Adonis Diaries

ISIS Came, and Silence Followed.

Posted on: March 1, 2016

Syrian Officer Gave a View of War. ISIS Came, and Silence Followed.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Ours was an unusual, sometimes operatic, correspondence that unfolded over more than a year.

Abu al-Majd, a Syrian police officer who was being deployed more and more often like a soldier, texted at all hours, sending news from the front lines and grumbling about boring, sunbaked patrols, his complaints sometimes punctuated by expressions of terror, pride or doubt.

For us, it was a critical window into the raging war in Syria that we were too often forced to follow from afar.

For him, it seemed about having a connection to people who lived outside the claustrophobia of war, yet cared about what he was going through.

On May 19, 2015, Abu al-Majd sent a pair of snapshots. One showed him in fatigues, smoking a water pipe and starting to smile, as if a friend had just walked in; two cups of Turkish coffee, still foamy, stood on a table

He was about to board a bus to Palmyra, the Syrian desert city that was in the process of falling to the Islamic State.

Many government troops had fled, but Abu al-Majd and a few dozen others had been ordered to fight what he believed to be a doomed battle.

He had taken the photos specially. “These,” he texted, “might be the last pictures.”

We did not hear from him again. Six weeks later, his parents received a call from a man who identified himself as a soldier and warned, “Don’t be hopeful.” Then he hung up.

They went to a security office, where a bureaucrat handed them a piece of paper that said: “Missing.” That stark label, it turned out, masked a terrifying tale of a fighter’s desperate bid for survival, and his struggle between duty and fear.

We had met Abu al-Majd more than a year before, on a reporting trip to Palmyra in April 2014. We were among the last international journalists to visit the city and its imposing ancient ruins, some since blown up by the Islamic State. He was then 24, part of a comically large entourage assigned to guard us — and monitor us.

Palmyra, also known as Tadmur, had lost its main livelihood, tourism, and on its grid of concrete-block streets, men sat around with little to do. Islamic State militants were just a few miles east, while Syrian Army tanks occupied the medieval citadel above the ruins.

Women whispered to us of relatives who had been kidnapped, or had disappeared into government custody after a local rebellion was quashed.

Some of our escorts were jumpy, and a few shopkeepers stared at them with icy eyes. For junior officers like Abu al-Majd, our visit was rare entertainment. At the ruins, they clambered over huge slabs of limestone, striking playful poses.

A month later, Abu al-Majd texted just to say hello. Later he opened up, talking about things he missed, like pomegranates and grapes from the volcanic soil of his family’s ancestral village in the Golan Heights.

As the conversations grew deeper, he seesawed between pride in his national duty and fear, boredom, even anger at the injustices and incompetence he saw in the government’s prosecution of the war.

Checking in regularly, he joined several hundred contacts we maintain inside Syria by telephone, Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other media: army defectors, Islamist insurgents, activists, government officials, business owners, doctors, commanders on all sides.

There are people who support the government, people who loathe it, and people from what they call “the gray middle,” who just want the war to end.

Abu al-Majd — we are using his nickname, and not publishing his photograph, to protect his family — provided insight into the lives of rank-and-file government fighters.

He came from an important subgroup, Sunni loyalists. Syria’s large Sunni majority dominates the insurgency, and also the army conscript pool.

Many quiescent civilians and state employees are also Sunni; if all Sunnis had rebelled, it is less likely that President Bashar al-Assad would still be ruling.

A Quiet Loyalist

Abu al-Majd grew up in Yarmouk, the bustling Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus where many Syrians also live. Not long after the uprising began with political protests and security crackdowns in 2011, his family lost its home to clashes, and moved to another neighborhood, then another.

He was a loyalist — the son of a retired, low-ranking army officer — but not someone who plastered his Facebook page with Syrian flags or pictures of dead insurgents or pledges of allegiance to President Assad. Mostly, he shared photos of his friends and nephews.

He had joined a regular police unit at least a year before the uprising, chasing drug dealers and prostitutes. But as war put pressure on the army, many police units were sent into the fray. Abu al-Majd was deployed to front-line checkpoints and patrolled for insurgent activity east of the central city of Homs, around Palmyra.

