Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The displaced Syrian mothers still fighting for change – who say ‘I want you to feel our suffering’

 'Seven years in, campaigns and aid are beginning to dry up in Syria. The suffering of those still facing untold hardships fades from public view as the world moves on to the latest crisis.

 Thousands are still displaced, living with limited access to basic necessities such as food, electricity and fuel. Unknown numbers are detained or missing.

 Many of those left behind are women doing what they can to support their families, often mourning the loss of loved ones. Even though there are fewer battlefields, fighting continues, leaving civilians in mortal danger. The message from women in Syria rings clear: “I want you to feel our suffering.”

 Nivin Hotary, a 38-year-old mother of two and former project manager and teacher, was displaced seven months ago to the Aleppo countryside by the Assad regime’s siege of eastern Ghouta.

 Her former life “surrounded by close friends and family” was suddenly uprooted when Ghouta was besieged in 2012.

 She says: “The hardest moment during the conflict was when a bomb would be dropped near my house and I wasn’t able to protect my children, even though I was holding them tight in my arms. I used to wish that my body was bigger and stronger to protect them from harm.”

 Years later, her children now six and 12 years old, Nivin still has memories of “a weird smell in the air”, which she says she “knew was due to chemical weapons”. When the airstrikes hit, Nivin and her family would be forced to hide underground. “I’d have nightmares about my children being unable to breathe,” she adds.

 Her family now lives in Azaz, a town in the northern Aleppo countryside. But her new life is still full of complications and fear is never far away.

 “Although I live in a rented house and not in a camp, which is a privilege here, every night I suffer from feelings of instability like every displaced person,” Nivin says. “There are no guarantees for the safety of those who want to return, and the regime continues to arrest returnees. The number of forcibly disappeared people in its prisons remains high.”

 Nivin adds: “When we were displaced, my daughter would ask me about the different kinds of foods she saw at the market.” That’s because she had lived all her life under siege in Ghouta, and had never seen many of the goods for sale.

 But things are tough. “International aid to local organisations has begun to dry up,” Nivin says. “The cost of living is very expensive here, with few job opportunities.”

 51-year-old Ahlam – who could not give her surname because she fears for the safety of her son, who is detained by the regime – lives in Idlib. The province is now believed to be home to three million people and is one of the last areas of Syria outside the regime’s control. About half of the Idlib population have been displaced there from other parts of the country.

 Ahlam, a former maths teacher, and her husband, a former surgeon, have four children and several grandchildren in Idlib city. They used to live a busy, happy life, but when the fighting began, Ahlam says “no voice was heard but the voice of weapons”.

 Common to many Syrian parents, Ahlam’s sons were taken, a subject she struggles to talk about. “My two sons were kidnapped by the regime’s military intelligence,” she says. Through tears, she adds: “Two days later my third son got arrested too during a protest at his university. Can you imagine losing your three sons within two days and not knowing their whereabouts for days?”

 Two of her sons were released within three months and now live in Idlib, but her oldest has been in detention since February 2012. “I still don’t know his fate,” she says.

 The economic situation is dire in Idlib. There is a lack of jobs, while medical equipment and drugs are scarce. Many are waiting for humanitarian aid – which there is simply not enough of. Ahlam says that this high poverty and desperation has led to a rise in kidnappings for ransom money.

 “The situation in Idlib is still unstable,” she says. “We buy clean water when it’s available and when we can afford it. We also pay a monthly subscription to get electricity for a few hours a day. When there’s electricity, you see people running around so fast to use washing machines, heaters and phone chargers before it’s cut again. When there’s electricity, it’s hard work time for mothers!”

 Muzna Aljundi, 30, was a technical engineer and is now the manager of Women Now for Development in Idlib, a civil society organisation aiming to empower women in the northwest.

