A Syrian army deserter tells his story

Updated 31 August 2012
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A Syrian army deserter tells his story

REYHANLI, Turkey: From a safe house in Turkey, working his way through one cigarette after another, Hassan Abu Ali told how he escaped from Syria — and his conscripted post as a junior army officer. “It was a miracle!” he said, in perfect French. Hassan, 37, owes his French to an eight-year stay in France, where he studied literature in Paris and in Clermont Ferrand, central France, where he completed a doctorate in literature.
“Eight years of freedom,” is how he recalls it. On his return to Syria in 2009, however, despite his age and his position as an assistant professor at Aleppo University, in the north, he could not escape the obligatory period of military service.
After six months of training — “extremely hard,” he said — he was assigned to the army’s Third Reserve Infantry Brigade, based in Damascus and under the orders of the presidential office. Its main mission, he said, was to protect the capital. “It was nothing but bullying and ill treatment,” he said.
“We lived in appalling conditions, with disgusting food, non-existent medical care,” said Hassan. “The senior officers were without pity. It was crazy...”
It was a far cry from what he recalled as his halcyon days in France, studying for his doctorate on 20th-century French poetry.
“The barracks was a prison,” he said. They were forbidden to use water-heaters or coffee machines in their rooms. They were not even allowed to read.
“All the same, I read under the covers,” he said: a few novels and the war memoirs of French WWII hero, later president, General Charles de Gaulle.
The uprising against Assad’s rule began in mid-March, 2011 and the brutal army crackdown quickly followed. By mid-2011 Hassan had decided to desert the first chance he got — even though he knew he would be executed if caught. But finding an opportunity was not easy. It was impossible to even get clearance to leave the barracks, which were in a suburb of the capital. Nor did it help that he was not well thought of by his senior officers, he said: they disdained his foreign education and his health problems.
And to make matters worse, his passport was confiscated in the summer of 2012.  Then, on July 8, he was assigned to accompany his colonel into Damascus.
That same day, he made up a story to get away and headed straight for the bus station, meeting up with two fellow officers who had also decided to escape.
From Damascus, they traveled northeast to Al Thawrah, where Hassan came from — and where he was counting on contacts from the rebellion to help escape to Turkey, further north.

He carried only his officers’ papers and his little brother’s identity card: and with no papers setting out orders from his superiors, he had to avoid military checkpoints.
It took two days to make it to Turkey he said — and it was touch and go all the way, dodging check points on the road and several times having to flee pro-Assad forces.
Once he reached the border village of Atme, he was approached about joining the rebel forces, as an officer. “Out of the question,” he said.
He made it over the border and now stays at an apartment in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli, where a some of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey have gathered. He and his two companions — one an artillery office who like him is a literature graduate, the other a military doctor — help treat the wounded, who are crammed into a non-descript building not far from the city center. “We help each other out,” he said, describing the collective life that has developed there.
But while he is considered a guest of Turkey — a harsh critic of Assad’s crackdown — he has no real legal status. His ordeal has only made his health problems worse, but without his passport Hassan can travel no further. He still dreams however of one day being able to return to France and get treatment. He would like to be able to breathe, “the air of freedom” once more, he said.


Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

On his first official visit to Israel and Palestine, Prince William is unlikely to talk about politics. Getty Images
Updated 23 June 2018
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Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

  • The second-in-line to the British throne is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
  • There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade

LONDON: Prince William will embark on the first official visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by a member of the British royal family on Sunday.

But even with more than 120 Palestinians killed in protests in Gaza during recent weeks and controversy still surrounding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the second-in-line to the throne is not expected to talk politics.
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Arab News that the four-day tour is likely to focus on making trade deals in preparation for Britain’s departure from the EU next year, rather than on addressing the moribund Middle East peace process.
“There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade,” he said.
The visit risks “normalizing” the abusive regime under which Palestinians live, he added.
“Of course Prince William has to go to both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors or there would have been outrage. But there is a risk of his visit making it appear more acceptable and normal to carry out abuses of international law like the blockade of Gaza,” Doyle said.
William begins his Middle Eastern tour on Sunday in Jordan, a long-time ally of Britain. On Tuesday he will move on to Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Holocaust victims, meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later attend a football event with a mixed Arab and Jewish team.
On Wednesday he will meet young activists, both Arab and Jewish, who are involved in education and social programs, and also cross into the Occupied Palestinian Territories to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before attending an event focusing on Palestinian refugees.
He is due to deliver a speech at a reception hosted by the American consul in Jerusalem. However, protocol prevents him from making any remarks that might be deemed partisan. Doyle told Arab News this was a pity in view of how William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, championed justice for the oppressed.
“It is a pity that someone of his status, who clearly cares about his mother’s legacy, cannot give voice to real major concerns about the treatment of the Palestinians and the human rights abuses that are daily issues for them under Israeli control but which will be airbrushed out,” he said.
“Yes, he will see co-operative programs and Arabs and Jews playing football together, but the reality is that the Palestinian footballers can only travel to matches with Israeli permission.”
William was a surprise choice for the visit. Many expected the task to fall to his father, Prince Charles, who has more experience of countries which are politically extremely sensitive. But it is thought he was chosen because his youth chimes better with young Israelis working in hi-tech fields who he is scheduled to meet. Among Palestinians, his presence will barely register, said Doyle.
“I hope the language can be found for him to say something to his Israeli hosts, that his visit will be more than window-dressing, but the reality is it’s very unlikely. So the visit won’t register as important with Palestinians. They don’t want to be part of some tourist show or box-ticking exercise,” he said.