AL-BAB, Syria: Samaan, a 21-year-old Syrian soldier who was shot in the leg when rebels captured him last month, waits impassively to be judged, saying he has no fear of the verdict.
Lying on a wooden table and covered by a blanket despite the stifling heat, Samaan says weakly, “What happens, happens. I am not afraid of the sentence, because I know I have not killed.”
A former plastics factory worker, Samaan joined the army 15 months ago, as the originally peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad took on an increasingly militant nature after a brutal crackdown by the regime.
He is now being held in the rebel Free Syrian Army’s local headquarters in the basement of what was Al-Bab’s education department.
Surrounded by stacks of books, he recounted how regime forces retreated to Al-Bab, some 50 kilometers north of Aleppo near the Turkish border.
At the end of July, the FSA captured the town, after the school used by the army was besieged for 10 days, and claimed it took 100 prisoners.
Abdul-Latif Osman, an FSA commander in Al-Bab, said each FSA brigade “improvises a prison and makes sure that an Islamic council judges the prisoners.” All the prisoners are tried “for their crimes, if they have killed or attacked civilians.”
If a prisoner is found innocent, he is invited to join the FSA. If he refuses, he is banned from leaving the town in order to prevent him from rejoining the army or acting as an informant.
The FSA has “a thousand eyes,” allowing it to “prove the guilt of prisoners,” one defector said.
In Al-Bab, not all former soldiers are prisoners. Some have deserted and joined the FSA, including Khalil Ibrahim and Omar Multabir, both 21. They took advantage of army missions in the town to flee and join the revolt.
“When we joined the army, we wanted to serve the country, not to kill,” said Ibrahim, a tank driver whose views on the army changed after he saw “abnormal things” happen during the conflict.
Multabir and Ibrahim spoke of the poor rapport between officers and soldiers, the bombing of civilian areas and the sense that the army was a “prison” from which it is difficult to escape.
Multabir said he saw two soldiers shot as they tried to flee. One was killed and the other wounded. Captured by his officers, he was not seen again.
Soldiers who are suspected of wanting to desert – especially Sunni Muslims – are deployed to the frontline, a wounded fighter said after he returned from embattled Aleppo. They are the most likely to be killed in combat and, if they try to flee, their comrades in the second line will kill them.
While many men have successfully defected, “the Syrian army continues to be all-powerful, in comparison to the rebels,” the fighter said.
Ibrahim said he does not know whether he actually killed anyone when he was given the order to shoot.
He is sure of only one thing: “Soldiers and the rest of the population live in two different worlds.”