The Autumn Leaf that Fell in Hope of a New Life

When poverty leads you away from university, into the trench. 

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(Photo: Ahmad, the story’s protagonist, wearing his military uniform – as-Sukhnah – Tadmur – Homs – 26/3/2016 [Facebook]).
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“He also said that he no longer felt ashamed to go to a café with his friends, but he did not tell me about his job or its location.”

div>(Latakia, Syria) Five years ago, we were walking down the streets of Latakia together, singing “Let’s Fill up the Cells (badna nʿabbi az-zinzanat)”, and falling about laughing at those who think of it as a pro-regime song. We watched videos of ʿAbdul-Basit as-Sarout and the protests in secret in university hallways, wishing we could take part in one.
Then my friend Ahmad (1) disappeared three years ago. He dropped out of university and stopped answering his mobile phone or Facebook messages, although I sent him many, many messages.
Ahmad’s mother passed away while giving birth to him, and he lived with his father and sister until his dad was severely injured in the spinal cord and lost the ability to move all four limbs.
He graduated from high school with honours and entered the faculty of civil engineering where I met him. Ahmad never joined us in activities outside campus, nor was he buying textbooks from the library, but instead he used to write down what the lecturing professor would say on blank pieces of paper that he gathered in one notebook. Therefore, I grew curious to get to know this shy and hardworking young man.
Given the harsh life that he led, he sometimes had to leave his house at 6:30 in the morning to reach class at 8:00 on foot because he often did not have even 25 SYP (around 0.53 USD in 2011) to take the bus.
I remember the last message I received from him in 2012: “I am the autumn leaf that fell in hope of a new life.” I did not understand what he meant at the time. I thought he had left university to work and provide for his home and sister. I respected his decision and sacrifice very much. I tried to contact him and offer my help several times, but all of my attempts were in vain.
I eventually gave up and moved on until I ran into him in the street three years later. He told me he was living a better life and could afford his father’s medications and his sister’s college tuition. He also said that he no longer felt ashamed to go to a café with his friends, but he did not tell me about his job or its location.
Last month, as I was scrolling down the news on Facebook, I saw his picture. I recognised him immediately in spite of the military uniform he was wearing, his beard, the weight and muscles he gained, and the Kalashnikov he was carrying. Right below the photo, I read the news of his death in the town of as-Sukhnah, in the area of Tadmur.
I do not recall how long my shock at the news lasted, but I could not hold back my tears or emotion. I finally realised why he kept his distance and ignored my messages. He simply could not face me and say: “Yes, I’ll go to war for 50,000 SYP (almost 125 USD) that would guarantee a life for my sister and father. Yes, I’ll delete the protest videos and revolutionary songs that we used to hear on my cell phone, and remove the pictures of dead civilians from my Facebook profile because,  today, I might become a killer and no longer their defender.”
Ahmad, who left his studies and future as an engineer to volunteer along the ranks of the Desert Falcons Forces (Quwwat Suqur as-Sahra’) and carry a rifle instead of a T-square that he could not afford, has become one of many young men whose lives are dictated by the “fight and kill for money” equation.

Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.