Thursday, March 29, 2012

Syrian-American brothers in arms join Syria fight

Two Syrian-American brothers sneaked back into Syria to fight the Assad government. They ran into their father in the besieged city of Idlib, and he was not happy to see them.

Last week, a 20-year-old man called Abdul knocked on the door of a house outside Philadelphia.

He knew the apartment was packed with relatives waiting for him, and he was nervous.

When the door opened, two brothers, several cousins and uncles crowded around him and slapped him on the back. Abdul - a blue-eyed, muscular young man - fell into his mother's arms.

"It's enough, mum," he whispered to her in Arabic. "Stop crying. I'm here now."

It was a homecoming with a difference.

Abdul's mother and the rest of the family had not heard from him since mid-February.

He had told his parents he was going to Turkey, where his older brother Mo was helping Syrian refugees who had crossed the border from the fighting in northern Syria.

The two brothers, Abdul and Mo, disappeared soon afterwards. Abdul says the two sneaked into Syria itself and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.

"I made my decision to fight," Abdul said in an interview at a travel agency office in downtown Antakya, Turkey, before he returned to the US.

The brothers were born in the US but moved to Syria as young children. In 2009, Abdul returned to the US to attend university in New Jersey.

When the Syrian uprising kicked off a year ago, Abdul became consumed by news of the struggle.

"I was on Facebook for one year - I didn't go out," he said. "I was like, with them [the opposition fighters] - but in a different country."

In early February, Abdul had had enough sitting on the sidelines.

He dropped out of university, paid off his credit card debts, and flew to Turkey, intent on joining the fight. (Some Syrian-American friends were supposed to join him, but backed out at the last minute.)

He landed in Istanbul, then caught a bus 18 hours to the Syrian border. There he and Mo spent five days looking for weapons - without success, he said.

The brothers sneaked over the border on 18 February and joined a small band of rebels.

After several days of training in a mountainous region inside Syria, they and a unit of about 35 fighters made their way on foot and by car to the brothers' hometown of Idlib, then an opposition stronghold in the north-west of Syria.

Hiding from Dad
Meanwhile, Abdul's mother and two younger brothers made the reverse trip, fleeing the violence in Idlib to take refuge in New Jersey.

The boys' father Michael remained behind in Idlib to tend to his drugstore.

By the time Abdul got to Idlib, he had not seen his father for more than two years. But he was keen not to let him know he had returned.

"We were in the same protest," he said, "but I was hiding behind people so he wouldn't see me."

Abdul feared his father would order him out of the country if he discovered him.

"He'd kick me out!"

Michael and his two sons were finally reunited the next day, as fighting broke out in the city.

"The tanks started at 05:00 exactly in the morning," Michael recalled in an interview in Turkey. "You could hear the bombing and shelling. The sound of bullets was like listening to rain."

The Syrian army stormed Idlib on 10 March. Michael says he was holed up in his apartment. Then his phone rang. His sister, also in Idlib, delivered a confusing message: "Come get your boys."

"I said: 'What boys?'" Michael said. He told his sister: "Thank God my boys are not here. They are outside the country!"

"No, no," she answered back. "Your boys are surrounded with tanks and they are at their uncle's house and they don't know what to do."

"My boys?"


Flight from Idlib
Abdul said he and his brother Mo fought with a rebel unit that day. The squad leader was injured, and realising their rusty Kalashnikovs could do nothing against the army's tanks and shells, the brothers retreated to their uncle's house nearby.

Michael jumped in his car and drove through the shelling to find his sons.

He did not give them a warm welcome.

"Of course I didn't say hello. I was cursing very, very strong words," he says. "I'm sorry to say that but I was very angry. I had been worried about myself. Now I was worrying about three people."

With the help of friends, Michael arranged for several opposition fighters to smuggle them out of Idlib.

Abdul said their flight was scary. A tank positioned about 70ft (21m) away turned its cannon toward them as they ran across the road surrounding Idlib. They managed to escape through an olive grove.

Their father Michael sneaked out of Idlib the same night, and the three were reunited the next day in southern Turkey.

No promises
Michael said he finally kissed his sons then, but he still had harsh words.

"It was stupid what they did. Very stupid," he said. "People were paying a lot of money to get out, and they couldn't get out. They [my sons] came by themselves. They went into a death trap."

But Abdul defended his and Mo's acts.

"When you see dead bodies and your friends getting killed," he said, "you're not going to be afraid of anything."

He says the government's crackdown has only hardened his resolve.

"Don't do this again," were his father Michael's last words to him when the two kissed goodbye in Turkey. Mo and Michael remained in Turkey.

But Abdul said he could not promise his father anything.