HOMS, Syria – Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, many military personnel have defected from the ranks of those loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While many join up with opposition groups fighting to depose Assad, others join the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians en route to Europe. A small minority, however, attempt to return to a civilian life at home despite the ongoing violence.
Abu Luay, 27, defected from the Syrian police back in 2012 because of his opposition to the government’s harsh crackdown on protesters at the start of the uprising in Syria. At first he joined the local Revolutionary Military Council in Homs, but soon changed his mind. He could do more good, he thought, by farming and creating community projects at home than fighting a losing battle with limited weapons and supplies. Syria Deeply sat down with Abu Luay at his home in the town of al-Hawleh, Homs, to hear the story of his transition from government agent to rebel fighter to independent community leader.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Abu Luay: I am 27 years old, from the Hawleh Valley in Homs. I am a married father with one child. I studied to become a technician, and after I graduated in 2009, I joined the police force as a warrant officer. I served in Idlib in northwestern Syria for two years before the revolution began, then my life took a turn.
Syria Deeply: What changed in 2011 that caused you to defect?
Abu Luay: When the demonstrations started in Idlib, the regime turned to violent tactics immediately, and checkpoints were planted all over the city. At the beginning of my career, I did not have any contact with average people on the streets, but in 2012 I was transferred to serve at the “Farmers’ Union checkpoint.” The officers on this checkpoint were known for being violent – everyone had heard of countless young men they had beaten and arrested. I tried to be as nice to people as possible, but my behavior raised suspicion and I was scared that I might be arrested if I continued to be lenient. On October 27, 2012, al-Nusra Front attacked our checkpoint with a car bomb and two of my colleagues were killed. That was when I decided to defect.
I was fasting that day of the attack. Around the time for sunset prayers and breaking the fast, a Christian colleague offered to take my place, so that I could break the fast. A few minutes after I left, a car exploded while he was searching it.
Syria Deeply: How did you arrange for your defection and who helped you?
Abu Luay: There were many reasons behind my decision. One was the maltreatment of people at the checkpoint. We had to follow orders and we could not show any sympathy to people. The other factor was Jabhat al-Nusra targeting our checkpoint with a car bomb. I did not want to die serving and protecting the regime. I always thought of defecting, but I was too scared to leave. After the explosion happened, I finally had the strength to do it. I thought, if I end up dying, at least I would not die serving the regime.
I was not alone. I defected along with a friend of mine from Aleppo. I contacted another friend who was with the opposition and asked for his help. He and his group planned the whole thing.
I coordinated with the Free Syrian Army through the owner of a grocery store next to the checkpoint where I served. He put me in contact with the Free Syrian Army. We spent a whole month preparing, and I finally did it during my night shift. It was three in the morning, and the electricity was off. Two friends and I left the checkpoint and brought with us our weapons, two boxes of ammunition and a box of grenades. We snuck into an olive tree orchard, and then walked for a couple of kilometers. Then, we rendezvoused with some guys from the Free Syrian Army who took us to a safe place. Until the others on the checkpoint figured out that we were missing, we were already far away. My whole family was In Homs at that time.
I fought with the Free Syrian Army for six months in Idlib, and participated in the siege of the Daif Valley with a local battalion known as the Descendants of the Prophet. When the regime imposed a blockade on my hometown of al-Hawleh, I decided to go back and help our military council lift the blockade.
Syria Deeply: What happened in al-Hawleh?
Abu Luay: I fought with the military council in al-Hawleh for nearly six months, but we simply weren’t receiving a sufficient amount of support – we weren’t able to fight to our potential. The military council was running out of weapons, which meant inevitable death. Additionally, I had no income and was running out of money and a way to provide for my family – that’s eventually what led to my decision to quit. Throughout my entire sixth-month stint there, I received about $150, which wasn’t even enough to feed my wife and kid – who, I should mention, were already suffering from the government-imposed blockade of our town, like many others.
Syria Deeply: What did you do after you left your work with the military council?
Abu Luay: I had inherited a small piece of land in the Hawleh Valley, so I decided to grow food. In the winter, I planted wheat, barley and chickpeas, and in summer I planted cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans and eggplants. The revenue was really good during the summer, so I saved some money. I wanted to start a project that would help people. Since the regime had cut off electricity, I bought a 40hp generator and wires, and started an electricity service for people in my neighborhood.
A family member is taking care of the land right now. I preferred to concentrate on the generator business, since it is closer to what I majored in back in school. The generator provides electricity for 30 homes in our neighborhood. Each house receives one ampere, which is enough to turn on a TV and one light.
Syria Deeply: Is the business better than farming? How do you manage to secure diesel to keep the generator on?
Abu Luay: For me, it is not as much about having a profitable business as it is about providing people with much-needed services. The income, which is around $80 per month, isn’t a lot, especially with prices soaring the way they are, but it’s something.
Due to the blockade, securing diesel is a challenge, and it’s enormously expensive. I mean, sometimes it can reach nearly $1 per liter. To get around this, we use dirt roads to smuggle in our supplies. It’s not without risk and it’s never stable, but it’s better than nothing.
Syria Deeply: After all of you’ve been through, what do you think the future of Syria will look like?
Abu Luay: In my opinion, the crisis will not end so long as the regime is in place. It [Assad’s government] must fall for this crisis to end. The regime is the reason behind the suffering of the Syrian people. No political effort will bear fruit as long as the regime remains, because it simply does not believe in political solutions. That said, I do believe that the future will be better than today.
The situation in Syria is getting worse every day. Like all Syrians, I dream of an end to this conflict, but unfortunately it looks like things will not end as we had hoped. To tell the truth, the whole thing is out of the hands of Syrian people. It’s become an international game.
Top image: Free Syrian Army fighters look at a Syrian Army jet, not pictured, in Fafeen village north of Aleppo on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)