Abu Rasul al-Najjar

The regime mobilised its forces to take control of Brigade 80 headquarters, but the rebels were on the lookout. A general call to arms was made, and among those who rallied in response to it were my group and I, operating under the banner of al-Tawhid Brigade. The only available route from the city of al-Bab to Aleppo is a long one, now that the regime have blocked the Naqarin Road. We took the road through the industrial estate, and I was given a location in which to mass my group, in the vicinity of the district under threat. We began to repel the regime attack: our group as part of al-Tawhid Brigade, along with Ahrar al-Sham and IS. After a month of joining forces to hold out against the regime – even as it repositioned itself in new locations – we had succeeded in halting its progress. The only option at that point was to give the fighters a rest, as rest is in fact an important battle technique.

I got in the blue Nissan pick-up truck along with my group, and headed for al-Bab city, where our headquarters are. Then we came to a roadblock from which two warning shots were fired in the air to stop us going any further.

I had not been intending to stop the pick-up at the checkpoint, but for some reason the sound of those two shots being fired had an effect on me as if I had never in my whole life heard a gun fired before. I don’t know why I felt so afraid, but without hesitating I pulled over. In the wing mirror I saw a man with a huge bulky scarf completely obscuring his head approach us, his machine gun trained on the men in the back of the pick-up. When he was a few metres away from the truck he ordered us – in a shaking voice – to get out, as ‘the Prince’ wanted to see us.

Before we got out of the pick-up to find out the reason for all this, I asked the men in our group to stay calm and to set their machine guns to constant fire mode in case of any emergency. Another man came towards us, grabbed the barrel of the man with the big headscarf’s gun and told him check the identities of the people in another car. In Tunisian dialect he told us not to be scared, because it might all be a misunderstanding, and not to blame ‘the brother’ as he was afraid of an unlikely infiltration by thugs loyal to the regime. Then he asked us, ‘Which faction are you from?’

We answered in unison, ‘Tawhid, Sir!’

I didn’t know what was going through his head, and he was clearly aware that we had no idea what was going on. He asked us to follow him, ‘If you would be so kind,’ as he put it, with a gentle smile.

Our truck was flanked by two IS vehicles as we drove to the industrial zone. The Tunisian told us that the Prince wanted to see us ‘Just for five minutes, no more,’ and that there was a small problem he wanted to be reassured about. He repeated this sentence to us several times! We entered a plant in the third section of the industrial estate and were asked to wait in the corridor for a few minutes, as the Prince was in a meeting.

Not even a few minutes had passed before machine guns were pointed at us from several directions at once, and a hesitant voice from under a headscarf ordered us: ‘You and him, kneel on the ground, without a single word!’

With a small gesture of my eyelid I asked my men to comply with their orders, and we knelt as we had been told to, without any resistance. All I knew about IS was that their battlefronts and their prime positions were at the Pearl Restaurant on the Aleppo to al-Bab highway, and that they had not been supporting us in the battle to resist the regime’s advance on the headquarters of Brigade 80 out of love for us. They were doing it because they knew it was a dangerous matter, and that in the event of the regime advancing there would be no more Pearl Restaurant times for them.

We were blindfolded and bundled into solitary cells that had been built in a hurry. My voice echoed in there. I felt around the room with my hands and discovered that it was a little solitary confinement cell about 180cm long and 100 cm wide.

I shouted out ‘Who is in here? I can hear chatter! Guys, can anyone explain what’s going on in here?’

A prisoner responded – in a voice that revealed how ill he was – with a question: ‘Who are you? And what are you accused of?’

‘I’m Abu Rasul, Abu Rasul al-Najjar from al-Tawhid Brigade, and I don’t know why they’ve brought me here!’

‘This is a secret IS prison, just for members of the Free Syrian Army — those of them who matter most. We’ve been sentenced to be executed in the end, and so we don’t want to give you any false hope!’

‘What are you on about? Shut your mouth, mate! Who are you? Who do you work for?’

He was the leader of a battalion who had been abducted by the headscarf-wearers a while before that, and of whose fate no one on the outside had any knowledge. There were also some journalists in there, and two Armenian factory owners. I found all of this information out after midnight, as we were forbidden from speaking. We were also forbidden from eating much. There were just two meals a day: a fried egg with a piece of bread, after noon prayers, and some nuts in the evening between sunset and evening prayers. This was served with an empty cola bottle to urinate in and a plastic bag for defecation.

One of the journalists incarcerated with us got muddled up between the food bag and the defecation bag, and also between the water bottle and the urine bottle, leaving the first and drinking from the second – and eating from the second bag and leaving the first! After he wiped his face on his sleeve he began to shout very loudly and bang very hard on the door.

