Deep in the eastern Syrian desert, the last remaining regime-controlled districts of Deir e-Zor city are surrounded on all sides by Islamic State forces.
In these two districts of the provincial capital, pro-regime militias known as the National Defense Forces (NDF), desperate to grow their ranks, reportedly began this past January to require all male, military-aged government employees to register for combat duty in order receive their monthly paycheck.
The result is that many men with minimal training and no military experience are now on the frontlines against battle-hardened IS fighters.
One such man was Abu Omar, who taught Arabic at the same high school for 14 years. He joined the NDF in June, after his monthly salary was withheld.
“Before the National Defense Forces coerced him into joining, Abu Umar never carried a weapon or trained for any type of combat,” the schoolteacher’s brother, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.
A father of five children, one of whom has leukemia and requires chemotherapy, Abu Umar couldn’t afford to live without an income.
“Without joining a [pro-regime] militia, he was banned from his receiving his salary,” Abu Umar’s brother, now living in Germany, tells Syria Direct.
In June, Abu Umar, unable to escape the besieged regime districts, enlisted to provide for his wife and children. He was killed by the Islamic State less than a month later, having received only one month’s salary.
Q: Why did Abu Umar join the NDF?
He was banned from his receiving his salary until he joined a militia. This was the only avenue for him to continue to provide for his family. Abu Umar enlisted on June 1, 2016.
Before the National Defense Forces coerced him into joining, Abu Umar never carried a weapon or trained for any type of combat.
He had a reputation as a peaceful man.
His desperation to receive his salary drove him to join the National Defense Forces.
Q: Where does his wife live?
After IS killed her husband in battle, she was forced to move in with another family. She has no income and can’t afford to live on her own or support her children. It’s truly tragic.
As her host’s resources run thin, so does their hospitality.
Q: After the NDF coerced Abu Umar into enlisting, did his wife receive his salary?
Abu Umar continued to receive his salary.
He was also given a weekly break to visit his family.
Q: Could you tell us about the last time you spoke with Abu Umar?
We spoke together a few months ago. When we spoke he complained about how terrible the situation was. He was scared, particularly due to his lack of military experience.
Q: Could you explain how the population is responding to the campaign of coerced enlistment?
The population has two choices in front of them: They can refuse to enlist and lose their salaries, while also exposing themselves to the possibility of arrest if they refuse, or they can face IS on the frontlines.
Q: What is Abu Umar’s wife’s current situation?
Her circumstances are desperate with her inability to buy anything, much less pay for medical treatment. She is just waiting for her cancer-stricken son to die.
She doesn’t have any possessions anymore. The last time I spoke to her on the phone, she was crying and lamenting her situation. She said: ‘The price of my husband’s life was cheap, just one month’s salary.’