(Rif Dimashq) “It’s a shame that a young man should ever leave his home,” said the minivan driver as he made a sharp turn angrily after waiting for two young men and an elderly man to get their IDs from a military checkpoint. Like many others, they were being scrutinized for possibly dodging the mandatory military service. This process is known as tafyeesh in Arabic.
There are many inspection or military checkpoints - either permanent or mobile. While the mission of these checkpoints may vary, it seems that most recently, the military manning the checkpoints have been focused on finding draft dodgers. This means all Syrian males between the ages of 18 and 42 are subject to the inspection process, making their lives and their work hostage to a number of complicated conditions that could vary from annoying to catastrophic.
Every guy has a story. He rarely shares it except with those closest to him or with others he trusts since they share the same burden. Usually, the solution is to leave the country, yet that comes with its own problems. These are the less known tales of ordinary people with ordinary stories, some have been arrested and some have died without even being considered to be part of the revolution.
There are a lucky few today who can move freely in the country: those who have been able to postpone being drafted, or those who have been exempted because they are either an only male child in their family or because of their health condition. Yet that doesn’t mean they don’t have to go through the inspection process like everyone else. Sometimes it is to make sure they aren’t draft dodgers. But a lot of the times, it is simply to annoy and humiliate.
Samer Hasan[i] is a Syrian in his twenties. He was able to postpone being drafted under the pretext of being in school to finish his Master’s degree. Truth be told, he doesn’t care much for the major he was accepted in after he received his Bachelor’s degree in English Language. In fact, he doesn’t even want to pass. He tells SyriaUntold: “I just need to stay out of this war.”
But the military personnel manning the checkpoints know all this already. It is a game where all participants play along even though they are aware of the situation. And so the military abuse their power, humiliating Samer every time. Once, they kept him standing for hours at the Barzeh checkpoint just to retrieve his ID. Another time, they asked him to get off the bus at the peak of rush hour just to allow a ‘chivalrous’ soldier to offer Samer’s seat to a girl; in the soldier’s mind, the military front is the only place for a man these days.
There are men who are not ashamed to share their strange attempts to get their draft date postponed. Every year, Muhannad resorts to what he calls “the fattening period but without the slaughter.” Between the beginning of the year and the draft medical exam taken in March, he devours over 5000 calories every day to gain a lot weight, which in turn makes him unfit to serve.
Raed, who didn’t want to share his last name, is a computer engineer. He purposefully neglected his lazy right eye, rendering him almost blind just so he can use it as an excuse to avoid the draft. Men like Muhannad and Raed are envied by many for being able to legally dodge conscription. Others are not so lucky for they do not suffer from a disability or could not think up of one before being drafted.
There are no specific numbers of those who have dodged illegally the mandatory service. In 2016, Zaman al-Wsl, an opposition website, leaked the names of over half a million Syrians who were wanted for the service.
It is obvious that no one -- with the exception of few hardcore regime supporters -- have any desire to go to war. This automatically renders many young men draft dodgers, including those who are eligible for being picked for reserve. Many either stay at their homes for fear of being caught or have already fled the country with little hope of returning home.
Said (30), who didn’t want to share his last name, rarely leaves his home since he became a draft dodger in 2012 after he had postponed several times under the pretext of continuing his education. “I don’t think I’ve been living these past five years. My hair is going white and I’m getting bald…” he said.
Said spends most of his time surfing the internet and is completely dependent on his parents. He suffers from chronic fear that keeps him home bound, and sometimes, he doesn’t even leave his room. He jumps when the door knocks or if he hears any military personnel outside his window. His chronic worry is often a reason that feeds his fear.
In mid-2014, the Syrian army started calling in military reserve personnel to compensate for the growing lack of soldiers. Since then, the wager was if one would make it back home after leaving in the morning.
“We are playing Russian Roulette with our lives,” says Nawras, who checks the military lists every month to make sure he isn’t being drafted. This allows him to live in Damascus, move freely between his home and work place and occasionally meet up with friends who have been able to stay in the country as he has.
But this doesn’t mean Nawras isn’t afraid. Every once in a while, stories surface of friends who had made sure they weren’t being drafted but were stopped two days later at a mobile checkpoint and were called in for the military reserve. “You never know when there are new lists,” he tells SyriaUntold. All he does now is keep on keeping on, while turning a blind eye to the immense pressure surrounding him.
Husayn, who doesn’t want to share his last name, is an employee in his forties. He was called to serve in the Fifth Assault Corps as he was forced by his superiors to join. Husayn explained that he has asthma and a nine-year-old daughter of whom to take care, but the decision had already been made. The employee lost the right to continue working and was seen as defaulting on his military service.
Today, he awaits the ruling of the Administrative Court after he requested to return to work. He wrote in his appeal: “I really want to defend my country against the terrorists, but I just can’t.”
