From: Damascus, Syria
When the war came, I was about to graduate high school. Everyone expected that I would graduate as the top student in all of Damascus. I had studied seven subjects and each subject has just one exam for the entire year. I had taken all of the exams except the last one: Arab Culture. This is the most important subject–if you don’t pass the exam, you fail everything and have to do the year over again. I arrived to the place where the exam was being given– in a school between Damascus and the countryside.
The exam period is three hours, and because the questions are long essay questions, you need at least two hours to finish the exam. After an hour and forty minutes, we heard fighting– the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s government were fighting outside the school. They immediately evacuated us so that no one would get hurt in the fighting. But I did not have enough time to finish the exam: the last question was 30 points, which is half the exam. I got 28 out of 60 and you need at least 30 to pass.
It was the first shock for me in the war. I had perfect grades in all of the subjects but because of the fighting, I failed the Arabic class. I was so disappointed that I went away from my family to be by myself for two months.
(Audio excerpt from Samer’s interview)
I worked in my brother-in-law’s restaurant for a few months, and then I took the exam again. This time, I passed with a high score- I lost only twelve points. I still remember the question I got wrong. It was: what are the conditions of Jihad (religious war)? I left it blank because I didn’t know it. Now I know the real answer. Today, what Jihad really means is to fight for God peacefully. It does not mean you should kill or hurt people.
After I graduated from high school, I started studying business.
It was right before exams in my first year at the university. I sat with my friend, Rafat (read Rafat’s full story here) in the basement of his family’s house. I told him that I had heard that the terrorists were coming to the city. I told him, “I think tomorrow will be a real attack, not just threats this time.”
He said, “Okay. I will go talk to my family and you talk to yours.”
I went home and sat down with my mother and father. I told them what I had heard. They said, they always say that, it’s just talk. They didn’t believe me. And Rafat’s family said the same thing.
The next morning, I woke up at 5:30 am, like I did every day. But on this day, there was a war outside. I heard sounds of shooting and fighting. I thought it was still behind the city, so I decided to go to the university. I went down the stairs and walked out of my building and I saw a man standing there. I said, “Hi, good morning.”
He turned and looked at me– he was a tall man, and he was not Syrian. He had long blond hair to his stomach, a big head, and a gun. He looked at me and said, “Where are you going?”
I felt the blood stop in my body. I could not move. I just looked at him. I saw the logo of the terrorist group Jabat al Nusra. I realized: they are here. They are in the city. My only thought was that I must go to the bakery and bring some bread because the terrorists are here and they will for stay a long time.
I went to the bakery, and I bought some bread and food. The sounds of fighting and shooting kept getting louder and closer. When I walked outside of the bakery, a car drove up and the people inside started shooting a machine gun and killing everyone. I ran back to my house.
My family was so worried about me– when I got back they said, “Where were you? There’s fighting and there are terrorists in the street.”
I told them, “We needed bread, so I went to get the bread.”
Then we heard an announcement on the loudspeakers– they said, “Everyone should go down to the basement now, because the government will start attacking the area with planes and tanks.”
So we took food and blankets and we went down to the basement.
That night, a terrorist group went up to our roof to set up a satellite for communications. We slept.
When we woke up the next morning, some people came to the front door of the building. They were sent to check the people.
They said, “Everyone who has an apartment in this building should come out with his key so that we can check all of the apartments.”
Our neighbor on the fourth floor was from the same city as the president. He had a strong accent that would completely give him away if spoke a single word. It’s like if someone from the UK speaks, you know immediately where he is from. I thought definitely they will kill him or take him hostage. And he had two small children who were just 4 or 5-years-old. And his wife was young.
I told this neighbor, “Just give me the key to your apartment. You should stay downstairs in the basement with the women, because I don’t think they will check the women.”
He said okay. I took the key and went out to meet them. They said, “Who are you?”
