Holding a Kalashnikov he admits to never having used, university student Mohammed Shadi says simply “I do not want to kill,” as he recounts months filled with anger, violence, and disillusionment.
Shadi lives with the bombardments and conflict that have become part of life in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, in the midst of a brutal battle between the army and rebels bent on overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The 24-year-old spends his time checking friends’ comments on Facebook or the latest videos on YouTube, two websites he believed would lead to Assad’s downfall when the rebellion began 16 months ago.
“In March 2011, I was on Facebook groups” about the uprising, the electronics engineering student says sadly.
“We all spoke via Skype, we got organised. At the time I thought that the regime would fall in six months.”
Shadi’s first political experience came on March 15 last year, when he joined around 400 demonstrators as police and the shabiha — pro-regime militiamen — watched from nearby.
“We just had time to shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is greatest) twice before the shabiha came and starting hitting us,” he recalls.
“I was scared, and I did not tell my parents.”
Over the following weeks, Shadi became increasingly involved in the protest movement. At one point, he came to the defence of Aman Adjar, “a good professor that the university management wanted to silence because he denounced corruption.”
That dispute sparked a sit-in at the University of Aleppo.
“There were even girls there,” Shadi says, smiling, describing the university as the “volcano of Aleppo.”
In May 2011, “we tore up copies of our exams and walked out of the room and encouraged other students to follow suit.”
As the months passed, the demonstration movement hardened.
“When the police fired tear gas, we would roll cans of coke along the ground — students would recover by pouring coke on their faces,” he says.
“During those protests we saw the shabiha. They were obviously older, and were not carrying any books.”
The shabiha carried batons, sticks and knives.
“To defend ourselves we would thrown stones at them, but then they would start using firearms,” Shadi recalls.
His best friend Maher was held in detention for nine months, and Shadi now does not go home, opting instead to constantly change location, staying at the houses of friends.
Over time, he has grown to himself rely on “thugs” to protect demonstrators, arguing: “If the shabiha can use them, why not us?”
Now, around 30 men stand guard near demonstrators, paid $20 per rally.
In October, Shadi was arrested while leaving the university. Authorities searched his computer, and he was held for four days by military intelligence.
A few months later he was back on the streets, at a demonstration with around 200 other students.
Once again, the shabiha were there, and tried to disperse the protesting youths.
“I ran and a shot rang out. When I heard the shabiha reload his shotgun, I stopped” and was detained.
That led to eight days in a military police cell with dozens of other inmates.
Each day he would be beaten, and an interrogator would ask if he was ready to talk.
“I would say that I was ready to walk down the street to my home,” Shadi recalls. “And they would reply ‘Ok, you do not want to talk,’ and the blows would start again.”
Interrogators would ask who told him where demonstrations would take place, whether he was a member of Al-Qaeda, and who paid him to attend the rallies.
On other occasions, groups of prisoners would be lined up, all kneeling down with their hands tied behind their backs, with the interrogator declaring: “A bad answer is worth five to 10 hits on the soles of your feet.”
After those eight days in custody, a judge ruled that he should be freed.
“I learned they wanted to throw me out of the university, so I decided I wanted to leave the country,” Shadi says.
He sent his 21-year-old brother Ahmed to secure a passport for him.
But all this resulted in was a 20-day detention for his brother and more of the same — beatings by interrogators using their fists and batons, and electric shocks to his body.
“I want to leave, to seek political asylum, to help the revolution, but from outside the country,” he says.
“In the end Bashar will leave, but it will take time to restore peace. Between the rebels and the Islamists, there are many weapons in circulation. Arms have been distributed to teenagers.”
“This is what scares me,” he says, his Kalashnikov assault rifle leaning against a wall.