Eternal Service and Misery
The main problem with serving in the military, other than the real and frightening possibilities of death or permanent physical disability, is that it’s never ending. Those who joined Group 102 back in 2010 are still serving, or at least, those of them who are still alive. All those joining the military today face the same prospects: “eternal service”, as the generals call it nowadays.
Some soldiers inflict self-harm to spare themselves from a harsh trench life made of hunger and meager salaries. That is what happens to those who don’t have enough money to bribe the duty officer, unlike those who hail from financially well off families who are able to complete their service time without ever really having to be present. They also have the option of leaving the country altogether without having to face the odds of being conscripted.
Being called for the military reserve and sudden conscription can turn a household’s economy into a disaster. “If I die, my family will be compensated and that would be more useful to them than me staying alive,” says Somar, a reserve soldier and the father of two. He serves on the front of the al-Jazira countryside (north-eastern Syria), away from any civilian life.
It has become common place to see a beans seller, a taxi driver or a porter in military clothes. It has become the most worn outfit in regime-controlled cities. These men are tired, miserable and envious of any man walking around in civilian clothes who doesn’t share their concerns.
It is no secret that many men today express their resentment for being asked to provide security and a comfortable living under the current circumstances when they rationally cannot. Men see women to be comfortable and lucky, even parasitical.
Taxi drivers express how they envy women who don’t get stopped at many checkpoints and are not concerned with serving in the army. Many young men at university remind their female counterparts that they don’t share their burden, and even some male activists have mocked the call for women’s rights, saying: “It is time to call for men’s rights.”
They overlook the tens of forms of real and symbolic discrimination that women suffer. It is a popular way to offer comfort to a disgruntled person who wishes harm be inflicted on others as well. The regular soldier wishes the military reserve similar maltreatment, and both wish conscription for those with legitimate reason to postpone their draft. And all the men envy the women for not being part of the whole debacle, while knowing that it was men and not women who set the rules they’re suffering.
Demographic Change and Marriage
As a result of the war, there are fewer young men eligible for marriage. This led to forced changes in the social systems: now there are social media platforms that work solely on matching people; women are no longer shy to ask for the specifications of their desired partner in terms of looks and age, and they go as far as knocking on doors and giving out fliers.
Many of the engagement parties, which previously took place at the bride’s place, have now been moved to the groom’s because he can’t leave the house. And it’s no longer strange that weddings take place in the absence of the groom, given he’s abroad. This is what the state of getting married has come to after everyone is financially strained due to the war.
However, Hala (30) has run out of options in Syria. That’s why she decided to move to Beirut, Lebanon, to look for a suitable suitor. “There are no longer men within our age range [to marry] in the country,” she explains to SyriaUntold.
Missing Labor Force
If you order in, the owner of the restaurant often apologizes saying that “the delivery boys don’t want to move a lot to avoid harassment;” you call the shop to send an electrician over, and the owner replies: “My last two employees have been called for reserve;” you ask the shop owner about the brand of shampoo you use, and he says: “The distributor doesn’t work anymore. He’s been called to serve.”
The difficulty to move around means it’s hard to get any work done, especially in a patriarchal society. The elderly have taken over the jobs of porters and drivers. Children are now apprentices in workshops. Women, while timid, are entering the market but it doesn’t seem that practical changes are on the way. At best, women are sales people, hostesses or assistants, yet they haven’t made the leap into being professionals to fill the void in the job market.
Shadi (20) tells SyriaUntold that “flight is two-thirds manly.” A medical student, he is studying German to be able to finish his Master’s degree in Germany and get away from being conscripted. Many families spend their last years with their sons, most of whom are planning to leave the country as no mother wants her child to be a “martyr.”
Therefore, families sell their jewelry and estates to pay school tuitions and, as debts accumulate, there is fragile hope that the son will provide a better future for the family. Fathers and mothers are left behind, along with the daughters who stay to assist the parents. Zeina (30) is happy with her newly acquired skills of fixing electric and plumbing problems after her two brothers fled to avoid the army.
Defending the Motherland
Men who are uninterested in the war find themselves suffering its consequences like the rest of their fellow countrymen. Yet, they alone are forced to go to war; otherwise, they are seen as deserters.
Even in regime controlled areas, poverty and the lack of infrastructure reign. People’s lives and needs are pushed aside for the sake of “defending the motherland,” which only a few want in any case.
Day after day, the country suffers from a brain drain, either by killing, incapacitating, throwing out or locking in the youth. If no final solution is reached for the war in Syria, all those in a military attire – whether by choice or by force - face a deadly ending. As they hope for something to change, everyone is waiting, and everyone is scared.
[Main photo: Hunkering down: a poster of Syria's president at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, Jan. 14 2012. (E. Arrott/VOA via Wikimedia Commons)].
[i] All names are pseudonyms for security reasons. In some cases only the first name was mentioned.