I told them, “This is the key to my apartment on the fourth floor.” I walked up the stairs with the four terrorists. I was so scared, I felt my blood stop. I had a lot of keys in my hands, and there two doors to the apartment-– first a steel door and then a wooden door. It’s supposed to be my house, but I didn’t know which key opened which door. I’m just trying all the keys.
They said to me, “What? You don’t know which key is for which door?”
I said, “If you put a gun to my head then of course I won’t be able to remember which key. Do you think I have a lot of experience with guns and terrorists?”
Then I finally got the door to open. The guy hit my back with the head of his gun and said, “Go inside.” Another guy was standing with his gun pointed at me, ready to shoot.
My neighbor, who was a police general, had neglected to mention to me that he had guns and bombs stashed in his house. But when he saw that it was taking us a long time, he figured that they had found the weapons and started shooting against the terrorists in the basement in order to deflect their attention and to save me.
The terrorists who were upstairs with me heard the shooting and left me and went downstairs. I followed. They said to my neighbor, “Stop fighting for a minute so the civilians can leave, and then we can continue fighting.”
I left the building.
They were trying to talk to him. They told him, “Come out we will not kill you or hurt your family.”
He said, “No. I will die; I will not let you catch me or take me as a hostage.”
He ran out out through the window to the garden and then to the other side of the building. As he started climbing up the wall, a sniper shot him and he died.
They came back inside, looking for me because I had been protecting him. I was just sitting there in the house.
I told them, “He had children and a wife and I didn’t want there to be fighting.”
They took my ID card and they said, “We will kill your father if you don’t tell us more information about this guy.” They took my father, put a gun to his head and said, “Do you want to say anything else before we kill your father?”
Then I pushed the gun away from my father and hit the guy. He took the gun and hit my shoulder. I told him, “If you want a real fight, give me a gun or put down your gun and come fight me.”
He said, “Okay. I will put down my gun and we will see who is the man here.”
I said, “Okay.”
Then the boss said, “Just shut your fucking mouth and come here.” He said, “We did not come here to kill anyone or to make any trouble.”
I said, “Oh yeah, you didn’t do anything. You just killed a man.”
He said, “Shut up and go inside.”
I said, “Put down your gun and tell me to shut up, if you’re a real man.”
He said, “You are young I am not going to talk to a young person, just shut your fucking mouth.”
I said, “Okay. But one day we will meet and we will know who is the real man.”
He took my ID and said, “Because your mother is from our city, we will let you go.” My mother is from the countryside of Damascus, near the main area of the revolution.
They told us that our area was about to become a war zone and that we should take everything and go to the center of the city. In one or two minutes we packed everything, left the house and started walking further inside the city.
All around us, there was fighting between the government and the Free Syrian Army. Government planes flew overhead and shot at everything. Bombs fell from the sky.
We walked for 100 meters until we found a building that was still in the process of being built, and went down to the basement. We didn’t have any blankets or food, because in the commotion we had forgotten to take it. My father, mother, three brothers, two sisters and my sister’s three-year-old son-– we all just sat there and listened to the sounds of the tanks and the planes and the fighting.
A few hours later, I was lying down, when I felt the nose of a gun touching me. Groups of Nusra fighters had come to the basement.
The guy with the gun said, “Wake up give me your ID.”
I looked at him. He looked like a devil. He had a big head, long hair, barely a human being. More like an animal who can talk. He had a big gun.
He said again, “Give me your ID.” I gave him my ID. He said, “We know you are working with the government.”
I said, “I’m sorry, I’m so tired, just tell me what it is that you want.”
He said, “I’m telling you that you are working with the government.”
I said, “Okay, what do you want now? Do you want to kill me? So kill me. If you don’t want to kill me, let me go back to sleep. I want to sleep.”
He said, “You can’t sleep here with the women.”
I told him, “But I’m here with my mother and sisters.”
“But there are other women.”
The whole time I was just in shock. I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t eat or drink.
The next day, another group came to check our IDs. They would always come to me first because I am a young man of fighting age.
