the thousands of factions in Idlib to come together?

Q: What happened to the opposition organizations and institutions in Moadamiyeh, such as the local council and civil defense office, after the regime took control of the city?

The regime asked that the opposition local council, civil defense, city hospital and all other grass-roots organizations shut down.

The local council, except for the aid office, was completely dissolved. Council members were asked to sever financial ties and communication with foreign donors and organizations.

The aid office began distributing assistance to residents in cooperation with the regime’s local council. Aid distributions began after a census was conducted to count the new population.

[Ed.: In October, after rebel fighters evacuated Moadamiyeh, 24 aid trucks entered the town, Syrian state media reported.]

The civil defense was closed, even though we still have a need for it. Until now, the hospital has not been closed. Most local aid workers left for Idlib.

 On November 17, Syrian government officials entered Moadamiyeh on their first official visit to the city. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Noor

Q: How is life post-siege? Can you buy the foods and products that you haven’t had for years?

In 2013, we didn’t have bread, poultry, electricity and gas for the entire year. In 2014, we used manure to generate electricity and gas, until we ran out of materials. We didn’t get any more until the city surrendered.

Since then, the standard of living hasn’t changed that much, although the prices of food and basic goods have fallen remarkably and we can find products in the market that weren’t available during the siege. Young children were shocked to see bananas, figs and grapes because they had never seen them before.

Things cost three times less than they did under siege.

Despite the lower costs, we can’t afford most things.

Why? Because 95 percent of residents live in poverty and there are no work opportunities. It’s agonizing, seeing something on the shelf in front of you but being unable to buy it because you’re too poor.

In that respect, not much has changed since the siege was lifted. We only buy the essential vegetables because anything else is considered a luxury.

Q: What do you do now? How do you earn a living?

After I handed my weapons over, I withdrew to my home and refused to join the popular committees. It was too difficult for me to shake hands and sit with the Alawites after they killed our people and encircled us for four straight years.

Foxes can’t be trusted.

In the past, when I was in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), I received a salary every six months. There was no other source of income or business during the siege.

Now my FSA salary has been cut off and I don’t have money to start a business.

Q: What are other residents doing? What jobs are there?

Families are relying on aid to cover 75 percent of their needs. Most residents sell cigarettes and diesel in the street markets.

Aid was only delivered once after the regime took control.

Residents own farmland but they can’t use it because there isn’t any water, which has been cut off for six months. Now we rely on water trucks and personal wells.

Since there’s a water scarcity in Damascus, the government can’t supply Moadamiyeh with water.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any organizations to run agricultural projects and support workers and keep prices low.

Q: The regime officially entered Moadamiyeh on November 17. The governor of Damascus, the Baath Party secretary and heads of state institutions also visited the city.

On October 23, members of the Fourth Division, the Syrian Arab Army’s elite fighting unit, entered Moadamiyeh for the first time in four years. What happened? Did all of the fighters who remained inside of the city reconcile with the regime?

You can say that the regime’s entrance was a formality. Once the fighters left for Idlib, a reconciliation delegation made of Fourth Division officers came to the police station, which is located at the entrance of the city. The officers weren’t carrying any weapons and they did not go further into the heart of the city.

The fighters who remained in Moadamiyeh reconciled with the regime—army defectors, those who avoided military service and armed opposition fighters. I’m sorry that I have to call this reconciliation because we were forced into it. We did this so the regime wouldn’t have an excuse to continue the siege.

Every fighter who stayed in the city gave up his weapons, except for those who joined the popular committees. They can keep their weapons, which they will keep to protect the outskirts of the city from any type of attack.

[Ed.: Popular committees are akin to local civilian police forces, many of which receive a salary from the regime.]

The regime gave defectors and those avoiding military service a rest period of six months. After that, those men have to join the army. During this time, they can leave Moadamiyeh without fear of getting arrested at another checkpoint. They also have the chance to move somewhere else. If these men stay after the six months are up, however, they have to join the army.

The men who avoided compulsory military service with the Syrian Arab Army have two choices. If they don’t want to go to the front lines, they can volunteer with the civilian police force, which is responsible for securing order inside of the city. The second option is to delay military service for a year by completing their high school or university education.

[Ed.: Syrian men aged 18-42 are required to serve in the army for two years, with exemptions and deferrals only available for students and those with extenuating family circumstances, medical conditions or connections.]

Army defectors were given the option to complete their service exclusively in Damascus. Some were asked to rejoin their previous military units.

Fighters like me, who have already completed mandatory military service, have the choice to join a popular committee or return to our normal lives.

Q: What are your expectations for the future of the revolution, considering that several rebel-held regions have recently surrendered to the regime?

In the south, the revolution has been killed, but the war will continue in the north. As I see it, the biggest mistake we made since the start of the revolution was taking up arms.

If we wanted a real, honest revolution, we should have done it peacefully—like we did in the beginning.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.