This story is the outcome of cooperation between Radio Souriali and SyriaUntold. Our readers are invited to listen to this story in Arabic.
When the command center of the Syrian military division known as Division 17 fell in the hands of the Islamic State (IS), Ali who had been working in it for years did not know he would be among the survivors of the massacre that IS launched at midday. Ali (25), an English language graduate, hid in a garbage bin, putting above his head a carton filled with eggshells.
He squatted in the bin for long, endless hours. The horrible stench of foul eggs and other material above his head could not get his mind off his surroundings. He could hear cries nearby rising and falling after seconds. The sound of orders barked in different languages, including broken Arabic, distant gunfire, the sharp sound of a bullet striking above the bin and another bullet hitting the wall next to his hideout marked the passage of time. In his heart, he prayed God for the night to come suddenly, without the light of the moon. Because the moon, on this night of July 24, 2014, could easily be an accomplice to his murder—unless he somehow managed to escape the massacre unfolding around him unscathed. These thoughts were racing in Ali’s head as he hid in the bin .
Ali forgot that he had a mobile phone that could reveal his whereabouts in case his parents decided to call. Luckily, in those hours, the Syrian network was out of the coverage area. Three hours after he had taken shelter in the garbage bin, the massacre was over. The details of what happened that night would remain shrouded for years as IS went on to capture Raqqa City, defeating the Syrian opposition forces who had taken control of the city from the Syrian regime. The massacre claimed the lives of 160 Syrian soldiers at least, according to a report by the Dubai-based Alaan TV channel. The IS militants moved on.
Ali guessed the sun had set two hours earlier. He pulled himself together and moved in the bin. There was total silence. As a precaution, he partially lifted the carton on his head and glanced around. Bodies littered the ground but there was no time for grief or despair. He knew these people were inanimate. Nobody else was around. He climbed out of the bin cautiously and slipped out of the base, using what remained of the walls for cover. He crossed through a hole on wall made by a mortar. He leapt out of the battalion’s premises and landed in an agricultural patch. He had to guess which direction would be safe. He appealed to God for the millionth time and headed north. He arrived in Raqqa in the evening, after he had been walking by night and hiding by day.
When in Raqqa
The Division 17 command was positioned around one kilometer away from the city entrance from the side of Douwar al-Sunbula that is known as the silos’ circle junction. IS used this junction to terrorize people by hanging the heads of the violators on its fence. Ali arrived near the junction on foot at 3 in the morning. The place was empty except for some heads hanging on the metal fence.
Ali who was famished wondered what he could do in a place that might turn into a bloodbath any minute! At this moment when life and death became one and the same, the young man continued walking away from the junction and into a side street.
He heard a car approaching, so he rushed to the gate of a building. He did not have the luxury of thinking, so he quickly knocked on the door of one of the apartments.
For once, destiny played its part. The owner of the house opened the door, stared at his burdensome morning guest, then silently gestured for him to come in. A million thoughts rushed to Ali’s head. Had he just escaped a certain death and walked into another willingly? Did he run away from a passing car and enter into the house of a stranger to die like his friend Ibrahim whose head was hanging on the nearby fence? The man showed Ali to a room in the house and whispered, “You are safe.” It was 5 in the morning. He gave Ali hot water and food and showed him the lavatory next to the room. He alerted Ali to the importance of always closing the blinds and never using the cellphone. The man told Ali he would call his parents and make sure he reached them safely. He did not ask Ali for anything except his parents’ names and address. After Ali answered, the man left him to rest.
He contacted Ali’s parents and told them to come as soon as possible to take their son from Raqqa in whichever way they see fit. He could not be hid for a long time, amid the house raids IS was conducting at the slightest hint that their spies noticed in the streets. The man’s whole family could then be at the mercy of IS, which often means death for all.
A solid escape plan
Ali’s father was a soldier. He was born in Nawa in Daraa governorate but chose to live in Latakia after his retirement. Ali’s mother also hailed from Nawa but the roots of her family were in the coastal mountains. Ali was the fruit of an inter-religious marriage. But the good samaritan who took in Ali told his father there was no problem with his coming to Raqqa since he was not an “infidel” or “apostate,” and therefore less likely to be scrutinized by IS patrols.
By change, Ali’s father encountered a Christian woman from Raqqa as she was visiting one of his acquaintances in Latakia. The woman volunteered to travel with him to Raqqa because she knew the city well and she could take him to any address there. She had a permit from IS to enter and exit as long as she abided by their terms, this meant she had to wear black and put on a veil that covered her face. IS militants considered her a dhimmi, a non-Muslim living in an Islamic State who are taxed in exchange for protection. Another option was on the table. She could travel under the identity of the wife of Ali’s father. In both cases, that was not the issue. The problem was with Ali’s own identity, as he had a military one.
