Injured northern rebels hold sit-in to demand unpaid wages

For a year after a bullet struck Maher Mohammad’s lower spine in 2013, he kept going out to the frontlines in his home province of Aleppo. He became a paraplegic, but says his presence as a former commander on the battlefield raised morale.

Mohammad’s rebel faction was one of many anti-regime battalions in Aleppo province that joined the al-Jabha a-Shamiya coalition in December 2014.

The coalition previously received funding from the MOM, a Turkish-based joint operations center, after being “vetted” by the CIA, according to a September 2016 report by the Brookings Institute.

After he stopped going to the frontlines, Mohammad continued to receive $140 a month as an injured fighter. But in October, his salary was cut off, and he has not received anything since.

Mohammad was one of dozens of injured fighters who participated in a sit-in in front of al-Jabhat a-Shamiya’s headquarters in the western Aleppo countryside on May 3. They demanded injured fighters and families of those killed in battle be paid their due.

“All we received were more promises,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

Al-Jabha a-Shamiya leadership does not appear to have commented on compensation for injured fighters or the families of rebels killed in battle.

However, the faction announced a 10 percent cut to all salaries in a March 21 statement due to “a lack in financial resources and an increase in expenditure.”

 A recent photo of Maher Mohammad.

Now, Mohammad is living with his wife and four children in the rebel-held western Aleppo countryside and borrowing money from friends. 

“We no longer care about our injuries or even our own welfare,” says Mohammad. “We just want to feed our children.”

Q: When did you last receive your salary from al-Jabha a-Shamiya? What reason were you given for your salary being cut off?

I haven’t received a salary since October, before I left Aleppo.

[Ed.: Rebel groups surrendered the eastern half of Aleppo city in December 2016. Opposition fighters, such as Mohammad, and their families left east Aleppo for the rebel-held western Aleppo countryside.]

There are other injured fighters whose salaries have been cut off for five months. We protested and organized a sit-in on May 3 in front of the al-Jabha a-Shamiya headquarters [in the western Aleppo countryside]. All we received were more promises, though.

Jabha hasn’t given any convincing reason for why salaries were cut off. In November, I went to inquire about my salary with the security branch of al-Jabha a-Shamiya. They said that November’s salary was stolen and there wasn’t anything for me.

The next month, they told me that my records and identification papers detailing my situation were transferred to the Office of Disabilities.

[Ed.: The Office of Disabilities is an administrative department within al-Jabha a-Shamiya that handles all affairs related to injured members of the rebel group.]

When I went to that office, they informed me that they didn’t have any of my papers and that I needed to get the paper from my battalion. I can’t walk, which make it incredibly difficult to get the required papers. So far, nothing has changed.

There are fellow injured soldiers who didn’t have their cases transferred to the Office of Disabilities. They didn’t receive their salaries either. We were infuriated, and we know for sure that they are just giving us excuses.

Q: Are you still involved in military activity? Do you regret fighting for al-Jabha a-Shamiya considering your current situation?

After my injury, I continued to go to the frontlines in my wheelchair for about a year in order to raise the fighters’ morale and provide any help that I could to my friends, my city and my country. I was a military commander, and I led about 250 fighters in battle.

Now, I don’t participate at all. I don’t regret what I did, even if it did lead to my injury. But what is happening to us now with our payment, this neglect and mistreatment have pushed me and my other injured fighters to speak out about how we were used, then thrown aside and abandoned.

We no longer care about our injuries, or even our own welfare. We just want to feed our children. We don’t want to starve after all of the sacrifices we’ve made.

Q: Are salaries cut off for all of al-Jabha a-Shamiya’s injured? What were you being paid?

Those who are injured—myself included—have a group on WhatsApp where we can exchange information regarding salaries.

The salaries are only cut off for the western countryside. In the northern countryside, everyone collects their salaries as usual.

Previously, when I was in Aleppo, my salary was SP30,000 (approx. $140) per month, but then it became just $100.

Q: How are you able to live without a salary?

My salary wasn’t huge, but it provided a good chunk of my family’s expenses, especially when we were in Aleppo.

Now, after leaving, our expenses are higher because we’re displaced. We’re trying to rent a house and secure [other basic necessities] all over again. My salary being cut off has, tragically, made matters worse.

Currently, my brothers are taking turns helping me, and I’m borrowing money from some friends for my [four] children’s expenses. I can’t work because of my [medical] condition.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.