On the fifth or sixth day a group of Nusra came to the basement and said, “We need four people to help us with something. Who will come help?”
We just sat there and looked away.
He said, “Okay we will try another way.” He turned his gun on and shot two bullets into the air. “Now who wants to come with me.” He pointed, “You, you, you, and you.”
I said, “Me?”
He said, “You.”
And I said, “Fuck.”
We walked with him for three or four blocks without speaking. He told us, “We need to dig graves to bury some people.”
I said, “I’ve never seen a dead person before. I can’t do it.”
He said, “Shut up and get started.” We went to bring shovels.
Then we walked into a small garden. He told me and another guy, “There is a body over there and on that block there are three dead people, and on the second floor of this building there are two dead people. Behind that garbage can there is one dead person and in that building there are two dead women. You should go and bring all of those people and put them in this hole.”
We went into to the first building and we brought the dead people to the hole. Then we went to the 3rd floor of a building and saw two women and one man. The man had exploded himself inside the room. He was completely black and like stone. In the last moment he had spread out his arms so we couldn’t carry him out of the room. I was so stressed. I could not touch the body.
The terrorist who was with us said, “I will cut off his hands so we can carry him through the door.”
I looked at him in shock, and said, “But he is dead! I will figure out a way to carry him out.”
The guy said, “As you like. He is just an animal so you can do whatever you like with him.”
We laid the dead man flat on the ground. We turned his body to the side and carried him out the door.
Then my neighbor and his brother sat on the ground. My neighbor felt his head spinning he couldn’t walk or stand up. My brother was crying. He started to vomit. They were all in shock.
Only one other person was able to continue helping me. We brought all of the people to the hole. There were bodies without legs or without heads or completely burnt. Or the dogs had started eating the body.
Then, when I was almost finished, they sent my brother and the other guys back to the building. They told me, “Those people can’t complete the work, so you must do it alone.”
Then the blood started coming out of my ears and my nose and my mouth. My eyes were red. I broke three shovels trying to shovel sand into the grave. There were no more shovels left. Then they told me,”It’s okay we will finish, you can go.”
I said, “Wait, let me just say a prayer.” In our religion, you are supposed to say something for the dead.
They said, “No, these are animals, not people. You should not say any prayers for them.”
After a brief argument, I left and went back to my family.
While we were in that basement, different groups would come, take our IDs, and question us. They were recruiting fighters. They would come and take me out of the basement, up to the entrance of the building.
They would always threaten to kill you.
Then ISIS came. They wanted to find out if I was a Sunni Muslim.
I told the guy, “I don’t care about you. You are a terrorist and bad person.” He got so angry. He tried to punch me in the face, but I protected my face with my hand, so he hit my hand.
Then he said, “You are not Muslim.” He started to ask me if I knew this person or that person– all people who were not Sunni.
I told him, “No, no, and no.”
He said, “You are not Muslim so we are allowed to kill you.” He put his knife to my neck.
I told him, “You want me to be afraid? Okay. I am afraid now. What do you want?”
He said, “Be serious. I have my knife on your neck and I can cut it.”
I said, “Okay, I am afraid now.”
He started asking me questions to prove that I am Muslim.
He told me to identify a passage from the Koran. But he said he would read from one sura (chapter in the Koran) and then he started reciting from a completely different sura. I was confused; yes, I was a little bit afraid but I was still able to recognize that he was reciting a different sura than the one he said he would recite from.
He realized that I was looking at him like he’s stupid. He said “What?”
I told him he was reading the wrong sura.
The leader of the group was standing behind him, and for a second, he couldn’t help it and he started laughing. He knew that they other guy was reading the wrong passage, but he didn’t correct him because he didn’t want to make him look bad.
I told the leader of the group, “This is nonsense. This guy put the knife on my neck and he said if I answer wrong he will kill me, but now he said everything wrong. That means that now I’m allowed to put the knife to his neck and kill him. That’s what you should do if you really believed that.”
So then they let me go and I went back to the basement.