 “Of course war has a large effect on women, particularly psychologically in terms of causing depression and anxiety,” Muzna says. “Losing their husbands can make women more vulnerable as they have to provide for their children on their own.” The mother of two adds that women make up 60 to 70 per cent of the population in opposition-held areas, so “empowering women to play their roles and make use of their capabilities is very necessary for the whole community”.

 Muzna’s home village was bombed for days when it was being liberated from the regime. Her family would go out to help distribute food baskets to people in need, despite the risk of bombs.

 “I believe that the revolution is not over,” she says. “Our role as civilians and activists starts now. I look back at the days I had to live under fear of bombing and siege, and although it was the hardest time of my life, it really made me see life differently and definitely made me much stronger. My experience gives me a reason to wake up and go to work everyday because I want to help make positive change.”

 The world may be starting to forget about Syria, but these three women demand to be heard, and they will not wait for change – they will orchestrate it.

 Ahlam, who despite the detention of her son continues in local activism and works with NGOs, says: “My message to women everywhere is: I want you to feel our suffering, and to call your governments to remind them that there are millions of innocent people in Idlib and everywhere in Syria who deserve to live in freedom and dignity.”

 Displaced Nivin is now the director of the Women’s Empowerment Unit, a civil society organisation that helps provide women with the training and tools they need, encouraging them to play bigger roles in decision-making in their communities.

 Communities in Syria have seen high numbers of women continuing to get an education, despite their age or the war. “When the revolution started, there was a lack of expertise and qualifications among women, but then the war pushed them to work harder and improve their skills,” Nivin says. “I’m surrounded by courageous women. We have hope that Syrian women will help build a better Syria, just like German women did after the Second World War.”

 Nivin adds: “I hope you hear our voices. I’m one of many mothers who decided to join the revolution because I didn’t want my kids to live the same way I did, to live under the control of a corrupt regime. I hope that you won’t let the decision makers, who let us down for their own politics and interests, affect the way you think of us.

 “I hope that you will stand in solidarity with us if you do believe in our rights to offer our children a better life, to live in freedom and dignity and to have a Syria for all.” '

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Syrian régime prisons are a ‘real hell’ and inmates prefer death, say survivors

Zehra recounted the details of the horrors she faced in a regime prison.

 'The Syrian régime has imprisoned thousands of women and children, who are subjected to systematic torture and assault. Some of the women who survived these inhumane Syrian prisons were hosted in Turkey’s Istanbul as part of an event organized by 10 nongovernmental organizations, including the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).

 Two of these women who use the pseudonyms Zehra and Juri recounted the details of the horrors they faced.

 Zehra said she was attacked by regime troops while she was taking necessities to a family in need. “I spent one year in prison. I was subjected to every kind of cruelty and torture. They electrocuted me after tying my hands behind my back. They took pleasure in rape and violence. It got so bad I wanted to die,” she added.

 “When I got out of the prison, my troubles didn’t end. I was ashamed because of what happened to me. It is especially difficult for Syrian women. They threatened our lives so that we would stay away [from our families and friends]. The hardest part was being rejected by our families and loved ones,” Zehra said.

 “I was arrested in Lattakia and taken to an air force intelligence questioning center. The two months I spent there were the longest two months of my life. I was subjected to the worst abuse and torture. It was a real hell. I love photography and have been taking photos for 17 years. Like everyone else, I too had a normal life. Then all of this happened. I managed to come here, but many of my family members are still in Syria. I can only talk to them on the phone and am constantly worried about them,” Juri said.'

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Assad intelligence uses rape to humiliate victims and families

 'As the Syrian régime arrests hundreds of young men in the eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus despite a reconciliation deal reached in April, another dirty game the intelligence services has been working on related to the values of the conservative society in the Ghouta district - arresting, torturing and raping women of Ghouta with the aim of humiliating them and their families.
 Osama al-Omari, a Ghouta-based activist, confirmed that members of the Fourth Armored Division, led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, had arrested four women from the town of Arbin in October.

