An image grab, taken from a video made available on the official website of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry, shows Azeri artillery strike towards the positions of Armenian separatists in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, 9/28/2020 (AFP)
AMMAN — “I’m dead here and dead there,” Adham told his cousin Shakeeb (pseudonyms), justifying his decision to take part in the renewed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
When the two met, days before Adham left for Azerbaijan, he compared his life in a tent in the north Aleppo village of Kafr Jannah to death, Shakeeb recalled. “We have nothing left after two years of being unemployed or barely working,” Adham added. “If I come back, it would be good. If I don’t, my family will live,” referring to his four daughters and wife, who is five months pregnant.
In the “Olive Branch” areas—the areas invaded in the Turkish military operation in 2018 against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northwestern Syria’s Afrin region— there are many young men without work. Some make around 200 Turkish pounds, roughly 40,000 Syrian pounds (SYP), per month: not enough to sustain a family of four for more than a week and a half, Shakeeb told Syria Direct. “Two bundles of bread cost SYP 2,000,” he explained, “without any other necessities.”
Adham decided to go to Azerbaijan in the hopes that he would return, he told his cousin, “with $4,000-5,000, or around SYP 10,000,000, to rent or maybe buy a house.” Factions belonging to the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, such as the Hamzat Division, are responsible for arranging the Azerbaijan trips.
Guard contract hoax
The same plight of destitution in northwestern Syrian opposition-held areas drove Muhammad Abdul Razzaq, nicknamed Muhammad Shaalan, to go to Azerbaijan, according to his friend Rami Akkoush.
Shaalan, an early revolutionary in Aleppo province, is a 45-year-old father of four sons and two daughters who live currently with their mother in the town of Rajo in Afrin. He believed that his role in Azerbaijan, his friend told Syria Direct, would be limited to guarding Turkish installations there, according to the contract he signed. The same task was also stated in the contract signed by Muhammad al-Shahna, his sister told Syria Direct. The contract was to last three months, she added, with a monthly salary of $1,500.
Al-Shahna, a 26-year-old, was displaced with his family from the city of Maarat al-Numan to Maarat Misreen in the countryside of Idlib and had been unemployed, according to his sister. When the family lost contact with him for five days, they thought he had managed to reach Turkey (illegally). They were then surprised to receive a telephone call from their son telling them he was in Azerbaijan.
“He told us that somebody advised him to go to Azerbaijan, where there were better work opportunities available than in Turkey, and better wages,” his sister said. Al-Shahna said he had asked “a sheikh [religious figure] about work like this, and he responded that it was a contract job abroad, and there is nothing forbidden about that.”
Ahmad al-Barho, a media activist originally from Aleppo and currently living in Afrin, stressed that fighters’ motives to go to Azerbaijan are purely material. “They saw that those who went to Libya made $6,000 over three months, and their financial situation improved,” he told Syria Direct. “They went, as they had been told, to guard Turkish bases,” al-Barho added.
The shock of reality
When Shakeeb contacted Adham in Azerbaijan, his cousin expressed a desire to return. “‘But we can’t do that,’” Shakeeb quoted Adhman as saying, adding that they were “prohibited from taking pictures or telling anyone, even me. One guy had been threatened with prison after he posted a video from Azerbaijan.”
The surprise change of the mission from guarding Turkish installations in Azerbaijan to joining the Nagorno-Karabakh battles led Muhammad Shaalan to object, according to his friend Akkoush. Shaalan told one of his faction’s commanders: “We came as border guards, not fighters,” Akkoush quoted him as saying, “we are not fighting alongside the Shia, who are the ones killing our families in Syria and committing massacres against us.” A dispute arose between Shaalan and the other Syrians, on one side, and the faction commanders on the other said Akkoush, which led them to be returned to the rear military posts. “After that, we were surprised to hear that shells fell on their position, killing [Shaalan] as well as a young man from the village of Ainjara, near Atareb,” Akkoush said.
Muhammad al-Shahna’s story mirrors Shaalan’s with a shared thread of deception and painful ending. Two days after arriving in Azerbaijan, he told his sister: “My friends and I were fooled. It’s all lies.” As the family asked him to come back, he responded: “I can’t do that, we signed a contract, just pray for me,” his sister recalled.
At first, he was lucky. As he was the only brother of seven girls, he was assigned the work of a pickup driver, “transporting soldiers to the areas far from the frontlines, while they forced others to join the fighting,” al-Shahna told his sister.
But no more than three days after reaching Azerbaijan, al-Shahna was killed.
The commander of al-Shahna’s unit, a young Syrian from Jabal a-Zawiya in the countryside of Idlib, was wounded. Nobody rushed to rescue him, so al-Shahna decided to do so, according to what the family was later told by the mother of a young man from the city of Homs who was there at the time. A sniper bullet struck al-Shahna in the head, and he fell into a valley where he died due to blood loss. Al-Shahna’s body was not recovered until two hours after he was shot.
No decent goodbye
Akkoush was not able to participate in the funeral of his friend Muhammad Shaalan, because “his body arrived – with the bodies of the other martyrs – on the night [of October 3], and was buried the next day in Atareb,” while Akkoush lives in Afrin.
As for Muhammad al-Shahna’s body, his friends received it at the Turkish border, his sister said. His sisters’ husbands then took his body from the center belonging to the faction in Afrin through which al-Shahna had coordinated his travel to Azerbaijan, and “we buried him at 2:30 in the morning.”
On October 4, activist Sameer Nheli posted the names and pictures of ten Syrians killed in Azerbaijan on his Facebook page, commenting: “Yesterday, they brought in the bodies. Azeri and Turkish intelligence forced their families to bury them at night, with no photographing or burial ceremonies. Those remaining in Azerbaijan rebelled in their camps, refusing to participate in the battles. They have been threatened with imprisonment.”
According to activist Omar Mahmoud al-Bom, who works at the Macro Media Center that covers events in northern Syria, “approximately 200 people left Idlib [for Azerbaijan] at one time. The bodies of fifty of them returned through the Hawar Kilis crossing in the northern countryside of Aleppo and were handed over to their families, a source in the medical sector who coordinates between the various medical authorities said.”
Mercenaries or victims of human trafficking?
“Despite calls from the fighters in Azerbaijan to their brothers in the liberated areas [controlled by the Syrian opposition] not to come,” Akkoush said, “some are still stuck on the idea of going and fighting.”
Al-Bom explained that “most of those who are going are extremely poor, whose need is being exploited to lure them with money,” stressing once more the motive of harsh deprivation. As such, what is happening “is nothing more than human trafficking,” al-Bom said, as “the broker doesn’t care if the person is civilian or military – and some left military affairs behind long ago.”
Muhammad Abu Khaled (a pseudonym), Muhammad al-Shahna’s neighbor in Maarat al-Numan, went so far as to describe what is occurring as “a Turkish-Russian partnership to end the revolution and starve and kill its honorable people with the complicity of the commanders of the factions prostrated to Turkey.”
“People are writing that my brother was a mercenary,” said al-Shahna’s sister. “Those who went to Azerbaijan were deceived by the promise of a large salary and a short-term contract. They are the wronged victims of international conflict.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.