One day, the Free Army from the south came and started to check my ID. Then they said to me, “How do we know you are not fighting with the government? We need something to prove that you are not a soldier.”
I gave them my military papers. The military has a small book like a passport and it tells you when you have to join the army. You have a copy and the government has a copy. While I was studying, I would get an official paper from my university and take it to the Ministry of Defense, and they would defer my enlistment for another year. Each year, you have until March to take care of it, and I hadn’t gone yet. In my file, it said that I was being drafted into the military service in only six days.
They said, “You’re joining the army in six days.”
I showed them my university ID and told them that I had exams coming up.
“Why didn’t you go to get out of the army?”
I told them, “I was planning to go, but then you guys came to the city.”
The leader said, “Let him go. Just break his ID and take his government papers. Let the government kill him.” If you don’t have an ID and military papers, the government will assume that you’re a terrorist and kill you.
The next day we went to my sister’s house. I couldn’t eat or sleep because I was so nervous. Every four or five days I’d eat a little bit of food.
Twenty days after this whole ordeal started, we heard a knock at the door. I thought it was one of the neighbors. When I opened the door I didn’t see anyone. Then I heard a cough. I turned my face and said, “Oh, hi.” He said, “Hi.” I said, “Hi.”
He put his gun on his shoulder and introduced himself as the prince of the most powerful terrorist group–- Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden’s group. He said, “I want to talk to you.”
I said, “Me? Why?”
He said, “Not just to you, but to all of the men in this area. I’m going down to the first floor. Please gather every man on this floor and the next floor and let them know that I want to talk to everybody.”
We all went down to an apartment on the first floor. He was sitting in the living room. Everyone was afraid. He was the most powerful person in all the terrorist groups.
He started to tell us about his past. He was born and raised in Afghanistan. He was one of Osama bin Laden’s students. He helped him plan the attack against the US in 2001, when he was just 13 years-old. He has been fighting since he was nine. He told us that code for the 9/11 attack was “the prices of burial shrouds will be expensive tomorrow.” Then he started to explain the attack, and how they did it.
He told us that he has been to many different countries– to Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and many different countries. He said, “I came here not to scare you, but to help you. We want to defeat the regime and help you fight for your freedom.” He told us, “Everyone who wants to come and fight beside us will be protected by us. He will have money and power. We will send his family out of Syria.”
Nobody answered him. We were all staring at him. He was not afraid, he had put his gun away. But his body was shaking like someone who had taken a lot of drugs. And he was sitting calmly with at least fifty men– he had gathered all of the men from that street into that house. There were no body guards with him, but we knew that outside the building there were twenty cars and more than a hundred people with all kinds of weapons.
He said, “I’m not going to treat you like a dictator. I will give you 48 hours. Some of you will come to fight beside us. Others will help build sand ditches, and the other people will cook. You should organize yourselves to help us because if you are not with us you are against us and that will be a problem. One man will stay with each family; the rest will come with us.”
The next morning at 6:30 am, some terrorists walked through the streets and announced over speakers, “Everyone should prepare to leave the city at 7:00.”
We took everything and left.
We left the city and came to a big factory that belonged to the government. They started to check the men. They made us take off our clothes because they wanted to check for marks to see if anyone had been using a Kalashnikov. Then they started to check everyone’s ID.
They were the special guards of Assad’s palace.
They took us by bus to another place behind the city to bring the special national security police. I stayed there, with my family.
The first day, we just sat and waited. We didn’t know what was happening. But we felt safe because we were away from the fighting. There were a lot of people. We slept on the ground outside the building. The place was so dirty. We had no water and no food. It was the 26th of December and it was cold and snowing.
The second day, nothing happened.
On the morning of the third day, I saw a high school friend of mine and went to talk to her. She asked me, “How is your sister’s son?”
I told her he was sick because he hadn’t eaten anything for 3 days. He couldn’t move. He was just lying there, covered with a blanket.
