“He lost his older brother –” warns Walid
— “Tell him to use my real name!” interrupts Hosam (his real name), bug-eyes bugging.
“Maybe that way someone will read my story and bring me to Canada.”
Reluctant to begin, he insists on nargile — “I need to be high” — but once smoking inside Hadrian’s Gate, at one of Antalya’s tourist trap, water-pipe cafes, he refuses to stop before finishing.
The sun sets, dessert is ordered, and ash overspills the tray. Eventually another entire meal arrives. And by the time Hosam’s retelling is done, “This is just a summary I am giving you” (another ubiquitous Syrian refrain), he and his friends rush to catch their last Sunday bus home, up to the hills northwest of the city.
“I went to the army 1st of June, 2010. We didn’t have any internet or social media so we had no knowledge of the reality — they were saying there were terrorists outside and we should kill these terrorists.”
“At one of the demonstrations I saw them hitting the demonstrators, they were carrying flowers and they hit them with [the butts of] their guns. In that moment I wanted to escape, but my family said ‘Don’t, they’ll kill you and us too.’ I returned with the army and they didn’t give me one day off for a whole year.”
He takes long drags and calls impatiently for new coals.
Finally his day off came. Hama was controlled by the regime at that time. Nonetheless, in only the privacy of his mind, he decided to defect. At the second checkpoint that day he was stopped and accused of carrying fake army papers. An officer took his cell phone and some petty cash, leaving Hosam with only his SIM card. They were military police, but denied his urging to call his commanding officer. He spent the night in jail. The next morning an officer agreed his papers were genuine and that he had been well within his rights to move within the city on his day off.
“And I said ‘Give me permission, because I don’t want to get stopped again.’ And he said ‘Okay, we will escort you and be official.’”
They took Hosam in handcuffs, blindfolded, to a new prison. As they led him, “someone smacked me in the balls, from underneath. And I was walking crooked and you should just keep walking and not react, you should go on. And the last one has whips. He is hitting me on the back. It is like a program, each person has something for you.”
“It’s good they hit you, you were on the regime’s side!” Walid interrupts.
“They took off all of my clothes so we are just in our underwear. Then they asked me to strip off my underwear and squat. And I thought they were going to fuck me.”
After a cavity search, the nineteen-year-old was led blindfolded down stairs, asked if he attended demonstrations, and beaten. Once underground, he found himself in a cold room with a pool of blood. Cries of men being tortured surrounded him.
“They were taking the people one by one. They were sending them back in the chair because they couldn’t walk. It was so cold, there was no blankets. It is not organised the prison, the shit water from the toilet is everywhere on the floor and there are cockroaches. And after three hours they asked me to come and see them, but I didn’t have a chance to explain myself or my story.”
Now when he needs to take the edge off, Hosam drinks vodka. Walid and those in his social circle, observant and therefore teetotallers, don’t judge him for it. A cheap litre can be found ten minutes walk from their middle-of-nowhere apartment building.
Hosam didn’t know it at the time, but defection from the Syrian Arab Army was an expanding phenomenon. The suspicions of the security services might have only been probabilistic (in other words, he may not have given himself away). Since that period, academic Samer Abboud explains, “low military morale, rampant defections, loyalist discord about rising deaths, disintegration within its ranks, and mistrust among SAA soldiers have all forced the regime to turn to civilian or non-Syrian violent actors.”
“They open my file — same as last time — and they said, ‘Why did they bring you here? You have no problem.’ I said ‘Sir, I am doing my military service.’ They hit me a lot.”
Things continued that way, first assurances it was all a mistake, then the torture. He saw another inmate return from interrogation shot through the forearm. After nearly a week they handcuffed and blindfolded him again, formally accused him of desertion, and took him to al-Kuboun in Damascus.
Hosam pauses at times for the thousand mile stare. In his relaxed state, sights of Antalya in the background, he’ll borrow the most stylish pair of sunglasses available and pose for a new profile picture. His aspirations were also unserious. He doesn’t eat at KFC now only because he can’t afford it. And he doesn’t meet young women at the mall only because he’s two hours away by public transport. Thoughts of suicide are frequent.
“In this jail you should just keep your mouth closed — because there is a small window and they are listening always. And they feed you just half a loaf of bread — they are just feeding you to stay alive.”
“They put eight people behind the door with hands up and said, ‘We will mention a name, one by one. And the one we do not mention, he should not make a whisper.’”
He stood still for six and a half hours, “we can’t even move a finger,” his back to guards “watching in shifts.”
Two days later, Hosam was transferred to military jail. “There are seventeen branches and they call it the fifth branch.”
There, high ranking officers took things out on him. “I lost everything in my life. This Colonel said ‘You wanted to escape from the army and join the terrorists,’ and I said ‘No sir, this is not the reality. I love my country.’”
“They put me in the car tire, chest to knees. They break your fingers. And they started to hit me, asking me to count. They make a joke with you — if you say it is eleven, but it is nine, then they start again from the zero. They took me out of the tire after 150 strikes and the Colonel asked me again, ‘Did you want to escape from the army?’ I fainted a few times and they were still hitting me, so I woke up. They don’t care if you are conscious or unconscious.”
Hosam maintained his innocence throughout. He was sent back to his unit on public transportation with a two guard escort. They had shaved his head, another humiliation.
“When they took me to the army, my Colonel and unit didn’t take care of me. They said ‘You are a motherfucker and your sister is a bitch. We are going to fuck your mother and sister. You are a traitor and a liar.’ So they started to play with my nerves. They said, ‘We are going to shoot you just directly now.’”
