Syrian soldier tells of murder and lies
When Wasid joined the army, he thought he'd be fighting against terrorists destabilising his homeland. Instead, he was told to shoot unarmed civilians.
'We were going to fight terrorists,' said Wasid, remembering his excitement as he prepared for his first chance of action as a conscript in the Syrian army.
He had travelled to the southern town of Deraa where the Syrian uprising began three months ago. In the weeks leading up to the deployment, they'd been sold the party line: they were the loyal military taking on armed, foreign-backed forces seeking to destabilise the country. He'd even seen ununiformed enemy fighters on Syrian TV.
But on arrival in Deraa, Wasid was shocked to discover no such enemy forces existed. 'As soon as we got there, the officers told us not to shoot at the men carrying guns,' he said. 'They said the gunmen were with us. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It had all been lies.'
Wasid told his story to the Guardian's Martin Chulov in Istanbul, where he is now in hiding and speaking under an assumed name. He wants to expose the lies his government is telling but fears for the safety of his relatives who remain in Syria.
'I found out later that these groups were on the regime's side,' he says of the armed civilians. 'They were the Shabiha.' According to Wasid, the Shabiha – or 'ghosts' – are a group with strong links to the military who have a reputation for committing acts of bloody violence in troublesome towns.
'The first day we arrived there, the Shabiha came to the base to speak with our officers. It was clear that the relationship was close.'
Wasid found himself in a terrible situation. The protestors on the streets, he realised, were unarmed and innocent. Meanwhile, officers on his own side were helping the Shabiha to kill them.
It soon got worse. Wasid and the other soldiers were ordered to attack civilians themselves. One man spoke up in protest. The next day he was killed. Officers claimed he had been shot by terrorists but Wasid knew he had been murdered by his own government.
Do or die
For soldiers, the ultimate virtue is obedience. Armies only work when people follow orders, without stopping to ask why, and all military men swear solemn oaths of loyalty when they join the armed forces.
But Wasid knew that his orders were wrong, and he had to disobey. Along with some colleagues, he laid down his weapons, abandoned his uniform and fled to Turkey. To the Syrian government, Wasid and the others are deserters and traitors. Some would say, however, that disobeying evil orders makes Wasid a hero.
- Is obedience ever a virtue?
- What would you have done in Wasid's place? Would it have been easy or hard? Why?
- Write a short drama imagining the discussion between Wasid and his fellow soldiers as they decide whether or not to desert.
- Find out what's happening in Syria and write a short news story with the latest update.
Some People Say...
“If soldiers follow criminal orders, it's the officers who are responsible, not the soldiers themselves.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What's actually happening in Syria?
- Syria got caught up in the wave of protests that have been sweeping through the Middle East since January. Protestors want President Assad to introduce democratic reforms.
- But Assad has refused?
- Indeed. He has crushed demonstrations with brutal force, sending tanks into rebellious towns and arresting and torturing anyone who dares to oppose his regime.
- So he's using the army to murder civilians?
- It seems so. Some soldiers have rebelled, but most are following orders, either out of loyalty or out of fear.
- I'm surprised Wasid didn't know what was going on.
- How could he know? He says that when the soldiers were in Damascus before leaving for Deraa, they were kept isolated – only allowed to see two hours of TV a day and only the channel run by the President's first cousin.
- Some countries require their citizens to join the army and take part in military service. These forced soldiers are called conscripts, as opposed to volunteers.
- Party line
- The 'party line' is a phrase which means 'the official story'. It often indicates something that isn't true, although everyone has to pretend that it is.
- Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is the largest city in Turkey, sitting between Asia and Europe. The capital of Turkey, however, is Ankara.
- A soldier who leaves the army without permission is known as a 'deserter'. The punishment for this has traditionally been death by firing squad.