Vox refugee: Muhammad

The literature student narrowly avoided conscription to the Syrian army and bribed his way out of the country; now, Muhammad worries about his parents back home in Damascus. Unlike them, he has little hope that the situation will improve soon.

Image for Vox refugee: Muhammad
Photo by Boryana Ivanova

Muhammad, 24, met on November 6 at a charity event for refugee projects at Yaam in Berlin.

My parents are still in Damascus; there’s no fighting there at the moment, but I worry about them every day because we don’t know until when the city will be safe. It is the last castle of the regime but we all know the war is slowly going there. This will be the final battle. Despite the terrible situation back home, my parents prefer to be there because they are afraid of the dangerous journey to Europe. They hope that the situation in Syria will get better, but the truth is that it won’t. The only advantage for older people and women is that they are not harassed to go to the army. After almost five years of fighting, all armies are hungry for soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers break into the homes searching for young men. Anybody between 18 and 40 years old is being collected, even against their will. Almost everybody is found guilty of committing crimes against the regime.

For two or three years after the start of the civil war we were left alone; the Free Syrian Army asked Western governments for help against the Assad regime but everybody turned their back on us. That’s why we accepted people from outside who said they wanted to help. We didn’t really know who they were. What we knew was that they wanted to help us oust Assad. These people were not organised in a group and came from everywhere – Europe, Asia, Middle East, America. They stayed with the Free Army for about a year and once they got to know how things work in Syria, once they knew the terrain, they left.

That’s how ISIS started taking shape in Syria. We didn’t know, and still don’t know, how they could organise themselves so fast. The situation is so messed up, with hundreds of militias roaming around the country. ISIS and al-Qaeda are fighting against each other now. The Assad army and the Free Syrian Army are fighting against everyone. The Kurds are also fighting against all. Then there’s the Russian army and Iranian army and Hezbollah fighting with Assad. Each area of the country belongs to different ground, then every city is divided between different militias who fight between each other. To cross a city sometimes you pass through 15 checkpoints. And everywhere you need to give bribes. I don’t think that the situation will improve even in ten years, it’s so bad.

Back home I studied English literature. I was a year away from graduation and was already facing conscription. I was arrested at a demonstration, my ID was taken and they knew where I lived. Luckily for me the army wasn’t so well equipped and friends of mine managed to free me from the soldiers. We always did this for each other because we knew that once you are taken to prison there’s no getting out. My name was on the list of people wanted for the army and this list was available at all border checkpoints. I bribed an army official to erase my name for a week and I went to Turkey. Corruption is so “good” in Syria that you can be fighting against the regime and by wanted by the regime and still bribe the regime to do something for you. There’s so many soldiers who only wanted to get rich fighting for the army and then left for Europe.