 As usual, women were taken to an unknown destination, where they remained in detention until this month. They were released without being able to confirm what they were subjected to during the period of detention, because it is like a red line for the residents to talk about so they think they should be completely silent about it.

 This silence could not endure the terrible pain of one of the women who had nervous breakdown due to bad memories and what she suffered in régime’s detention, which prompted her relatives to offer a consultation with a psychologist, but they realized that the details of the treatment sessions are terrifying.

 The doctor who treated the woman confirmed that this breakdown resulted from the continuous psychological trauma caused by multiple rape as well as severe beatings and threatening to kill her entire family if she dared to disclose anything concerning the circumstances of her detention.

 The horror of the victim’s words tells only part of the whole scene.

 The regime is fully aware of its power, which forces silence on the victims of its violations as in the case of the four women, and if one of them had not suffered a nervous breakdown, her story would have been buried, and her killer "secret" would have accompanied her to her final resting place.

 This is a part of the regime and its executioner’s confidence when they commit sexual crimes against women.

 The regime continues to press the "stigma" severely, by arresting women, fabricating charges against them and not distinguishing between whether they remain in their areas or have come back with some returnees from the north.'
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Saturday, 8 December 2018

After years in jail without trial or hope, Syria’s hunger strikers fight for justice

 'In the shaky mobile phone video, around a dozen men with grim faces stand in silence, their arms above their heads holding placards. The corridor’s yellow light reveals exposed wires and damp, peeling paint.

 The protesters are detainees at Hama central prison: some were arrested during Syria’s peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011 and have been held without trial since.

 “We have been imprisoned for many long years in the darkness of detention cells, breathing in and breathing out agony,” one says, reading from a piece of paper explaining the decision for a hunger strike. “We are exhausted. We have the right to live and for our story to be taken seriously.” The powerful message is a rare glimpse into the invisible world of Syria’s hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. In Hama central prison around 200 men have now entered their third week of hunger strike in protest against their continued detention – and a decision to transfer 11 prisoners to Damascus’s infamous Sednaya prison.

 If sent to Sednaya, the 11 are as good as “dead men walking,” said Mustafa, a local activist, who added that relatives have gathered outside Hama police station in solidarity protests. “Please, all human beings, all Syrians, I am not a terrorist. I never held a weapon, I just participated in a demonstration for freedom,” one hunger striking detainee said in a WhatsApp voice note. “We spent years in Sednaya and now they want to send us back to execute us. We did no wrong to the Syrian people, from any background or sects. Listen to our voices. Listen just for once.”

 Hama central prison, a civilian facility supposed to be more humane than notorious intelligence detention centres and Sednaya, has been a hotbed of resistance since 2012, when a riot led to prisoners taking guards and members of the administration hostage. Negotiations for hearings and better conditions have failed time and again, leading to fresh riots and intermittent hunger strikes.

 The new hunger strike is being held in protest at the decision of a military judge last month to send 11 men back to Sednaya and try another 68, including minors, in what detainees feared would lead to lengthy sentences and the death penalty. They are calling for a general amnesty.

 Since the summer Damascus has issued a flurry of hundreds of belated death certificates for the disappeared. Many have taken the official acknowledgement as a sign that at this late stage of the war, Assad no longer fears repercussions – either at home or from the international community – in admitting that so many have died in state custody.

 Damascus, along with neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, tired of shouldering the burden of large refugee populations, is now insisting that it is safe for Syrians to return home to “the nation’s embrace”.

 Despite the strident promises of amnesty and reconciliation, however, new evidence is emerging that in areas recently retaken by the government from rebel forces, dozens of opposition figures and those who defected from the Syrian army are being disappeared. Their numbers add to the thousands who already languish in Assad’s prisons.

 Inside Hama central prison, inmates are weakening from a diet of water, sometimes taken with salt or sugar. Posts in support have flooded Syrian social media. “The Syrian revolution is strong,” one supporter wrote. “May God protect you”.'

