By Amnesty International researcher Cilina Nasser in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon
He is a 21-year-old soldier and illiterate. But this young man does not need to read and write to know that shooting at unarmed protesters by government forces is wrong.
He was ordered to shoot, refused to do so, and in late April joined protesters calling for the fall of the Syrian regime in Damascus. With the help of protesters he then returned to Tell Kalakh, his hometown near Syria’s border with Lebanon, and then became one of some 4,000 Syrians from that area who were forced to flee from their homes in mid-May and to seek refuge in northern Lebanon.
He spoke to me on condition that I do not reveal his name because of his fear about possible reprisals against his relatives who are still in Syria.
The soldier was formerly based at a military compound in the city of Homs. In late April, his battalion was moved to Damascus to help quell the mass protests then taking place in support of demands for reform. He and around 600 soldiers in his battalion were each given a Kalashnikov rifle with seven 30-round magazines, a pistol and a tear gas mask to be used if and when the riot police fired tear gas at the protesters. They were taken to al-Ma’dhamiya in Damascus on a Thursday afternoon in preparation for a demonstration next day after people had gathered for Friday prayers. The soldiers were told that the riot police would deal with the demonstration.
That night, however, the soldiers’ commander called them together and told them he had received an order that they should shoot protesters.
“He talked about the protesters as if they were after us, that they would attack us and take our weapons… and that they were armed. He also said that if people did not protest on Friday, then we should just leave them alone… I and other soldiers secretly agreed to refuse to shoot at our people.”
I asked the soldier what instructions his commander had given and whether, for example, he had instructed his men to fire warning shots into the air. He said no. He and the other members of his unit were told simply that they had “an order to shoot.”
The next day, while people were attending Friday prayers the soldiers, in groups of 10 to 15 led by their sergeants, took up positions at the corners of streets near and around mosque exits.
When people came out of the mosque, the soldier said, they started chanting: “The people want the fall of the regime” but also called out “silmiye, silmiye,” an Arabic word meaning “peaceful” to stress the non-violent nature of their demonstration.
The soldier said he was standing at a street corner with nine other members of his unit and they watched the protesters who began a peaceful march along the street. He told me that none of the demonstrators were carrying weapons as far as he could see, yet he and the other soldiers were ordered to open fire on them.
“The officer gave us the order to shoot when the protesters were around 15 or 20 meters away from us… but we – in all, five of us soldiers – immediately said we would not shoot and said to the other soldiers present: ‘How can you shoot at these people? We will not do that.’”
At this point, the soldier told me, the officer in charge of his unit ordered: “Shoot at them”, pointing to those who refused to fire at the protesters, leading to a stand off between the two groups of soldiers.
“They cocked their rifles and so did we… but neither of us pulled the trigger. We then started pushing each other and scuffled a bit… Then the officer fell on the ground. We immediately ran in the direction of the demonstration and held our rifles up in the air so that protesters would know that we weren’t going to shoot at them. When we were close enough so that they could hear us, we shouted to them saying ‘We are not going to shoot you. We are with you.’”
Minutes later, however, the shooting began as other government security forces opened fire on the demonstrators. The soldier said he witnessed several people fall as they were shot, who then were carried away from the scene by other protesters. As he continued marching with the protesters, he saw other soldiers leaving the ranks and joining in support of the demonstration, despite the risks that they could face for disobeying orders and deserting the ranks.