With supplies scarce and the Syrian pound plummeting in value, he joked that his salary, around $100 a month, was barely enough to keep him stocked with his favorite apple-flavored tobacco.

He was secretly in love with one of his cousins, but now worried that he could never afford to marry her. The isolation ate at him.

“Please, tell me the latest news,” he wrote in September 2014. “We don’t have TV here, no electricity, I’m living in exile. I’m dead, dead.”

When he got leave, Abu al-Majd went home to cosmopolitan Damascus. He was jealous of troops serving in the capital who could drink and go out with women and enjoy relatively regular electricity, he once said, “as if they are in Europe.”

He confided that he consoled himself with the music of the Lebanese pop artist Wael Kfoury; one of his favorite lyrics was, “I wish I could bring you a gift the size of my love.”

Once, he told us, he dreamed that the Islamic State had arrested him. Soon after, the group attacked security posts in the nearby Shaer gas field, killing several of his friends. In November, he wrote that he was at a cold, rainy post surrounded by militants, waiting five days for reinforcements.

“If I die,” he asked, “would you say, ‘God bless his soul?’”

He shared a memory from 2012 that haunted him. He had been on the phone with a friend whose fighting position was being stormed by insurgents.

“I could feel the knocking on his door,” Abu al-Majd recalled. “Do you know that feeling when someone you know, and you like a lot, will be killed in a few minutes, and you don’t know what to do?”

He complained that Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen backing the government earned more than Syrian fighters, and that troops at busy checkpoints farther west raked in bribes while on the desert front, he said, “we are eating air.”

Something Called Patriotism’

In spite of his frustrations, Abu al-Majd felt that “one shouldn’t turn against his government whatever they do.”

“There’s nothing called ‘with’ or ‘against’ Bashar,” he explained, referring to the president. “There’s something called patriotism, nationalism, loyalty — something called ‘we are Syrians and we should defend our nation.’ You are either with the state or with the terrorist groups.”

He said he wished he would wake up in his old house to find the war had been a dream.

“If I had known how deep was the sea, I would never have swum,” he said, quoting the Damascene poet Nizar Qabbani. “If I had known my end, I would never have begun.”

Last March, his frustration boiled over. He picked a fistfight with aid workers in Damascus, who he said were hoarding or misdirecting food aid with the help of local officials.

“They’re giving two families one portion,” he told us later. “Not only that, they are saying dirty words to people, as if the civilians are beggars.”

The next month, he was outraged after his cousin, a new conscript, was sent to Idlib Province, where the army was losing ground.

One day, Abu al-Majd said, the cousin called to report that he and nine others were surrounded, without vehicles, and digging a hole to hide in. Over the sound of gunfire, he asked Abu al-Majd, “What should we do?”

Abu al-Majd was beside himself.

“We need 10,000 soldiers, not just 10,” he said. “Imagine, they put them in that place to meet their fate.”

On May 14, Islamic State fighters swept into Sukhna, an outpost not far from Palmyra. Troops there, running out of bullets, sent hair-raising farewells.

‘I’m Committing Suicide’

Abu al-Majd was on leave in Damascus as the extremists reached the edge of Palmyra. His mother tried to keep him there by hiding his ID card. He debated asking for a transfer, testing the sincerity of a presidential declaration a few months before that gave men the option to serve close to home.

“I’m not a coward, but I’m a human being who sometimes gets scared,” he said, adding, as if looking for approval, “Am I right?”

But the next day he decided to go back out. He soon learned his unit would be sent to Palmyra; the commanders said they would report anyone who did not join

 “I’m walking on my feet toward death, but I can’t do anything. Don’t ask me what time I’m leaving; I hate this question. I wish I wouldn’t wake up tomorrow

May 16: He shared a Facebook post from a friend: “O God, homeland, your heroes are living in graves, and your thieves are in castles.”

May 17: He reached Homs, and went to a fortune teller. She saw him moving to a pleasant place, “green, with trees all around.” Paradise?

May 18: A reprieve. Land mines on the road to Palmyra had forced his bus to turn back.