His unit beat him for three hours, kicking his face, boots on, lighting his beard on fire. Finally he was allowed to rejoin them in a more or less normal capacity. Both his military and his civilian identification had been confiscated.
“Now after all of these things I had a big experience about what they are doing with the people, which I didn’t have before. For the next four months I just worked to go because I realised how terrorist they are. And if they saw a regular person just with a board at the protest they would shoot them. I thought I cannot do this, I cannot kill normal people. In that time, I know if they are going to send us to kill people, I was overthinking, what am I going to do? They are standing behind us and seeing — if I don’t shoot, they are going to kill me. I am always thinking what am I going to do?”
At night, the guys play FIFA on an old Playstation 2, sitting across three beds in the common room. There is an apartment-wide rivalry between Real Madrid and Manchester United. While others are matched up, Hosam prepares homestyle meals.
“He’s a good cook,” vouches Walid. They sit on the floor around the result, scooping chicken out of red sauce with bread, pouring sips of flat pepsi from a plastic two litre bottle.
“I was dying in these four months. They were watching my every movement. I was careful what I was saying every day.”
Hosam surrendered 30,000 Syrian pounds of wages for one day of leave. He went home resolved to defection — “I wanted to be just, they wanted me to be unjust.”
“But I had the same situation, I was in a big jail. They controlled the city.”
He stayed with his parents — his family too poor to consider bribing their way out, fearing their son’s discovery would be the death of them all. They came for him shortly, but the first time he was forewarned. Squeezed behind pipes in the water closet, he held his breath.
Fifteen days later, there was no ahead of time. He was out on the balcony and jumped. And scrambled, balcony to balcony, running through alleys, not stopping until he reached the next district.
He had nothing on him and every road out of the city was check-pointed by the regime. Hosam scavenged discarded bread and walked out of Hama, not on a road, but into the desert.
“I was eating mouldy bread while bombs were dropping. In that area the plane and every kind of gun was attacking.”
Soon hungry and dizzy, he drank “the ground water — still, dirty water.” Shortly he was vomiting, “it was poisoned.”
“There was no doctor, no medicine. I knew my life was nearing an end.”
He had had no choice, he told himself. “No problem. I am not going to kill anyone.”
He accepted that he was going to starve.
Six weeks after clearing Hama’s city limits on foot, Hosam made it to a camp near the Turkish border in northwest Idlib. Still penurious, he made his calls from others’ mobiles. The first time he crossed the border, he was caught and turned around by Turkish authorities. On his second attempt, three months later, he succeeded.
After a year scraping by in Istanbul, he heard the outskirts of Antalya had a lower cost of living. The older Walid, also from Hama, to whom he had no previous direct connection, welcomed him when he arrived.
Hosam worked construction through the spring into the summer until injuring his back. After being laid up a couple weeks it took another six to find a new job. His parents remain in Hama. His plastic phone has no credit.
“And I have found the life here worse and worse. I work ten days and then am not working one month. I don’t have any proof of who I am. Now you can say it is my friends who are supporting me.” He moves apartments often, from bed to bed, outskirt to outskirt.
One Saturday, just before midnight, a gregarious character is going to drive his ramshackle bread van into the city of Antalya to liaise with, argue with, and ultimately exchange aspersions with, two bakers, fellow Syrians, over the wholesale price per loaf. But Hosam won’t ride along with his friends because he is afraid. What will happen if Turkish police ask him for identification?
Calling for human solidarity is a typical way Syrians conclude long testimonies.
“To the many concerned Canadian people, I am here, I don’t want to steal any money. No one has ever mentioned that I did something wrong. And I hope some of the Canadians will help me because of this. Me and my family will respect you or any other person who helps us. You are a good people and I am a human being like you.”
He is not on any UN or IOM list, nor in any Turkish or Canadian database. No papers have arrived to any Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) on his behalf, no church group nervously awaits his news. There is no internet where he sleeps, or at his new job, the overnight shift at a stone factory. But when Hosam has a chance, he punches Arabic into google translate. I hope for a new big brother, he writes.
Six Months Later
Hosam only turns up to stay with his friends two or three times a month now. He sleeps six or seven days a week at the factory. He has a good relationship with his boss but the pay is low and the work is hard.
The Saturday I visit, the guys’ town an hour into the mountains from the tourist city of Antalya, conversations are dominated by the death of a Syrian man at a local construction site. The man was friends with many in Hosam and Walid’s network — he was an Arabic teacher like Walid, working on a local construction site. The father of three fell from a height and died quickly.
Much of the talk among some of the men are the Islamic procedures for his widow’s forty days of mourning– “But in this situation it is a bit difficult,” explains Walid (the couple were living as refugees in a room with the man’s brother) — and how they could pitch in to take care of her in his absence. Some of the details (how they regard the brother) are lost on me.
Hosam takes cold medicine. He has a decent phone and a few changes of clothes. The guys have internet now in their ‘apartment’ — five or six sleep on mattresses in what was originally designed to be a small store — the room’s entire facade is transparent plastic. They cover it with sheets.
Hosam catches up on the FC Barcelona games in bed — Messi is his favourite player. He has food to eat and a place to sleep. It gets cold at night, the elevation higher than the city below. Conditions are hygienic enough. But there are no opportunities — the psychological pressure is that of complete stasis. It also wouldn’t hurt if he was able to see a GP for a check up.