She said, “I can get some food from my sister because she also has a young son.” So she brought me a little bit of food. And we had to to keep the food a secret because there are a lot of people with no food.
I gave my sister’s son the food– and he was like someone whom you took out of hell and put him in heaven. He started laughing and crying. And it was the worst moment for me. I felt like someone stuck a knife into my heart and cut it to pieces. Because he’s such a young kid, and when he saw the food he was so happy that he started dancing. He took the food and ate it in two seconds– like a lion attacking it’s prey.
Two hours later, the Red Cross brought a lot of food for all of the people. I took half of my food and gave it to another family– a woman with a small kid. She was crying while she watched her son eat the food.
In the evening, one of the government officials started organizing the IDs to question the people.
Someone we knew who was working with the government told us that he saw our family’s IDs in the government building. He said, “Tomorrow I will bring your IDs, but don’t tell anyone.”
The next morning he brought everyone in my family their ID except for me and my brother. He couldn’t find ours. We tried to convince our mother and father to leave because there was someone who could take them to Damascus.
At first they refused. They said, “We came together we will leave together.” They did not want to leave us there. Then we took everyone and put them in a car and sent them out.
When they left I was finally able to eat and smoke. I had my first cigarette of the month when they left. My brother and I can take care of ourselves, but my mother is in her late 50’s and she was already sick before the fighting came to the city– she had a problem with the nerves in her hand. And my sister has her young son who was just 3 years old.
We were afraid that our ID were gone. When security wants someone, they just make his ID disappear. But we thought if they really wanted us they would have taken us as soon as we had arrived.
I was not afraid, but my 16 year-old brother was. I told him, it’s okay. We have money.
After a week, it got better. The government let people bring us cigarettes and food. We were sleeping outside in the snow with no blankets, but you stop caring. It becomes normal to sleep outside every night, wake up in the morning and shake the snow from your body.
On the evening of our seventh day there, they called me in to question me. I went into the building. They sent me to the third floor. As I walked through the building, I saw people sitting on the floor and I heard sounds of people screaming and being beaten.
When I got to the room I was told to find, there were twelve detectives inside. I walked in.
The first one greeted me, “Good evening.” I was surprised that they were being so friendly. Then he asked, “How are you?”
I said to him, “What a great question. I’ve been sleeping in the snow for eight days, I’m sick, I haven’t eaten well for a month now. First I was stuck with the terrorists for twenty-one days and now I am here and you will question me. I really don’t think “how are you” is the perfect question to ask me right now. Maybe you should just start questioning me– I want to leave already, it’s enough.”
He laughed. “Just tell me your name, your ID number, and which village you are from and I’ll let you leave.
Now I started laughing. I said, “Are you kidding me?”
“Are you enjoying your studies in the business department? I think that’s definitely the perfect place for you.” He continued, “We know you are studying marketing, so we know that you can lie.”
I told him, “So if you already know everything about me, you don’t need to question me.”
He handed me my ID and I went out.
Now I had my ID, but I couldn’t leave because the whole area is a military zone.I saw a soldier and I walked up to him.
I said, “Good morning. How are you.”
I offered him a cigarette. I asked him, “How much do you need to get me out of here.”
He said, “Are you stupid? You are talking to a soldier in the special security forces. I can arrest you and send you to jail.”
I said, “Oh, I’m sorry where am I now? In heaven? I am already in jail. Just tell me, how much do you need to take me out?”
He started to get angry. “I will hit you! I told you, I am a soldier. If you don’t shut up, I will arrest you.”
I said again, “Just tell me. How much do you need? It’s just a question.”
Finally, he said “Okay. I need 5,000 pounds per person.”
I gave him 10,000 pounds for me and my brother. He got us away from the security surveillance and stopped a car. He said, “Just give this guy some money and he will take you out.”
I asked, “How much do you need to take me outside this area.” He said, “ I need 5,000 pounds.” I gave it to him and he took us to the next city over. This city was controlled by the Free Army but there was no fighting at the time. When we got to the entrance of the city, he couldn’t go inside because he was with the government and the city was controlled by the Free Army. So we walked the rest of the way.
