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Syrian army soldiers (AP)

Rund al-Huriya writes about a sailor in the Syrian navy and the questions that worry the families of soldiers when the subject of defection comes up. Rund is not her real name and she has changed the names of her friend and her friend’s brother.

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Rund al-Huriya, Izraa’, May 16, 2012

When Ward went off to the Naval College, the Arab Spring was blossoming.  Even in the beginning of the street protests, no one thought that anyone in the military would defect because of the government’s iron fist and the fear of it on the level of the privates, the Syrians who will not reach an officer’s rank.

That was before the growth of the street demonstrations, the arrest and torture of children, the shootings by soldiers, kidnappings by shabiha (government-paid thugs), the bombing of towns by the government.

People are still afraid to believe that many honest soldiers would follow the first defector’s lead – Rund al-Huriya

But then it began: A soldier chose to defect from the Syrian army, and broadcast a video in which he announced his decision and revealed the details of the crackdown campaign in one of Daraa governorate’s towns.  When it began, it was like a snowball.

But nothing happens easily in Syria, especially the choice to run away from government military service and join the enemy. People are still afraid to believe that many honest soldiers would follow the first defector’s lead. To give you an example, I’ll tell you about a close friend of mine, Maali, and of her brother, Ward.

Ward is a 20-year-old military conscript, a handsome man with brown eyes. He has performed 14 months of mandatory military service in the Syrian navy, and has four months left.

Ward is Maali’s favorite beloved brother. She is always talking about how kind, generous, protective, and daredevil he is. Ever since they were kids he was different from her other brothers; he understands her needs and feelings and he supports her decisions.

He stood by her side when their father refused to let her go to the university and he worked to cover her study expenses when their father refused. Now, she tries to repay her brother but he refuses to take it.

The subject comes up slowly

Since the beginning of the revolution, Ward returned home three times to visit his family. Maali said on his first visit, defection was not a subject of family conversation. The second time, the family was still afraid for him to talk about it.

The last time, when they discussed it, he did not say much. He sighed, nodded and said he wished he could do what he thought was right.  But he did not say what that was.

Maali said on his first visit, defection was not a subject of family conversation. The second time, the family was still afraid for him to talk about it – Rund al-Huriya

In the first months of the revolution, I asked Maali, “Why doesn’t Ward defect?”

She said, almost shocked, “What are you talking about?”  “No, no. He can’t, he mustn’t.

“Look, you know how much my sisters and I love him. Let him continue the military service, and come back home safe and sound.”

About three months ago, my friend and I had the same conversation, but her answer changed. She now prefers the act of defection, despite the risks. “We believe when it’s your time to leave, you will die whether you were in your bed or in a battlefield.

“When I think that Ward would die, God forbid, on a certain day, I ask myself where I would like him to die; defending the unjust or the innocent.

“No, no, I don’t want my brother to die defending Bashar al-Assad and stand before Almighty God carrying the sins of killing his brothers.

“If he was going to die, so be it. But while defending the right, not the evil.”

I asked why she changed her mind.

The power of images

“Many things actually, but three images always come to my mind when I think of this,” she said.

The first is her memory of riding to a village in a bus when the driver had to take a byway. Suddenly, there was the overpowering smell of dead bodies.

“I remember the passengers whispering that it was a mass grave,” she told me.

Another time she saw the body of boy who was shot in the head. His brains were hanging out of an opening in his skull. “Every now and then I dream of him,” she said. “He comes to me with his head open, and I wash his hands for him.”

The last image is that of a row of dead infants, each swaddled in white cloth. A government power cut had destroyed the hospital’s generators, someone told her, and the babies in their incubators couldn’t survive.

“I’ve seen so much injustice,” Maali said. “I can no longer deny it or overlook it. As much as I love my brother and want him to be safe, I don’t want him to stand by the regime or defend it.”

Living alone with your thoughts

Let me add one important characteristic of Ward’s personality. He is very secretive. He does not reveal his thoughts or feelings to anybody.

As much as I love my brother and want him to be safe, I don’t want him to stand by the regime or defend it – the sailor’s sister, Maali

I don’t know if this is relevant, but as a brother – although his sister described him well – he is not like the cool brother who would hang out, for example, with his sisters and tell them everything he is thinking.

One time he told me that he and his fellows are locked up – or let’s say – not allowed to leave the campus of the Naval College.

About three weeks ago, when his sister sent him a remittance, he was not allowed to go out and take it. The officer sent someone out to pick it up for him. I think the officers are afraid that conscripts like Ward might defect when they go home to visit friends and family in towns like Idlib or Homs.

The regime has enough shabiha to watch them, but it can’t afford to lose more conscripts to the Free Syrian Army.

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David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.

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