There was no way to perform our normal ablutions for prayer with water: our only option was to perform tayammum, the dry ablution ritual permitted when no water is available, against the wall. A month passed, and then one dawn they moved us from that plant to another. They ordered us to kneel in a garage while they got the other plant ready, and the two Armenian prisoners were so scared that they recited the Muslim testimony of faith. A fighter ordered us to sit cross-legged on the ground, and said sarcastically: ‘After all this crying and death, once there’s not even a single tear left in your eyes, we’re going to kill you.’

We stayed in that building for several days, until eventually they moved us to a prison in the thermal plant, a place which was relatively luxurious by comparison with other prisons. They ordered us to wash and pray two prostrations of repentance to God before the death penalty was carried out on us, but then they quickly changed their minds. In the middle of the night we heard one of them say to another: ‘Sir, the game has changed – that Tawhid group who we arrested as a precautionary measure? Well, their time has come: al-Tawhid were involved in some battles against us and they captured some of our brothers, so let’s not kill them, let’s exchange them for our prisoners.’

In the heat plant prison I got to know the other prisoners who were in solitary confinement, and we started a new game: I would shut my eyes and try to identify people by their voice as it reached me through the cell wall. The leader of the battalion, for example, I would guess correctly five out of ten times.

They put us in a white bus, and while we waited in it they stood a civilian paramedic and another prisoner against a wall and shot them dead with two bullets in front of us. This was an attempt to frighten and intimidate us. They thought we did not know what their plan was, and why we would therefore not be killed.

The driver, a black Saudi man, laughed maliciously and said to one of the other prisoners, ‘They will be killed in Manbej, and their fate will be the same as those apostates,’ pointing at the civilian paramedic who lay dead on the ground next to the other prisoner.

The bus set off towards the east, once they’d made sure the scarves were securely tied over our eyes. I caught a glimpse of my green shoes; I’d bought those shoes for 1,250 Syrian pounds ten years before that at the Manshiya arcades in Aleppo, and now I glimpsed one of them on the foot of the ‘Prince of Deposits,’ in prison. My arrest didn’t bother me as much as the seizure of my green shoes did: those shoes that had taken part in so many battles against the regime.

All the IS members on board the bus were wearing explosive belts, so there was no way we could get away – a simple flick of a switch and we’d all be off to heaven. But my dream wasn’t to die at the hands of someone from the ‘Pearl Restaurant Front.’

They made each other laugh without us knowing why.

One of them said: ‘The Free Army are such cowards, we’ve got their prisoners in a bus and they don’t even stop it! And you ask why the regime is advancing, you Sahawat apostates?’ (Sahawat is the name given in Arabic to the Sunni Arab Tribes of Iraq that helped the Americans and the Iraqi government in their fight against al-Qaeda after the Iraq War.) The bus had indeed passed through a Free Syrian Army checkpoint on our way, without being stopped! Hence all this forced and exaggerated laughter.

They chucked us into the Cultural Centre in the city of Tadef and took down all our details: the names of our factions, how long we had been involved in the revolution, how long we had been armed. A star was drawn beside the names of all those with the most weapons experience, and each star corresponded to one of their prisoners held by the Free Syrian Army.

In the Cultural Centre I learned that there were devastating battles being waged between the Free Syrian Army and IS, and that al-Bab was now under IS control after a ten-day fight for it. It is certainly in my nature to eat a lot, and even to steal the food of someone else in the dormitory, but whenever news of one of their men being killed reached us I would suddenly feel overfull – I felt as if I’d eaten their flesh! And the more important the man they  lost was, the heartier the meal I seemed to have just eaten. How happy I was to hear that a single sniper had hampered their progress for two days!

After about a month they moved us to the Islamic Court prison in al-Bab, where they threw us into dormitories. Every day for the following month someone would come in before noon prayer and ask us our names, as there was a prisoner exchange operation that would be carried out during just two days.

In the end every member of my group was swapped out of prison in exchange for Daesh captives held by the al-Tawhid Brigade. Our men had got their fill of sleep in prison, making up for the extreme sleep deprivation they had suffered since the onset of armed action. As for me, one of those with stars by my name on the list, they told me: ‘Everyone in your battalion is getting out except for you, because you are worth a lot – you will only be swapped for ten transnational fighters!’

I said to them without hesitation: ‘No, Sir, I want twenty people in exchange for me, not ten. Or actually I want fifty – and if that’s not how it goes then I’m not leaving here at all, not even if you throw the doors wide open right in front of my face.’

No one took any notice of me, as I had no father, no mother and not even a wife – all I was worried about were my green shoes that the Prince of Deposits had stolen from me, and there was nothing for me to be sad about after today.

I shut the dormitory door and cried secretly in the bathroom.

Winter came to an end and spring approached; spring came to an end and summer approached. Prisoners came and went, and even the jailers changed their roles – one who had been a door guard became a judge. And until this point I was still content with my luck.

