Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 27 January, 2013

Bleak prospects for French Islamist fighter jailed in Syria

Djamel Amer al-Khedoud, a 50-year-old grandfather moved by television images of Syria’s violent conflict, left Marseille in France to join rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

But after arriving in Syria’s neighbour Turkey, a stroke of bad luck landed him in a Damascus jail instead.

Khedoud’s beard is long and white, and he wears a traditional Arab galabiyeh, or robe. He is extremely thin, and says he has spent his whole life doing odd jobs.

At the age of 50, Khedoud believed he had found his true calling, to wage jihad — holy war — in Syria, where the UN says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the 22-month conflict.

The Syrian authorities allowed an AFP journalist to interview Khedoud in a Damascus detention facility, in an apparent bid to disprove anti-regime pan-Arab media claims of restrictions on foreign news outlets in the country.

“I am a Muslim, a moderate Salafist, and like everyone else, I watch television,” Khedoud said.

“On (pan-Arab channels) Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, I could see my brethren in Syria suffer, especially the children. I used to cry so much it hurt.”

Born in Blida near the Algerian capital Algiers, Khedoud travelled to France when he was 19. He is a citizen of both countries.

As the Syrian conflict, which began as a peaceful uprising against Assad, became bloodier and turned into a full civil war, he decided he had to travel there to help defend the people.

“I mustered up strength and I left, all alone, to Turkey,” said the father of six and grandfather of a little boy.

He spoke openly — the prison chief appeared not to understand French — about the difficulties he encountered after leaving for Syria.

With no knowledge of the region’s geography, he wound up in Antalya, on the Turkish coast, rather than Antakya, a crossing point used by jihadist fighters to enter Syria.

He eventually took a bus to Antakya, and then found out via the Internet about a Syrian refugee camp in Yayanari, some 15 kilometres (10 miles) away, where he received some basic combat training.

“Most of it involved walking. Sometimes, we’d use a shotgun for target practice,” he said.

Khedoud spent two months there, until the end of May last year, when he crossed into Syria.

The Turkish authorities, who oppose Assad’s regime, have left the border with Syria open and Damascus has accused Ankara of allowing jihadists of various nationalities to cross over to join rebels fighting the regime.

“One night, I was handed a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) and we entered Syrian territory,” said Khedoud.

His excitement was quick to fade, however, because he saw very little action in the first two weeks, except for having to take cover in wooded areas when helicopter gunship flew overhead.

Khedoud said he did not witness any of the horrors and bloody battles he saw on television, and his dream of fighting for the Syrian people vanished.

He ended up whiling away the hours in an empty house.

His comrades never asked him to accompany them on their night patrols, apparently due to his age and lack of military experience.

Bitter and helpless, Khedoud decided to travel back to France via Turkey. “I gave back my weapon, grabbed my backpack and left the group to travel back to Turkey alone,” he said.

“On the way, armed men in civilian clothes stopped me and took me to prison,” he said.

On June 2, Khedoud was transferred to a Damascus prison, after being held 10 days in the northern city of Aleppo.

The prison director said Khedoud is due to be tried soon.

Khedoud said he has been accused of entering Syria illegally, and of carrying a weapon.

But he has no idea what sentence he may be given because he does not have a lawyer. The International Committee of the Red Cross has never visited the facility he is detained in.

“I haven’t said very much to my family, other than goodbye. I am not sure they know I’m in prison, but they might know I’m in Syria,” he said.

“I want to send them a big hug, and to tell them I miss them very much,” he added, bursting into tears.