Bashar al-Assad at a mosque with worshippers

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The deterioration of the service situation forces the people of al-Ghouta to move to the neighborhoods of Damascus

47352522 510923076057841 4051654327779983360 n - Freedom Press Horrya press

 'Hundreds of families who remained in the eastern towns and villages of the Ghouta fled to the neighborhoods of Damascus and its environs after the Assad régime took control of the area amid deteriorating security, living and economic conditions, as well as the massive destruction of their homes and cities.

 "After my family and I refused to go to the north of Syria, we decided to stay and repair what I could from my house. When the Assad régime came in, things became complicated because of blackmail," said Yasin Mohammed, a resident of Douma. Elements of the régime forces threaten civilians by publicly stealing shops and homes."

 He pointed to the negligence of the Assadist public services in the city, targeted to punish the remaining civilians, by not removing the rubble and garbage from the roads, which led to the spread of odors and diseases, and fear of the spread of epidemics among civilians, after the rodent population multiplied.

 "There is no commercial movement in the markets, in addition to the difficulty of securing jobs and continuing arrests campaigns, harassment by elements of the Assad forces and the weakness of the régime's protection of civilians, and the difficulty of restoring homes and shops destroyed by bombing by the régime during the military campaign to control Ghouta."

 He stressed that the cities and towns of the eastern Ghouta were almost ghost towns, when there were about 350,000 people before the invasion by the forces of Assad and the militias supporting them, and a million and a half before the siege, while the streets of the capital Damascus and its environs are crowded 24 hours a day, as he put it.

 Adnan Maikeh, vice president of the municipal council in the city of Douma, said that the population of Douma is now about 200,000. He told the pro-regime daily Al-Watan: "Among the population, more than 100 families came from outside city, and rented homes within it."

 It is noteworthy that the Assad forces and militias supporting them, launched and supported by the aircraft of Russian aggression, a violent military attack on the cities and towns of the eastern Ghouta several months ago, resulting in the control of the area after massive
 destruction and dozens of massacres that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, including children and women, and the displacement of people to the north of Syria and housing centers in the capital Damascus.'

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Inside Assad's hellholes: No daylight for Syrian women

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 'Twenty-five-year-old Ummu Ala has finally found shelter with her two children in Reyhanlı, a town bordering Syria in southeastern Turkey's Hatay. Ummu Ala fled Syria three years ago. She left her hometown, Homs, in tears; but there was nothing else she could do. First, the Bashar Assad regime officers killed her husband and father in 2012. Then, her 9-year-old brother was shot by a regime sniper while playing on the street in front of their house. At the end of 2012, Ummu Ala was arrested by regime forces and imprisoned for three and a half months after her older brother joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

 I was curious about her story. I asked her, "Did they imprison you just because your brother joined FSA?" She said, "Yes … It was for revenge. I was just a housekeeper in Homs." I was overwhelmed and wanted to learn more. I asked her if she had participated in the protests. She responded, "I didn't go out to join the protests even for a day."

 I kept asking and tried to learn about the place that she was held in and what happened to her there. She told me that she was held in a 25 square meter room with 45 or 50 other women. Showing me her teeth, she said they were all broken when they struck her with metal rods.

 "They were torturing us according to a schedule. My turn was on Fridays," Ummu Ala said, "I still hate Fridays." Her toenails were hammered one by one; she was beaten over and over again. Bursting into tears, she said that she was raped many times and all the women there were treated the same way she was. Some of them died as their bodies couldn't withstand the torture anymore.

 Ummu Ala's elder brother managed to find money to get her out of the prison. He gave a $1,300 bribe to one of the guards. As we know, the infamous regime is also known for its corrupt officers and bribe-taking. If you're a lucky person to know a regime officer, it is often a chance to save your family or friends from prison by giving a bribe of anywhere between a thousand to millions of dollars. Ummu Ala was finally out of prison, but her elder brother was going to be arrested soon. She said that she has not heard from him ever since.

