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Forced to fight: Syrian men risk all to escape army snatch squads

Thousands of men have been pressed into Syria's army. Those who escaped now fear the ghosts of their past will haunt their future
Syria's army has lost tens of thousands of soldiers (AFP)

CHIOS, Greece - Adnan bribed his way out of Bashar al-Assad’s army when he was 19. Mid-level officers in Syria’s military do not make enough to turn down cash from teenage soldiers.

His entry to the army was as abrupt as his departure. In October 2013, Adnan was on his way to buy breakfast for his wife, Hala, a “very sweet” girl from his neighbourhood whom he had married 10 days earlier. 

But soldiers grabbed him on his way to the bakery, bundled him into a bus and sent him to an army barracks.

He was given a gun, told how to shoot it, and was soon shipped out to fight alongside Assad's career soldiers.

“They put me on the front lines," he said. "They said if I didn’t fight, they would kill me.”

For eight weeks, Adnan said, he fought far from home and against enemies that were never identified. When asked whom he fought, Adnan simply replied: "We fought for the regime – that's it."

He survived two months of Assad’s war before identifying a mid-level officer known for accepting escape bribes.

Adnan's family sold their house, and his brother secretly transferred the money to a guard, who turned the other way when Adnan ran from camp.

He fled to Turkey, and then to Chios as one of 1,322 refugees who arrived during a single night in February.

Adnan is one of thousands of young men, mostly in their teens and early 20s, who have been pressed into service in Assad’s army.

Those who have escaped to Europe now find themselves facing the difficult decision of what to tell immigration officials. If Adnan admits he spent time in the army, he hears he could end up back in Syria where deserters are executed if caught.

Under a deal agreed between the EU and Turkey, due to come into force on Monday, refugees face deportation back to Turkey if they fail a new screening process in "hotspots" such as Chios.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, last week said it was suspending some operations on nearby Lesbos, another of the EU "hotspots," stating that refugee camps there were becoming "detention centres". The medical charity MSF did the same.

A report last week by Amnesty International claims Turkey has forcibly returned thousands of Syrians to their home country, a claim which Turkish authorities have denied.

Frontex, which oversees the new process, told Middle East Eye that all new arrivals will be screened for identity documents during the registration process.

"Following screening, migrants are fingerprinted, and then the Greek authorities conduct further checks. If a migrant files an asylum claim, the asylum procedure consists of many interviews that cover areas such as military service in the country of origin."

The organisation did not say, however, what effect serving in Assad's army would have on the final result.

Thousands of refugees on Chios now face deportation back to Turkey (AFP)

In the camps in Chios, there were others with stories like Adnan’s, and dozens more – usually slightly younger – who had fled Syria for fear of being abducted by the army and forced to fight.

Mohamed, a 19-year-old Syrian, sat in the waiting room of Chios hospital as a doctor examined his friend Ammar's leg, which is held together by metal rods after being shattered in a missile strike in Syria in 2014.

On the small boat from Turkey to Chios, smugglers had laid him on the bottom of the boat and forced other refugees to sit on top of him. 

Both men left Syria to escape serving in Assad’s army.

As abductions became more common in Mohamed’s village outside Damascus, the then 16-year-old dropped out of school in 2013 and spent three years hiding inside his home. In late 2015, he and his mother decided he should try to flee.

"I had to go – I won’t fight in an army that murders families in their homes. I want to go to school," he told MEE.

"I have not been to school in three years because the soldiers were capturing boys walking to class. My mum and I agreed I would leave," he said. 

"Now here they say I am dangerous because I am ‘fighting age’. I left my mum, I left everything, so I would not have to kill.”

Government press gangs

The Syrian army has always been a predominantly conscript force. At the start of the war, less than a third of its 325,000 soldiers were professionals. 

Young men were historically conscripted at 18 to serve a 30-month term.

Before the war, the government had steadily decreased the length required to serve - to two years in 2005, 21 months in 2008, and 18 months in 2011.

But the Syrian war has devastated Assad’s army: tens of thousands of deaths and a severely diminished civilian population has forced the army to keep soldiers in service beyond their terms, and young men are kidnapped to counter draft dodgers.

For men like Adnan, Mohamed and Ammar, escape from their country and from the government press gangs is sometimes their only chance of survival. But it is only the first of many steps.

At the EU "reception" centre in Chios, Adnan was given a paper band with a handwritten number “7” scrawled on it put on his wrist. He saw others filling out a small form, so he set out to find it.

Another refugee told him he had to fill in his identity details in English, which he cannot read or write. When UNHCR staff called out his wrist number in a language he does not speak, he was expected to locate and approach the registration tent.

There were no Arabic speakers to direct him through the maze of metal fences that encage new refugees and separate them from the interviewers.

Inside the tent, however, a professional Arabic translator conducted his Frontex interview.

Dilemma of army defectors

Adnan was questioned about his motives for leaving Syria, tested on his knowledge of the village he claims to be from, asked about his local mosque and the street he grew up on, and had his name run through an international databases of terrorist suspects.

Sometime during that “interview,” Adnan had to make the decision whether or not to disclose his military history. Despite the international community encouraging defections from Assad’s army for years, men with pasts like Adnan’s know that their forced stint as soldiers could cause them to be seen as too dangerous to be let through as refugees.

In the end, Adnan chose not to disclose his military passport during the Frontex interview.

Syrian authorities do not report how many men dodge military service, and local activists say that authorities prohibit anyone else from reporting these numbers.

The independent outlet Rozana Radio published a rare report in January 2014 which claimed 5,000 men from just one province failed to report for military service in 2013.

Wael Aleji of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told Middle East Eye that documenting army kidnappings was “nearly impossible” due in part to the mobility of checkpoints where people can be picked up for service.

“The army changes the locations of the checkpoints often, sometimes daily, so that people can’t warn one another about potential arrests and kidnappings.

"To have a real sense of the numbers, we would need an informer at every checkpoint in every government-controlled province."

Despite the documentation difficulties, Aleji said SNHR’s research in Syria and with refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon suggests “thousands of men escape conscription every year, many by fleeing Syria permanently”.

The names in this story have been changed.

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