Ruth Sherlock hears a chilling confession from a member of the pro-Assad ‘Shabiha’ militia, likely soon to meet his death
Sitting in the dark, fetid cave that served as his makeshift prison, Mohammed confessed with the frankness of a man who knew he had no escape from death. For the equivalent of £300 a month, plus a £100 bonus for every victim, he had become a hired killer for President Bashar al Assad, he said. What was more, he had enjoyed every minute of it.
“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could,” he said, in a calm, quiet voice devoid of remorse.
“The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.”
Mohammed – not his real name – spoke to me last week at a secret rebel detention centre in Idlib Province in northern Syria, where he had been captured a few weeks earlier during a shoot-out with units from the Free Syrian Army.
Tucked away in the hills, the limestone caves where he is now confined were once used by rebel units to hide from President Assad’s forces and stash their weapons. Now, 16 months into the uprising, they have become a prison for captured pro-regime fighters.
But Mohammed cut a very different figure to the 25 others with whom he shared his underground chamber. While they were all gaunt, bewildered-looking Syrian Army conscripts, he was a member of the Shabiha, the feared pro-Assad civilian militia for whom fighting is a matter of both business and pleasure, and who are blamed for many of the conflict’s worst massacres.
Like many of their ilk, he had the appearance of an Arab Arnold Schwarzenegger, with huge biceps, honed during endless gym sessions, bulging under a tight white T-shirt.
That same intimidating physique made him easily identifiable as a member of the Shabiha when caught, and has now effectively sealed his fate. While ordinary Syrian army conscripts may be treated as prisoners of war, Shabiha are often executed – especially ones like Mohammed, whose personal notoriety as a thug had spread throughout the province.
So it was that, with no expectation of mercy, he spoke candidly of his crimes – his casual, matter-of-fact manner telling its own story about just why Syria has become so steeped in violence.
Born in Orem al Kubra, a farming village loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he was at first reluctant to get involved when the uprising began, he said. “My friends were joining the Shabiha, and they encouraged me to come with them. I hesitated, and men in the local Air Force base beat me up until I agreed.
“I informed on people who didn’t like Assad, I captured them and I put them in jail. The government gave me a gun.”
For the first time in his life, Mohammed, who is in his late twenties, found himself with both money and power. Not only that, he was effectively exempt from Syrian law.
He described one rape he had committed. “She was a student of Aleppo University. It was daytime and I was driving around the city with my boss. She was passing on the street. I said to my boss, ‘What do you think about this girl? Is she not beautiful?’
“We grabbed her and put her into the car. We drove to an abandoned home and we both raped her. After we finished we killed her. She knew our faces and our neighbours, so she could not live.”
For weeks he and his friends continued their rampage around Aleppo, the main commercial hub of northern Syria. During one anti-Assad demonstration, he said he killed a man by firing into a crowd.
What was his motivation, I asked? He shrugged. He was not particularly interested in defending President Assad’s regime, he said, nor the Syrian leader’s minority Alawite sect, from which most Shabiha are drawn. “It wasn’t for Bashar. I didn’t care about Bashar al Assad. All I cared about was that I got the power.”
Listening to him talk, it was tempting to wonder whether he might be making it all up, perhaps on the orders of his captors. But our interview took place in a secluded corner of the jail, well out of their earshot, and had he been under pressure to fabricate a story, he could easily have communicated that discreetly.
He showed none of the nervousness I have encountered previously among prisoners in rebel jails in Libya, where it was often obvious that some were following a confessional “script”.
Instead, the only glimmer of emotion came when I asked him just why he seemed so emotionless. “I grew up in a normal family, and I was taught to respect women,” he said. “But the devil took hold of my mind in those days.”