[This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus]
Malek’s mother could not distinguish the ululations of weeping women from the intense gunfire. She heard everything from afar as if she were at the bottom of a deep well. She was not adept at deceiving herself; such proud ululations would not console her as a martyr’s mother, nor could the gunshots reassure her that Malek didn’t die in vain.
Her eldest son has passed away and left an ailing, bereaved seventy-year old woman. This is a fact, and all the offered condolences, prayers and martyrdom chants are but desperate attempts to make a grief-stricken mother forget the unforgettable.
Malek was not a judicious young man. He had been since his childhood reckless and inconsiderate, and had often showed bad and violent temper. He was never into electricity, and it was her mother’s idea that he works as a repairman to provide for the family after the death of his father. She did not want him to drop out from school, despite his constant and severe hate for it.
This was until he burnt his books twice in the bathroom, and engaged in a serious fight with another child that almost got him into juvenile prison, when she finally gave up on any decent education opportunity.
As the National Defence Forces (NDF) began recruiting in his impoverished area on the Damascene mountains, with especially those enlisted for mandatory service or simply unemployed youths flocking to its ranks, Malek was thinking that this could be fun in many ways. First he would be making money, and second he would enjoy some power and influence in his neighborhood.
“God no! That’s not gonna happen!” his mother yelled at him as he informed her of his decision.
“Don’t you see? There’s no other work! Life keeps getting worse, we can’t travel, and we’ve got no money!”
“Better be alive and poor than have you back in a coffin!”
“Don’t worry, they won’t send us to the frontlines. I might end up serving on a checkpoint all the time.”
His friends helped reassure her, and her neighbors stressed that it is a good and commonly sought occupation. But Umm Malek did not consider the Popular Committees (PC)[i] an honorable employer. She often felt livid whenever she saw young men under 20 years of age wearing military uniform, carrying weapons and meddling in everyone’s affairs. Though she did not have a clear or sharp political opinion, she never liked this militarization.
Yet she gave in helplessly. Her son was no longer a little kid that she could stop.
“Just don’t die, that’s all I’m asking.”
“I won’t,” Malek replied. “If I ever die, I’ll be a martyr and you’ll be compensated 100,000 pounds [approximately $200],” he chuckled, to his mother’s sobs.
The list of financial compensations was hung on the door of the mukhtar’s office: a monthly salary of 30,000 SYP [$65], and a remuneration of 10,000 [$20] per field mission.
Malek was appointed close to his family. With little weapons training, he spent most of his day playing cards, drinking tea and mate, and sometimes conducting routine patrols with his fellow volunteers. Two months later, his mother relaxed and felt some relief; at least Malek was not at risk, and he did not have to kill anyone. She had never wanted to see her eldest son earn his living through such an overbearing and phony job. She did not even call it a job, but there was nothing she could do about it.
One time Malek disappeared for more than two days, and his mother went mad. She called his friends, who turned out to have also disappeared. She then called the senior officer in charge of Malek, who told her that his whereabouts were classified information. Umm Malek could not sleep or eat, and she chain-smoked countless Hamra cigarettes. She smoked so heavily that her words were incomprehensible due to her throaty voice.
On the third day, Malek came back a different man. He was exhausted and dusty, with 10,000 SYP in his pocket. It had been his first time in a field mission, and his first time he killed a human being.
“You killed someone you had never met. Did his mother ever come across your mind? If you don’t quit this, I’m disowning you.” Malek remained silent. His mother’s words made a lot of sense.
The next day, however, as he walked down the street and received plaudits for the heroic battle he and his friends had fought against the “terrorists” on the outskirts of Jobar, he felt invincible. He was overcome with inexplicable pride and glory. Maybe that was his first time he felt appreciated by people around him; the first time he was recognized. He stopped dwelling on the person he had killed. “It’s war,” he reasoned.
Meanwhile, his mother kept challenging his thoughts. “See all of those? They’ll attend your funeral and forget you in a couple of days. I’m not sure I can survive another panic attack. Do you wish me dead? You can’t even cook for yourself.”