May 19: The last snapshots.

Then: nothing.

We had followed many battles, but Palmyra was different.

It was resonant as the home of Syria’s most magnificent antiquities, and we had been there recently. We knew archaeologists, antigovernment activists, tribal leaders, tea shop owners and security men. We even knew a fighter with the invading Islamic State force. Together they gave us an up-close, real-time view of a city falling

The Islamic State beheaded government employees in the street, shot soldiers in an ancient amphitheater and gave bread to residents.

Government warplanes dropped bombs, as officials incorrectly declared that all civilians had been evacuated. Activists opposed to both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State went into hiding.

A young intelligence officer we had met in Palmyra — he had shown us pictures of himself in a helicopter loaded with the barrel bombs often dropped on rebellious neighborhoods — told of escaping with nothing but his gun.

Another police officer, with a reputation for torturing suspects, described walking for a day and a half across the desert to reach safety. Before fleeing, he said, he had seen Abu al-Majd at the military airport, wounded in the leg and shoulder.

Abu al-Majd’s social-media status was frozen at “I am in Tadmur,” or Palmyra, followed by a frowny face. “Precious, don’t be sad for me. We are from God and to God we return.”

It was July 23 when we heard from Abu al-Majd’s family that he was officially missing. They gave up on learning more from security officials — “dogs,” one relative called them — and, presuming he was dead, hosted mourners and received condolences.

We needed to know more.

How It Ended

In the ensuing months, we reached two police officers who had stayed in touch with Abu al-Majd to the end and three Palmyra residents who had witnessed his fate, and we compared notes with relatives. This is what we learned.

On May 19, about 60 officers and soldiers had boarded unarmored buses bound for Palmyra, with flak jackets but no weapons. Abu al-Majd was terrified to go, but unsure of what punishment he might face in a country where people could go to prison and simply disappear, was also terrified not to.

“He kept calling all the way from the bus, ‘We’re going to die,’ repeating those words,” one of his fellow officers recalled. “I told him to give the driver any excuse, like he wants to buy cigarettes, and then run away, but he never listened to me.”

The bus dropped the men at the military airport on the outskirts of Palmyra, which was attacked that night. Many were killed; the others fled. Abu al-Majd hid in the house of a family he knew.

He called Damascus daily from the land line, speaking softly, begging friends to send a car. His father told him not to surrender; his uncle advised him to read the Quran.

But the Islamic State was threatening to kill anyone who harbored a government fighter.

After eight days, Abu al-Majd felt he could no longer endanger his hosts, and fled down the street in a borrowed robe and loose pants, trying to pass for a resident.

He must have walked down the same cinder-block streets where he had accompanied us a year earlier, lined with cellphone shops and bakeries. He went unnoticed until the call to prayer.

The Islamic State requires men to attend prayers, so he entered a mosque. Inside, a fighter approached and asked Abu al-Majd if he was with the police.

“He said, ‘Yes, I’m here and I’m praying and I didn’t do anything,’” recalled a Palmyra resident who was there.

The fighter responded, “Now, you remembered to repent?”

On the street outside, the militants announced his arrest, using his full name.

“I saw 10 Daesh fighters with their horrible faces, one holding the sword,” a local woman told us later, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They beheaded him in front of my eyes.”

The body lay in the street for several days, according to three witnesses. Last month, family members said security officials had told them they had a video of the killing, but did not share it.

“I blame the government,” one relative said. “What can 200 soldiers do against 2,000 Daesh? I don’t have a problem with death, but with the way he died.”

As we were investigating Abu al-Majd’s death, the Islamic State started destroying antiquities in Palmyra. In August, they blew up the site’s grandest structure, the Temple of Baal.

It is where we remember Abu al-Majd. In our pictures, the stone is glowing golden, and he is grinning and playing on the rocks.

Anne Barnard has been the Beirut bureau chief of The New York Times since 2013, leading coverage of the Syrian civil war.

Hwaida Saad, a Lebanese journalist who lived through her country’s civil war and has been chronicling Syria’s since it began in 2011, has worked for The Times as an interpreter, news assistant and reporter since 2008.

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March 2016

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