HOMS, Syria — Hungry, encircled by better-armed Syrian troops and desperate to flee the Islamist rebels who’d tortured him for months before forcing him to join them, Alaa al Dagastani seized his chance during a U.N.-brokered evacuation of civilians from the shell-blasted ruins of the Old City of Homs.
“To be honest, at first we were scared to return to the government. We were afraid we’d be killed,” recounted Dagastani, a former soldier who was one of hundreds of insurgents who surrendered during the six-day evacuation in February. “We walked out between the civilians.”
But Dagastani still isn’t free. He and about 120 other former insurgents who were promised amnesty in return for surrendering are living under armed guard in a dilapidated art school for women. They sleep in dingy classrooms on grimy mattresses on the floor, undergoing counseling by clerics and psychologists as they wait to be released.
The makeshift detention center is part of what President Bashar Assad’s regime says is a program to rehabilitate some of those who’ve fought against it during the civil war, now in its fourth year. Some 10,000 former insurgents have been granted amnesty in just over the past year, according to the Ministry of Reconciliation. There’s no way to confirm the number.
Maj. Ammar Heshme, the army intelligence officer who runs the al Andalus school detention center, said detainees were freed once investigations determined that there were no outstanding criminal charges or court cases against them. Their names are then removed from nationwide “wanted” lists, he said.
“This war has lasted three years, and during those three years we collected a lot of information. So we know a lot about who was where and what they were doing. We believe that many of these guys joined these rebel groups without knowing what they were doing,” said Heshme, a father of two whose face was disfigured by a sniper’s bullet in June 2012.
“I can’t be sure it wasn’t one of these guys who shot me,” he told a McClatchy correspondent who was given permission to visit the school recently. “But we have to try to recover them.”
Yet amnesty doesn’t necessarily mean a return to a normal life.
Heshme admitted that a few of those who’ve been given reprieves rejoined the rebels. Moreover, amnestied former rebels may face threats from both their erstwhile comrades _ who consider them traitors _ and the unruly pro-Assad militias that the government has used to bolster the manpower-short army. It’s largely the militias that maintain local security and enforce sieges around insurgent-held areas.
“Because the groups that they left now consider them infidels, that creates problems between them and the groups. So they’ve moved closer to us,” said Heshme. “Infidels can be killed, you know.”
For that reason, a few parolees have chosen to continue living inside the school, protected by its high walls and armed guards.
McClatchy visited the school recently and found most of the detainees apparently well treated. They mixed comfortably with their guards and the frolicking children of some 16 families displaced by fighting who also are housed in the center.
It was difficult to know whether the school had made special efforts to prepare for the McClatchy visit. Permission had to be obtained from the Homs provincial governor’s office, which issued a letter granting access, but Heshme, dressed in sweatpants, appeared surprised when a reporter arrived. He later changed to a business suit.
On the day of the visit, a sound system in the courtyard blared popular music as part of a celebration that Heshme asserted the detainees had requested. Some danced in a semicircle, whistling and kicking their feet, and then formed a human tower by standing on one another’s shoulders.
But others sat glumly against the courtyard walls, declining to mingle, talking quietly among themselves and refusing interviews.
While some of the detainees had escaped from Old Homs in the U.N.-supervised evacuation, others made their way out later after contacting army commanders by cellphone and agreeing to surrender in return for amnesty.
The second category includes Hamza Meshalji, a 31-year-old former construction worker who sports a close-cropped beard and a large forearm tattoo of an eagle seizing a snake. He’s waiting for the government to decide what to do about the cigarette-smuggling charges brought against him before the war, he said.
“I talked to a general and he helped me to get out. I got his number from people who’d made it out before me,” explained Meshalji, a native of the Old City neighborhood of Khalidiya. He said he’d defected with 50 other rebels on March 15.
Meshalji, who claimed he commanded a 240-man unit of the Farouk Brigade, part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, said he was instructed to go to a point on the front line and call an army officer when he got there. Once he did, regime troops held their fire until he made it across and surrendered his gun.
Meshalji marched with tens of thousands of protesters – who were overwhelmingly from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority – who took to the streets in Homs in March 2011 demanding an end to 40 years of Assad family rule. Government security forces fired on the peaceful gatherings in Homs and elsewhere, sparking the civil war.
“We didn’t have weapons at the beginning. Then the orders came down that we had to fight the infidels. We had to fight for Islam. It was a jihad,” Meshalji said, adding that local Islamist leaders had distributed arms purchased with money from supporters in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As the rebels gradually were driven back by blitzkriegs of shells and eventually encircled by the army in the centuries-old historic heart of the Old City, tensions between his unit and another rebel group erupted into a gunfight in which he was wounded, Meshalji said.
“It was very tough in the end because we didn’t have food, but we had a lot of weapons,” he said. “We got a lot of weapons through the tunnels, but not a lot of food. They wanted us to fight, not eat.”
Virtually all the rebels, he said, were from Homs, but there was a small number of foreign fighters who were restricted to one section of the Old City.
Disillusioned and hungry, he decided to defect.
“I didn’t want to surrender. But I found out that it wasn’t a jihad,” he said. “I want to go back to my family and my job. I will never fight again. Why? To lose 10 more years of my life?”
Not so for Dagastani, who said he wanted to rejoin the army once he was amnestied.
“I want to fight them (the rebels) and I am ready to kill them because of how they tortured me,” he said, sitting in a classroom, mounds of U.N.-supplied blankets, books and torn papers piled along the walls and moldering in dusty cupboards. “I am just waiting to fight them. We cried blood. The torture you cannot forget.”
As the music blared outside, Dagastani explained that he’d joined the army in January 2012 and was captured last year while trying to make his way to his home in a suburb of Homs to attend his father’s funeral.
He underwent four months of brutal interrogation, including more than a month of being hung by his handcuffed wrists from a beam in a room with 13 other captured soldiers, he said. Some of his fellow captives were executed because they belonged to Assad’s minority Alawite religious sect, said Dagastani, who himself is a Sunni.
“For the rebels, being soldiers is like being Israelis. You have no idea how tough it was for us,” said Dagastani, who claimed that his captors belonged to the al Khair Brigade, another unit of the Free Syrian Army, and that he knew some of them.
The abuses, he said, included knives being drawn across his chest – he lifted his shirt to display the scars – and salt rubbed into the wounds. His captors forced him to step on broken glass _ he pointed to scars on the soles of his feet _ broke one of his ribs during frequent beatings, shot him in his legs _ he lifted his pants’ legs to reveal round scars on his limbs _ and then repeatedly jammed a metal rod into the bullet holes, he said.
After four months, he said, the rebels put him to work digging tunnels and filling sandbags, although the abuse continued periodically. Eventually, they gave him a weapon and ordered him to stand guard duty. But they didn’t trust him enough to have him fight, he said.
“I had no choice,” said Dagastani, who explained that he has relatives in the al Waer district, which is still under rebel control. “They said that if I did anything wrong, they’d kill my family.”