“As if I’m staying here all my life. I’ll soon marry someone who can cook.”
“You wanna ruin another woman’s life? This path doesn’t end well…”
Malek thought that his mother could not be right. His neighbor, the same age as himself, has worked with the PC for four years, and he now owns a large house and a car. Yes, he is mostly looting, and his senior officer does not involve his privates in raids and clashes, but the guy did not dwell on potential risks when he first joined the NDF; he was just lucky. Perhaps fortune will smile upon Malek too.
Nonetheless, there were certain moments when Malek thought that his statements compromise all the morals his mother has imbued him with. Convincing himself that morals were of no use to his or to his family’s life, he would quickly let go of such guilty thoughts.
One warm night, as Malek sat with his buddies drinking tea outside his door in the slum, a warrant officer told him of an important mission he had to join. Malek looked through the door and saw his mother, scowling at him, with a Hamra Longs cigarette burning between her lips. He felt his heart sink and his chest tighten.
“I’m afraid I can’t, my mother is too tired.”
“It’s not up to you! Your comrades are ready. We’re conquering Darayya, you can’t just stay here like a spineless coward! Once you’re in the army there’s no going back, you know that.”
Malek put on his uniform, took his gun and left.
One day passed… two days… Umm Malek did not sleep, did not eat, did nothing but chain-smoking.
Three… four… Malik’s younger brother, whose impaired eyesight exempted him from the mandatory service, was buying some groceries when a man rushed to him and said: “My condolences, Samih. May he rest in peace.”
Bags fell on the ground. “How do you know? We haven’t heard from him for days!” a distraught Samih replied.
The man got confused. “Oh, one guy came back from the mission yesterday and confirmed the martyrdom of all those who were there. Your brother was seen lying on the ground. Wasn’t he wearing light-brown boots?” Samih left the man standing and ran to the military outpost.
“For God’s sake call someone who might know!” he shouted upon arrival. The officer looked at him in fake sympathy. “Those heroes were storming into Darayya. They were ten, and witnesses said that the sniper took all of them down. We can’t be sure until we get the bodies, and that won’t happen until a truce is achieved.”
Samih shook his head intensely to erase the picture of his brother’s body lying on dirt and rubble, decomposing under the blazing summer sun. The picture was only intensifying though.
He returned home and invited his relatives to console his mom. Umm Malek had not ruled out such a possibility since the first day Malek had insisted on this work, but she refused to believe until she received his body.
Malek’s body remained in place for fifteen days, until both parties called a temporary truce to evacuate the dead. There were only dead, bloated and stinky bodies. When these arrived at Tishreen Military Hospital, an officer called Samih to come identify his brother. Malek’s mother grabbed Samih’s sleeve. “Let me see him, I just wanna see his face,” she kept weeping and wailing.
Along the way, Samih was preparing himself for the worst possible scene. Heat and time must have taken their toll on his brother’s strong body and sour face; it must be deformed and corroded. “How could mom see that and not have a heart attack?” he wondered.
Samih arrived at the morgue. One of the heavily armed men standing at the door escorted him inside. A freezer was opened, and a stretcher with a bluish and reddish human being on it was pulled out. At first, Samih did not realize that this was a real human being, but the smell forced him to do. He saw bruises, swellings and frozen blood. Samih took a breath before he looked at the head, but he did not see his brother’s face. He saw a staggering black hole. He collapsed.
“You have to identify the body, sir.”
Samih remembered the birthmark on his brother’s left thigh. A doctor examined the thigh and found the birthmark. There remained no doubt, Malek is dead. He died quickly, apparently. But how could Samih mention his blown out face to his stubborn mother?
Luckily for her, the funeral procession of the deceased soldiers was enough of a chaos and distraction for Malek’s mother to forget about seeing her son for one last time. The casket proceeded to the cemetery. Rounds of gunshots, women weeping and ululating, and men crying publicly, then a few days went on and everything was over.
[Main image: Malek's missing face (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].
[i] Popular Committees had been the name adopted before these paramilitary forces were officialized under the NDF umbrella in 2012.