 Until she found a way to escape to Turkey to save her children and herself, Ummu Ala was trapped in Homs, which was under a long and heavy siege for months. I asked her, "How were your days in Homs?" It felt like I had opened another page of a memory she would rather forget. She said that one day her cousin shot a cat and a dog, brought them to the house and skinned them; that was supper. They ate wood chips, leaves, grass and so on for a very long time.

 There were no words on earth to make her feel better. I know that talking about Syrians and their struggles is not a hot topic anymore. If you talk "too much" about Syria in the media, you can easily hurt your reputation. After all that has happened, the number of the people who say, "We must compromise with Assad," is growing. Assad is acting like the Hitler of this decade, but there are many who want to bow down in front of him.

 Assad's victims were not only men who decided to fight against his brutal, bloody regime. There were also women and children. Estimates of the number of the deaths in the Syrian civil war, per opposition activist groups, vary between 366,792 and 522,000. However, it is believed that the number is much higher than those as there are many missing and their relatives have not heard from them for a long time.

 Over 600 detainees and prisoners died under torture in Assad's prisons starting from 2012. According to Amnesty International, between 5,000 and 13,000 people have been executed in the Syrian regime's prisons. In August 2013, a military defector, code-named "Caesar," smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria. Human Rights Watch received the full set of images from the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group that received them from Caesar. The report focused on 28,707 of the photographs that, based on all available information, show at least 6,786 detainees who died in detention under severe torture. There is no doubt that the numbers are still growing since no one is doing anything to stop this tragedy.

 Today, world leaders are talking about defeating Daesh, finding a political solution to the never-ending war, and even working on a new constitution. But, it looks like the people in Assad's jails, including civilians, women and children are no one's problem except for some humanitarian groups. According to Amnesty International, the majority of female prisoners are held in Adra prison in Damascus. In the early days of the uprising, female detainees were mainly political activists or humanitarian workers. But as the crisis escalated it became more common for other women, often relatives of opposition fighters, to be arrested and used as bargaining chips, sometimes for prisoner swaps; just like Ummu Ala.

 Recent estimates from the activist groups show that 13,581 women have been put into Assad's prisons starting from March 2011 to the end of 2017. At least 6,736 of them are still in jail and 417 of them are teenage girls. Also, at least 55 women were killed during torture. Under non-stop humiliation, horror, beating, torture and rape, I can't imagine how long someone can survive. And disgracefully, it looks like the whole world left them to their fate in Assad's hellholes.'

Merve Şebnem Oruç

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Anti-Assad Slogans Reappear on Walls of Dara’a Schools

 'Dara’a is once again regaining its leading role in opposing the Assad regime as it did during the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Anti-regime slogans have recently reappeared on walls of the Basic Education School in the village of Karak in eastern rural Dara’a.

 Local activists said that the slogans reaffirmed that the Syrian revolution will continue until the overthrow of the regime.

 Activists pointed out that the graffiti are being scrawled at night by a group calling themselves "The Popular Resistance.” The Assad regime’s security services are erasing the graffiti in the morning for fear of becoming a new norm.

 Similar graffiti begun to appear on the walls in the town of Al-Muzayrib in rural Dara’a. The slogans are reminiscent of the early days of the revolution when anti-regime slogans become ubiquitous on the walls of schools in the province, such as “it’s your turn now Doctor,” and "the people want to overthrow the regime" and "we prefer death to humiliation.”

 In 2011, the Assad regime’s security forces detained schoolchildren who were accused of scrawling anti-regime graffiti on the walls of a school in Dara’a city. The kids were tortured and their nails were removed, sparking peaceful mass demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime. The incident was the spark that led to the revolution for freedom and dignity.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Raed Fares: Kfar Nabl rebel writing his last signs with blood

Raed Fares giving a speech - May 23, 2017 (The Oslo Freedom Forum)

 'Seven years have elapsed since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. During this period of time, the peaceful activist Raed Fares did not stop protesting and demonstrating against the Syrian regime. He wrote the signs that he held during these demonstrations and organized the peaceful movement for which his city in rural Idlib, Kafr Nabl, has become well-known. Despite the threats he was exposed to, in these recent years, he insisted on staying in Syria, calling to overthrow the regime, and to reject the authority of the militant groups.