Right when we left the car we ran into our next door neighbor from back home. He said, “Come to my house, take a shower.”
I said, “Not now, I just need to find a way to get to Damascus.”
He took us to his friend and told him take us to wherever we wanted to go. I told the guy “I want to go as far away as I can get from here.”
He said, “I can take you to the city behind the international road but I need 4,000 pounds because we’re crossing four cities.” He told us to bring cigarettes and food and some money to bribe the soldiers.
We crossed every checkpoint with either money or cigarettes. But one city was closed because there was fighting. When we arrived there, they turned every car around. I looked outside and saw that one of the soldiers was the brother of a friend of mine. He told me we couldn’t go inside because there of the fighting.
I told him that I would take responsibility for everything that happens once we go inside. He let us go. The driver knew a safe route. But then he told us, “I can’t take you any further. I will leave you here and go back.”
So we left the car and I gave him the money. I was just trying to find a place to buy cigarettes and food. I started to relax. I saw a shop and went inside.
Then I saw someone I knew. It was my friend– a guy who used to live in the same building as me. He was on the first floor and I was on the second. He took us to his house.
I showered for more than three hours. Then I ate at least 10 kilograms of rice. And chicken. And sweets. I smoked three packs of cigarettes in three hours. I took another shower at night because I was still so dirty. Then I went to see another friend. I charged my phone so I could call my family.
The next day I stopped a taxi in the street and asked him to take us to Damascus. He said, “Okay. I need 4,000 pounds.” I had 5,000 left, so I said okay, and we drove off.
As we were arriving to the first checkpoint, the driver mentioned that yesterday he had been driving some people from my city and the government took them and sent them back to be questioned. I told him, “Why didn’t you tell me that? I’m from that city.” He was shocked. I said, “Just keep going, and we can figure it out.”
But before we got to the soldier at the checkpoint, a General waved us over.“Excuse me,” He said. “I’m sorry to bother you but can you tell me where you are going?”
The driver told him we were going to Damascus.
The general asked, “Which part?”
“The city center.”
The general said, “ I have to go there too. I’m so sorry I lost my car; can I go with you?”
I was so happy. We were able to cross all of Damascus without showing our IDs or dealing with any checkpoints. We arrived to the city center in 20 minutes. Without him it would have taken us three hours.
We went to the shop of my father’s friend in Damascus because I wanted to change my clothes. When I went inside, I saw my mother and my sister. I stayed with them for a while then I went to meet my friends at a restaurant in the old city. I sat with some friends, including Rafat, and we ate and walked. I think I ate more than 50 kilograms of food. I smoked a lot. It was hard to believe I had a normal life again.
Two days later, I had my first exam in the university for a high level accounting course. I hadn’t studied anything for an entire month. I had just been through the worst period of entire life. I was still in shock. But I took my exams and I passed seven out of eight subjects.
The next semester I finished 8 subjects with grades between 90 and 100.
In October, 2014, when I was just about finished with my last year in the university, I decided to leave Syria. Once you finish your studies you have to either join the army or run away. So I left one last subject unfinished, the course I had failed right after I escaped from the terrorists and the army.
I had thought maybe the war would end before I graduated. I didn’t want to leave to Syria. I wanted to stay with my family. But then I was almost finished and there was no higher education in this department. You have to leave Syria for that. So I said, when I finish my studies , maybe the war will be over by then, maybe I can go back.
My father said if you want to leave, I will go tomorrow to the bank to get the money. He had been working with the government so he was able to take out a loan, $700. It cost $300 for the passport and $465 for a plane ticket. Then it was just a matter of deciding when I would leave. I wanted to make it fast. I went to the ticket office and told them I wanted the next flight–- it was a week later. I started to say goodbye to everyone I knew. It was a lot of people– friends, family. I packed up all of my things and then I left.