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‘To venture into the unknown’: After several years in the diaspora, a defector returns to Syria and then disappears

For months, Abu Mamdouh felt like he was being torn in half.

18 March 2019

For months, Abu Mamdouh felt like he was being torn in half.

Every other day, messages from relatives in his native Syria would ask him to come home. After several years of living in a neighboring country, the former military man, who defected shortly after the uprising began, grew tired of exile.

He wanted to go home.

“I miss everyone there,” he told Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar in recent months. “I miss my brothers, my family, I miss my neighborhood.”

His friends, and particularly the tight-knit group of defectors he’d befriended during his time in Syria, warned him that returning was a bad idea. They pleaded for him to stay put.

But Abu Mamdouh returned. Immediately upon returning, relatives say, he was separated from his family and taken away. No one—in or outside of Syria—has heard from him since.

In recent months, Abu Mamdouh spoke with Syria Direct about why he wanted to return to his home country despite the risks. What follows is his account of life in the Syrian military during the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, and his experiences as a defector and a refugee gradually setting his sights on home.

Specific names, dates, places and other information has been withheld to protect Abu Mamdouh and his family.

Q: How did the idea of defecting come to you in the beginning? Were you watching what was happening in Syria at the time?

At the start of the revolution I was watching carefully. When the first demonstrations happened in Daraa, and the regime suppressed them, I was watching. When the spark moved to Homs, I was watching what was happening in silence. And since I was a member of the [Syrian] military, I knew that the regime has only ever met humanity with violence. And I also knew that people wouldn’t easily give up what they had gained, especially since the Arab Spring had spread to many Arab countries and since many had been killed in the growing protests in Syria and elsewhere.

During this time, I would watch the demonstrations on the television without anyone knowing—even my own family—so my children wouldn’t talk about this outside the house. I was living in military housing, and many of those around me were secret police. Two weeks before I defected, two of my colleagues, Sunni Muslims who were living in the same area, had been insulted and accused of treason from the Alawite officers who lived with us in the same housing.

[Ed.: The Syrian uprising in 2011, despite its peaceful and non-sectarian beginnings, inflamed tensions between the country’s religious minorities and Sunni Muslim majority.

In the military and intelligence branches, where President Bashar al-Assad’s government often tended to favor members of the Alawite community for high-ranking posts, suspicion and doubt on sectarian grounds began to take hold.]

I grew scared for myself and my family, especially after other instances of defection. [Many Alawite officers] began to look at us Sunnis as if we were traitors, that we could betray them at any time.

At that time, I was isolated from my Alawite friends. We used to meet together each week in one of their houses, but after the defections and the major spread of demonstrations they no longer invited me anymore.

I was confused. The decision to defect was not an easy one for me to make, to venture into the unknown and, at the same time, be unable to protect myself from those around me in my housing block.

The Free Syrian Army wouldn’t have trusted me, even if I was thinking of defecting at the time. So I was under threat from both sides—this was how most Sunni officers at that time felt, like being in a state of hesitation and fear towards both the regime and the opposition.

Q: So in the end, what made you decide to actually take action and defect? What changed?

I was asked to participate in a ground assault on [a rebel-controlled area]. At the time I was very afraid, I didn’t want someone else’s blood on my hands. For two days I couldn’t sleep because of this. I prayed, and I trusted that God wouldn’t abandon me and that he would protect my family for me. On the second day, I took a leave of absence with the excuse that I wanted to visit the hospital, but instead I met with a man smuggling Syrians [outside the country].

Q: After you fled Syria, how did you take care of your family in the beginning?

I left Syria with nothing, only with my children and what they were wearing. I paid two months rent in a home with only the most basic amenities, and I began to look for work.  

I worked [various manual labor jobs] and I struggled a lot. For two years I was switching from job to job, working under the table informally until I was able to find a stable job. I never had a problem doing any kind of job, the important thing was that my children and family didn’t go without.

Despite everything I had done in the army to build a future for my kids, all of it went away—but still, I’m thankful to God.

Q: How is the situation for defected officers outside Syria?

Most of the defectors [who fled Syria] are not granted political asylum. They aren’t given any aid since they’re military. We’ve lost everything—even our jobs—just because we chose not to participate in the killing of civilians. No one sees us as human. Even the opposition distances itself from us: they see us as traitors, because we didn’t stay behind and fight.

The whole world started to close in on me. I knew that it was impossible for me to migrate, that I would stay [here] working in [manual labor] to feed my family. There’s not a lot of work, and even though the job was a blessing—thanks be to God—there’s still no stability or comfort here.

Q: What makes you want to return to Syria, despite how poor the conditions are there? What kind of guarantees do you have to keep yourself safe?

I’ve been watching international politics, and how [these countries] normalize [relations] with the regime. And recently other countries have cut back on their aid to refugees. Even my work can be intermittent, with work stopping for periods of time. I’ll work a month, but then I’ll sit around for another month.

We have debts we couldn’t pay off even after I sold everything in the house and decided to go back to Syria and reconcile.

Life is so limited for me here. It’s expensive, especially with a family and kids. Syria fell entirely into the hands of the regime, with the whole world watching.

My relatives in Syria encouraged me to return to Syria, and those who are serving in the reserve forces there know people working with the state. They told me, literally, that those who haven’t dirtied their hands with the blood of Syrians have nothing to worry about, and will be granted amnesty.

My rush to return was so I could be included in the most recent amnesty. But I still had this hope that I would go back to a new Syria, but we are only able to return to the same regime.

What encouraged me even more is that my home in Syria is still standing, and wasn’t at all damaged. I don’t want to lose it, I need to prove that I own it—that’s better than paying rent.

Q: How do you think society will see you after you go back? What about your family, your relatives?

For me, there’s no guarantees other than the fact that my relatives have encouraged me. They told me that there were a lot of officers like me who went back and did their reconciliation paperwork and nothing happened to them.

[But] truly, I miss everyone there. I miss my brothers, my family. I miss my neighborhood. Whoever tells you that living in exile is a good life is a liar. I’ve lived for years outside of Syria, and I’m not settled here socially or financially. I also believe my brothers and my people miss me, and they’re not going to give me up, and they’re the ones who encouraged me to come back in the first place.

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