To complete the escape plan, a civil identity of a person whose name does not attract IS attention on the checkpoints was needed. To pass the IS checklist, such a person should not be an infidel (neither an apostate nor a Shiite). After giving this much thought, they chose a citizen from Homs, Rasoul, who worked for a family in Ras al-Bassit. Ali’s father called the family and explained the situation, and they agreed to help. Rasoul’s employer did not disclose why his identity card was needed. Their relationship was built on trust, as the employer had offered Rasoul many services, willingly. Rasoul was a Sunni from Homs, as such it was unlikely that IS would give him a hard time.
Raqqa’s citizens played a major role protecting the other survivors of the Division 17 massacre from IS. Ali was not the only person who managed to escape that sort. Civilian sources estimated that 20 of the survivors remained in hiding in the city until its liberation from IS.
Since Ali’s parents took some time in reaching Raqqa, his host had decided to send him on a bus that was smuggling some soldiers of the fallen Raqqa command center to the nearby cities. They used fake identity cards and money to pay bribes at IS checkpoints. But on the day Ali was boarding the bus, his parents arrived with the help of the Christian woman to the right address in Raqqa. Anticipating the situation, the host quickly called Ali to inform him that his parents had arrived. Ali turned back and was happily reunited with his father.
To enter Raqqa with the Christian woman, Ali’s father had told the IS militants at the checkpoint that he wanted to live under “the protection” of the Islamic State. When he showed the Daraa identity card, they welcomed him and allowed him to pass, along with his Christian companion. They managed to arrive to the home of the man hosting Ali after 18 hours of travel along the Salamiya-Raqqa road.
The fatal wedding
The host and his family welcomed the soldier’s father warmly. They told him he could with Ali the next day. It was the wedding of one of the members of the hosting family, and they insisted that Ali and his parents attend. Before the wedding celebrations began, Ali’s father gave the host Rasoul’s identity card out of caution and trust. In the evening, everybody was happy and celebrating. In line with Syrian tradition, there was celebratory gunfire and armed family members started shooting in the air.. As soon as the party ended, IS raided the house and led everybody out. While IS was searching the hosting family’s head, they found Rasoul’s identity card.
The IS investigator, a Tunisian, asked who Rasoul was. The host answered, “He sells grains, and I bought wheat from him. He owed me 300,000 Syrian pounds. So, I took his identity card as a guarantee that he will pay.”
The IS militants asked that Rasoul be brought before the Sharia court within two days. They threatened that if Rasoul does not appear before court, the whole family will be beheaded.Ali’s father returned to Latakia to alert Rasoul, whom he had never met, what had happened.
It fell on the employer to tell Rasoul the whole story. Rasoul agreed to travel to the newly designated capital of the so-called caliphate. His employer warned him that he might be tortured or even killed. Rasoul said, “If I have to die for the sake of a soldier, then I will.”
Rasoul headed to Raqqa and appeared before IS members who grilled him after testing his Islamic faith. He admitted that he was a grain trader, and he confirmed the aforementioned story. The investigator was convinced, and he released Rasoul who returned to Latakia along with the father of Ali. But Ali himself, who did not have any identity card on him, admitted that he was a Syrian soldier after undergoing intensive torture. Members of the hosting family were also detained and tortured as punishment for betraying IS.
Final known moments
Ali remained in IS prisons until October of that year. The soil was arid and the earth dry as the moment came for the prisoners of Raqqa jail to be taken. When Ali heard his name, he knew that the demise he tried to escape in a garbage bin caught up to him and this time, fate was not forgiving.
Ali was transported along with nine men of Division 17 he knew very well to an unknown site. There, they were asked to dig their own graves with their hands. An IS cameramen captured it all on camera. He zoomed in on Ali’s face and asked him to speak. Ali gave his name and military number without adding a word as he stared into a blue dot in the camera that no one but him could see.
IS streamed this slow video of Ali and his friends being executed by firing squad on its Youtube channel. The video was later removed but the family have kept it until now.
What happened to Ali took a heavy toll on the health of his father, who developed diabetes. His condition worsened because he refused to follow any diet or take any medication. Ali was his eldest son whom he loved dearly. Ali had a special place in his father’s heart and losing him this way was very hard for him to bear. His left leg became gangrenous and finally had to be amputated.
Ali’s mother, meanwhile, clung to the hope that whatever was shown on the footage was not authentic and that her son was still alive. She remained in a state of denial and disbelief. A man even fooled her into believing that he had seen “Ali alive in Aleppo.” The mother sold all her properties and came up with the sum. When she gave it to him, he vanished into thin air and stopped answering her calls. She reported it to the police but it was all in vain.
The mother did not despair and kept on denying the truth. She travelled recently to Damascus when the prisoners of Al-Tawba prison were released. Of course the only thing waiting for her was more heartbreak, weariness, and pain. She slept for two days in the hall in Al-Fayhaa Stadium hoping for any news of Ali, yet none came.
Was Ali a victim of fate? Did he pay a price for his work with the Syrian army or was he simply swept up in a bloody war that has been devastating for all Syrians without exception?
Ali’s mother and father do not care about what happened and why. The only thing that mattered to them was living to see Ali married with children and being close to him. This dream will not be. Today many Syrians want to return to their normal daily lives but such dreams are indefinitely on hold, if even possible at all.