ALEPPO, Syria: College student Abu Yassin never imagined picking up a gun and fighting the Syrian regime, but all that changed when he saw a little boy bleeding to death in his father’s arms.
Yassin was in his late teens in March 2011 when President Bashar Assad’s troops began to crash peaceful protests with guns and tanks.
He was a second-year biology major at the University of Aleppo at the time and recalls how those around him had rushed to take up arms in response.
Last autumn, he finally decided to drop out of school and join the uprising against Assad.
“I volunteered at the Sukkari field hospital [in western Aleppo] because I was sure I wouldn’t be any good at fighting,” said Abu Yassin, now 21, dressed in black, bespectacled and with a sparse beard.
He averts his eyes and his voice trembles as he recalls the months he spent working in Sukkari, a mosque-turned-hospital.
“Every day we treated children, women, old folks, horribly wounded by the bombings,” he said. “I never imagined war could be like that. Never.”
Then one day he was filled with rage after he saw a man, his legs badly shredded by shrapnel from an explosion, sitting in the back of a truck that had pulled up at the hospital.
Cradled in his arms was his little son, his abdomen ripped open, bleeding profusely.
The boy was rushed to surgery, but there was nothing that could be done.
Since January, Abu Yassin has been fighting in the northern city’s Saleheddine district along with others in the powerful Tawhid brigade.
But last month he started to lay down his weapon three days a week and began to teach biology at a school in the rebel-held district of Saif al-Dawla.
“I am much more useful here than fighting at the front,” he reflected, after giving a lesson on the respiratory system.
“Inhale. Exhale,” he told one of his 10- to 12-year-old boys, explaining how oxygen enters the body and carbon dioxide is expelled.
Abu Yassin doesn’t like to talk about the war, recalling how the night after he killed his first man, he couldn’t sleep.
“I thought about that man. I prayed for him and his family. I’m not proud of killing, but in war there is no other choice. Every time I pull the trigger, I kill an enemy and save a life.”
His students are accustomed to see him arriving at school every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning, rifle in hand. And of course, they are curious.
“I don’t talk about what I see or what I do. The boys ask me what it’s like to fight, but I always tell them I hope that when they are older ... they won’t have to take up a rifle.”
“Your jihad is not at the front but in school, studying to build up Syria,” he tells them.
The Syria he dreams of is one in which the people take decisions, “where we are free to choose and to make mistakes.”
“For 40 years, they have been deciding for us,” Abu Yassin added, referring to Assad’s regime and that of his father and predecessor, Hafez.
And when the war is over, when Syria has what he hopes will be a democratic society, but one with Islam as its base, he wants to go back to university, complete his studies and become a full-time teacher.
“I’ve realized,” he said, “that what is most important is to train the next generation to build up this country. That’s what I want to do.”