 Fares was assassinated along with his fellow activist Hammod Junaid by hooded men in the center of Kafr Nabl, and the news of his “martyrdom” became a grim day in Idlib. The way he was linked to the Syrian revolution and his impact throughout the years he spent fighting for peaceful activity give the impression that the revolution ended with the news of his assassination, especially with the attention that was drawn to Idlib recently and the attempts to portray it as a black spot away from any peaceful civilian movement.

 Born in 1972, he was known as the “famous sign designer” in Kafr Nabl. He was one of the prominent activists who committed themselves to taking part in demonstrations against the Syrian regime since the first day of the revolution until today.

 Fares was the director of the local radio station “Fresh,” which criticizes militant groups, including the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. He was chosen as information officer for Kafr Nabl signs, and also the director of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

 On the other hand, Junaid works as a photographer and has documented the events of the revolution and bombing over the past years.

 Fares studied at the Faculty of Medicine in Aleppo. He started in 1990 and left after three years for personal reasons. He later moved between Lebanon and Syria, and occupied himself with several things, including trade and handling transactions.

 Raed’s name stood out in March 2011, when he was active with his fellow, lawyer Yasser al-Saleem. Speaking of the spark that ignited the signs of Kafr Nabl, Raed said during an interview with Enab Baladi in July 2012 that the spark of revolutionary movement and the propaganda lies of Addounia TV channel (pro-regime) were both the main reasons behind the emergence of the idea of signs.

 Originally from Kafr Nabl, Raed refused several international offers to leave Syria. Despite being threatened with assassination, he insisted on staying in Idlib. An assassination attempt by unknown people who shot him in 2014 put his life at risk. Back then, he was taken to the hospital and underwent a sensitive chest surgery.

 The assassination attempt coincided with threats from al-Nusra Front, which repeatedly raided the headquarters of Fresh radio station where he worked in the early years of the Syrian revolution.
Al-Nusra Front, which has been merged into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has arrested Fares twice, first in 2014 with the photographer Hammod Junaid at a checkpoint in Maarat al-Nu’man, and the second time when he was with activist Hadi al-Abdullah in 2016 while they were at the radio station in Kafr Nabl.

 During a previous interview with Enab Baladi, Fares said that “the pressure exercised by al-Nusra front was overwhelming. Therefore we had to stop.” He also clarified that the girls working in Fresh radio station and the music played during programs were excuses for al-Nusra to shut the radio station down.

 Together with dozens of activists in Kafr Nabl, Fares was able to make it one of the most important cities interested in the affairs of the revolution and distinguished by its civil activity that was characterized by paintings and signs. These have caught the attention and were displayed in the most famous exhibitions, for they reflected a peaceful state aiming to express the Syrians’ point of view.

 He was “modest” and always caught on camera during demonstrations in Idlib, along with his comrades. Some of them were martyred, such as photographer Khalid al-Issa, while others were arrested. The most notable figure was lawyer Yasser al-Saleem, who was arrested by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham when he was at home in Kafr Nabl in September 2018.

 Since the arrest of al-Saleem, Fares has been calling for his release from the prisons of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. In early 2018, he posted on Facebook: “keep going with this hatred and continue igniting the strife, but I warn you that Kafr Nabl (…) is patient but when furious it will defend its children like a lioness and a roaring fire.”

 Fares also stated that his friend al-Saleem was arrested while he was home because he spoke up and expressed his opinion. He is neither a criminal nor a murderer, but was arrested only because he expressed himself.