All of the interrogators and all of the jailers died – some of them were killed by the Free Army and some by the Kurds. Ramadan came and went without any prisoner exchange scheme or any sign of a way out of prison for us, even via being executed. I passed the time making prayer beads out of black olive stones and teaching the other prisoners how to make them, with only nail clippers for tools. We threaded the beads on loose strands of wool or cotton from our clothes or from the rugs and cloths in the dormitory.

Just before New Year’s Eve of my first year of incarceration the Hesba Prison, dubbed ‘the Palace,’ was bombed. The Prince of Deposits who had stolen my green shoes lost a leg in the attack and died of his wounds.

They said to us: ‘You know who bombed the prison, huh? It was an Emirati bomber plane that targeted the prison and killed the prisoners, and it was piloted by an Emirati woman, God help us.’ I don’t know how they knew the type of plane and who the pilot was. But nothing would have surprised me, in any case. If the new Hesba (Name given to police in early Islamic times, and revived by IS) IS police members could spot the colour of a young woman’s eyeliner as she sat in the back seat of a bus doing 200km an hour down the al-Bab to Aleppo highway, then presumably they could see who bombed the prison and spot that the pilot was an Emirati woman, too!

After ‘the Palace’ was bombed our captors claimed that they were afraid for the safety of those who hadn’t died in the attack. So they moved us, along with several other prisoners, to a prison known as ‘the Hotel’ in Manbej. They checked us into a zero-star hotel.

In this ‘hotel’ there was the so-called ‘cloakroom’ service. This consisted of getting the guest to stand upright, not in a room but in a space smaller than a toilet cubicle, and stick his hands out of the door. The hotel workers would then close the door and leave him confined to a 30x40cm space for days or weeks on end. Ask an expert about it: your feet swell up until they are size fifty at least, and take on a blue black and burgundy hue.

I became the godfather of the prison. Despite the differences between the prisoners in terms of university education, factional affiliation, cities or regions of origin, they all came to consult me, because I was the oldest one there.

The al-Bab prison was re-equipped, and we were transferred there. Of the original 115 prisoners there were now only thirty of us left. I felt lonely, as many people had died and been killed, and I wasn’t happy with the quality of the new prisoners being brought in. They were mostly diesel- and cigarette-smugglers, and people who had committed small offences like breaking curfews – few of them were prisoners of war or fighters with the Free Syrian Army.

Fifty PKK fighters were imprisoned with us in another dormitory, and despair crept into my heart. I began thinking about getting out no matter what it took, even if it cost me my life, as ‘prison is the tomb of life’ – as a prisoner from Manbej had written on the wall of the dormitory.

The quality of the food was also very very bad: just five olives a day for each prisoner. I began to look at the dormitory through new eyes, and I contemplated the walls and windows. There was an extractor fan in the bathroom through which I could see the street, even though we were down in a basement. Either the person who installed the extractor fan was stupid, or during the installation he was afraid that they would lock the door on him. I stopped making prayer beads and began to amuse myself with something more useful. My tools for this job were the handle of the toilet flush and a peace of metal usually used to keep the sink drain unblocked.

Bracing my feet on a blue water barrel, and making sure to work during the day when the noise would be drowned out by all the other sounds of the prison and wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention to what I was doing, I began to inch the metal toilet handle between the stone of the wall and the marble floor. My aim was to dig in and make a space between the marble and the wall – even if just a few centimetres. When the handle wore out I started using the other piece of metal, and that worked better. Whenever the prisoners started saying their prayers I would go into the bathroom and start work, and I’d do the same thing when they were eating. Whenever I heard one of them coming towards the door I would turn around and sit on the barrel, and I would bluff to the prisoner – no matter who it was – with ‘Bless this water, it makes me feel like I’m out of prison.’ My fellow inmate would respond, ‘Yeah, that’s right, it really does help.’

One morning as I was getting on with my attempt to prise the stones of the wall away from the marble floor, a Kurdish prisoner who had diarrhoea came bursting into the room, nearly giving me a heart attack. I didn’t ask anything of him, but immediately he said to me of his own accord: ‘God protect you, Abu Rasul, your secret is safe with me, don’t worry – as God is my witness I’m not going to tell anyone about it, and I’m going to help you do it.’ I gasped like a newborn baby taking its first breath and said to him: ‘Promise?’ ‘I promise – I swear to God.’

I saw the eyes of all the other Kurdish prisoners on me at bedtime, while they whispered to each other in Kurdish: maybe that man had promised not to tell anyone in Arabic, but he had certainly told the others in Kurdish!

