“You miss Damascus. You cry out its name while you are only 15 minutes away. You read what has been written about it by authors who could still visit it. You cannot return an unfair punch in the street because the policemen will be waiting for you at the station if you file a complaint. Therefore, you walk carefully with a sure smile, your head held high but your hands chained.”
div>(Rif Dimashq, Syria)
Today marks the fifth anniversary of my draft-dodging. It no longer matters to me whether I keep running or manage to flee abroad, or if the authorities – which will adorn my uniform with the Baʿathist flag and the President’s photo, and hand me a rifle to kill my fellow citizens – will ever catch me.
Many are the nights where I lay my head on the pillow and say to myself: “This may be my last night at home,” and many are the memories of lucky – and sometimes unlucky – incidents that I survived and that I will never forget. The codes, the phone ringing, the encrypted and explicit conversations warning about permanent or random checkpoints (al-hawajiz at-tayyarah), the military patrols pursuing draft-evaders and wanted people, the heavy knocks on the door and the bell ringing in the early morning and late at night, the number of the police station on my caller ID, the sound of the police motorbike, the black oval stamp of the military conscription office, the conscription postponement notice, and having to refer to the office once the postponement period is over (1). These are all familiar yet petrifying sensations.
Ten minutes after I had crossed the checkpoint, I received the following text message: “Lookup! Watch out!” and said to myself, bewildered: “My God!” Then I found myself once again waiting in line for the solider to check my ID card. Suddenly, I hear a loud voice coming from the transceiver saying: “Gimme the names you got.” The soldier gives me a cold look, then my neighbour hands him his ID but he rejects it and explains: “Only those with a broken ID (2).” Mine was not broken that day, and I escaped miraculously.
Another time, on the staff bus, which usually takes the military lane, the driver said: “Lookup (tafyich), boys!” The soldier ordered him to take us to the “lookup (fiche) room” (3) to search our names on the computer and make sure we were not wanted. A cold drop of sweat slowly slid down my forehead as if I did not want my colleagues to find out I was a runaway. We all stood there together, waiting for a stupid mistake that would allow us to miraculously escape a seven-month arrest in the disreputable local security branch. Even if I do make it out of that prison alive, I do not know where the path and the rifle may take me.
At a new checkpoint, you are shocked at the sight of a soldier harassing a young girl. He lectures you to courteously give her your seat as she was standing, then dragoons you down the bus and makes you sit on your knees, and you obey, helpless. You just do not want him to “look you up” and detain you.
The current mandatory military recruitment campaign led by the regime resembles the famous Seferberlik
(Turkish for mobilisation
) Ottoman campaigns, when soldiers were made to travel by land to faraway Ottoman battlefields. Here we are today fleeing to the land of the descendants of the Ottomans to escape the Syrian Seferberlik
campaign. I had to flee my house many times following innumerable alerts, text messages and phone calls. I used to rush out of my house before the patrols arrived. I switched neighbourhoods, roads and towns. I bribed, bluffed and counterfeited, but my stand was one: I will not wear his picture or their flag, and I will not protect them.
The regime tightens its grip. My ID breaks by mistake and I am no longer able to cross checkpoints or enter any government institution. I was offered one work opportunity after the other and my heart ached for not being able to seize any of them. I tried to flee the region but my bad luck kept getting worse. Everyone who attempted to help me leave was ill-fated or their work was hampered, as if anyone who messes with my fate to be bound here would be doomed for all eternity. I volunteer at humanitarian organisations, and I help people at shelters, trying to solve their social and psychological problems while I can barely handle my own. I play with children outside their houses and give them presents, all the while looking out on the road to escape when the time comes.
I am a recluse in my own town and my hands are tied. Everyone around me can see me withering little by little, and all there is to do is to stay strong and not to be shaken by the sight of a military uniform standing by a Jeep and four red caps. My friends tell me about detention centres, checkpoints, and patrol destinations, and I listen carefully as I plan my next move. When I think of my situation, I realise that my only breather over the past five years has been the gymnasium. I recall Mustafa Khalifah’s The Shell, fearing the horrible circumstances of confinement rendered in the novel. Then, I remember an elderly friend of mine telling me the details of his seven years and four months in Tadmur prison and I compare my situation to his: mentally, it is just as bad and I am striving to survive just as much as he was.
You miss Damascus. You cry out its name while you are only 15 minutes away. You read what has been written about it by authors who could still visit it. You cannot return an unfair punch in the street because the policemen will be waiting for you at the station if you file a complaint. Therefore, you walk carefully with a sure smile, your head held high but your hands chained.
A heavy joke by a friend in the middle of a rainy night takes you off guard. “Curfew and house raids, watch out!” The rain would make it harder to flee if they raided your house. Similarly, the words of another friend of yours in the military police who is well aware of your situation strike you: “They’re asking for you.” Hallucinations, ideas, concerns and uneasiness in anything and everything…work, sleep, love.
I write these words at an internet café at 8:06 pm, after I received yet another call warning me against going home or ambulating, for the security patrols are roaming the streets. I overhear a few young men at the café saying: “They’re arresting people outside.” For all I know, I might not be here to see these words published.