 During an interview with “al-Ghad al-Arabi” in 2014, in the US, Fares sported the shirt he came wearing from Kafr Nabl, saying that he represents the people. He talked about the media work in the north of Syria, and that “media professionals, activists and journalists have become a target assuming the responsibility of protecting the Syrian revolution.”

 Fares also declared that fulfilling achievements during revolution needs “sacrifices.” He pointed out that “the revolution destroyed al-Assad’s farm, but the homeland will be left for the Syrians to live in.”

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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Syria's Druze reject Assad's call to serve

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 'Nearly eight years into the Syrian war, Selim still refuses to perform his military service, just like many fellow Druze from Sweida province rejecting the régime's conscription call.

 "I don't want to get involved in the Syrian bloodbath," said the 27-year-old, who gave a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

 The Sweida region south of Damascus is the Syrian heartland of the country's Druze minority which follows a secretive offshoot of Islam.After the anti-government protests that sparked Syria's war in 2011, the Druze obtained a de facto exemption from military service in exchange for their tacit support of the régime.

 Last week however, Bashar al-Assad urged the minority, which accounted for around three percent of Syria's pre-war population, to send its young men to the army.

 After rotating out some very long-serving conscripts, the régime is looking for fresh blood to beef up its ranks and exercise real control over the swathes of land it reconquered from the opposition.

 Assad's appeal came after the government helped release, earlier this month, a large group of Druze civilians who had been taken hostage by ISIS in Sweida.

 His call appeared to terminate a deal whereby the Druze were allowed to organise their own militia rather than serve in the army, but its implementation could prove tricky.

 "I don't want to have to kill the people of Hama, the people of Homs or any other province, for the sake of keeping one man in power," Selim said by phone from Sweida.

 "The army is your grave," said the young man, explaining that the lack of a time limit on conscription during war means recruits will not be able to know when they can return home.

 To be on the safe side, Selim never leaves Sweida, a province in southern Syria that borders Jordan and where the Syrian security services have a limited presence.

 Young Druze men have in recent years enlisted in local militia to protect their region from jihadists and the régime's interests.

In July, Selim was among hundreds of other residents who took up arms to pin back ISIS after a series of attacks that left at least 260 people dead.

 During the assault, the deadliest to have hit the Druze community since the start of the war, the jihadists kidnapped about 30 people, mainly women and children.

 The last of the surviving hostages were released on November 8, leading to Assad's demand that the Druze contribute to the national war effort.

 "The régime is trying to tell us: it's Daesh or the military service," said Selim, using a acronym for the Islamic State group.

 Khattar Abu Diab, a Paris-based professor of political science and a specialist in Druze affairs, said Assad was attempting to intimidate the minority.

 "He wants to use the residents of Sweida as cannon fodder for future battles," he said.

 Sweida was mostly spared by the deadly Syrian conflict.

 Residents on several occasions in 2014 besieged detention centres to obtain the release of men who had been rounded up to join the army.

 At the time the central government was at its weakest, stretched very thin on many fronts and had humoured the Druze not to risk opening up another.

 That level of autonomy now comes at a cost for Sweida, where security is all but guaranteed by the presence of the Syrian police.

 Some residents see a deliberate government effort to maintain a level of chaos in the province.

 "The régime uses other means to punish Sweida: the Islamic State instead of barrel bombs, crime and disorder instead of arrests," activist Hamam al-Khatib said.

 Around 30,000 Druze men are liable for military service.

 ISIS fighters who had been holding out in the volcanic area of Tulul al-Safa, between Damascus and Sweida, finally retreated last week after heavy régime bombardment and a government-negotiated deal.

 Regardless of the agreements being cut in Damascus and by their leaders, Druze youngsters willing to serve in the national army are hard to come by.

 "The war just keeps going on ... we are not killing machines," said Uday al-Khatib, a 25-year-old Sweida resident. "Yes, the Sweida youth don't do military service, I'm one of them, but we are the ones who pushed back ISIS and the army didn't help us." '

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