In the queue for dawn prayer ablutions all the Kurds gathered around me and offered me their help: ‘We’re not going to let you work away all on your own so that we can all escape in the end with you, without having put any effort in ourselves! What’s happening to you is happening to us, and our blood is one: you give the orders and we’ll carry them out – and like our brother told you, your secret is safe with us.’

So I became some sort of contractor, giving orders and demanding that they work constantly, while I sat cross-legged on the other sink. We had convinced the prisoners that the original sink had been broken during prayer ablutions by ‘fat people, God forgive them.’ Sometimes I would ask the men to pretend to be arguing and raise their voices, so that we could prise out a marble slab, something that was of course very noisy to do. At the end of a week full of laughter, fatigue and recounting old memories we had finished getting the stones out, and metal extractor fan too. We even removed the external window grill – we put this back in place as soon as we’d got a sniff of the outside air.

‘Take turns, lads . . . you will all smell it eventually.’ We drank tea made with well water that went down our throats like reinforced cement. I sat cross-legged in the middle of the dormitory like a prince, because I was the oldest and the wisest prisoner, and I hadn’t studied any of the books they used to provide us with and order us to read. Everyone grabbed my hands and pinched them, waiting for me to decide it was zero hour and announce it with a simple movement of my hand.

But before announcing what time we would make our escape, I went over to the only two people in the dormitory who didn’t know what was about to happen: the spies of the dormitory. I said exactly this to them: ‘A little while ago your colleague was taken away and had his throat slit, and the police came and showed us a picture of his body at the roundabout in Biqras (Near to the city of Miadeen in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate). That means you two are sentenced to die just like we are. So if you want to escape with us you’re very welcome to join us, and if you don’t we’ll slit your throats right here right now, and then we’ll escape – it’s been ages sine we killed anyone and we’re hungry for blood, aren’t we, lads?’

All the other prisoners said ‘Yes!’ The spies, who had been passing on information in return for a single extra piece of bread, agreed to join us, but they didn’t help us as they were afraid we would inform on them!

I stood to address the prisoners after dawn prayer, but not to preach any religious lesson. Rather, it was a speech that brought ninety people back to life: ‘Our escape will happen tonight, and no prisoner from al-Bab city will get out unless he takes a prisoner from somewhere else with him: every al-Bab guy will be accompanied by a non al-Bab guy. We’re going out at nighttime because there’s a curfew on, and with this look we’ve all got going on at the at the moment we can pass for Daesh guys – in fact we look more like Daesh then Daesh do themselves. No running: walk fearlessly, and in God’s protection.’

I finished my speech and we bid each other farewell, and each of us gave a copy of our will to one of the others, just in case. The call to evening prayer sounded and we prayed our last prayers together, after the year and a half of slow death I had lived through. I ordered one of the prisoners to check the route and make sure there were no guards up on the roof of the building. Then I took a prisoner from Aleppo by the hand, and another prisoner from al-Bab took the hand of someone from Manbej, and so on and so on until ninety people had divided themselves up and shared themselves out with each other. Each convoy was made up of ten prisoners, and without any fear or confusion, as if I was fighting in an urban war, expecting a guard to jump out in my face at any moment and oblige me to kill him, I went out.

I made sure that all the prisoners from each of the various factions and brigades got out, and I spent two hours in the home of an old friend of mine. At first I just told him that I had been released, but I soon told him the truth so that he wouldn’t accidentally blow my cover and have guests start coming round to the house to welcome me back.

The following morning IS security force vehicles were patrolling the streets blaring a warning to the inhabitants over their loudspeaker systems: ‘If a prisoner is discovered being harboured by any one of you people, you will be sentenced to death, no exceptions. And anyone who surrenders a prisoner to us will be rewarded and pardoned by the Prince of Believers.’(Prince of Believers is the name given in early Islamic times to the ruler, or the Caliph. It is now used among IS followers to refer to Abdu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.)

After twenty days of voluntary incarceration in my friend’s home we set out at nine o’clock one morning, heading for one of the farms. After spending a month there, myself and the young prisoner who was with me disguised ourselves in djellabas and headscarves and got in a van transporting workmen to the city of Jarablus (having first checked that the route was free of flying checkpoints). Before we reached the checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Jarablus we got out and snuck away across the fields towards the Turkish border.

‘Don’t be afraid – if you’re afraid, they’ll get you,’ I told the young prisoner travelling with me. As soon as the Turkish car we were in started its engine we felt that we had crossed the border over into a new life, and that God had written a new fate for us.

I did also go back to Aleppo, getting myself smuggled in via a route through the Turkish city of Kilis, once I’d searched out the family of the young man who was travelling with me, and handed him back over to them. Back in Aleppo I formed a battalion of unmarried men and took up a stronghold in the countryside north of the city, holding out against Daesh. I tried with all my might to capture some of their members, so that I could exchange them for the prisoners from our escape operation who had since been recaptured.