Hassan, a 25-year-old prisoner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), looks depressed as he trades cigarettes with the 15 other men in his detention room in a makeshift jail in Aleppo province.
He says he was headed to Aleppo central prison to deliver his cousin’s release papers and that, unbeknownst to him, his minibus was being used to smuggle tank shells to regime forces inside the jail.
FSA investigators did not believe his story, thought he was a smuggler, and threw him into this converted prison in the basement of a villa, where prisoners would be protected from shelling.
“My cousin said he would pay me 100,000 Syrian pounds ($500) if I would go to the prison to hand in his brother’s release papers,” he says. “Despite the danger, he knew I would agree to do it because of my dire financial situation. I can’t provide for my wife and son because I’m unemployed, and my in-laws refuse to let them come stay at their home. I’m also in debt. I owe more than 50,000 ($250) Syrian pounds to people who are constantly asking for their money and badgering me. I went to Turkey for a month and a half looking for work – any work – but to no avail.”
Hassan’s situation was grim, but his cousin’s proposal was dangerous. Clashes have raged around Aleppo central prison for months, as the rebels surrounding it wage attack after attack on the government troops inside.
“Eventually I agreed,” Hassan says. “There was no other logical decision. Anyone in my situation would have grabbed this opportunity. I asked [my cousin] why he didn’t go himself, and save the money. He said he was scared of going to a front line like the central prison, because one can easily get killed.
“I said I have nothing to lose but my life at this point. And even if that happens, it isn’t so bad. But if I make it, then I would have 100,000 Syrian pounds, an unimaginable sum of money given the circumstances.”
Residents in Aleppo, once Syria’s industrial hub, were already facing rising unemployment as the war dragged on. But the economy ground to a full stop when the FSA entered the city in July 2012. People here jump at any opportunity to make money, no matter how dangerous the prospect.
Hassan takes a drag from his cigarette and lets out a cloud of smoke. The white cloud rises, then dissipates in the dreary room. He has been here for four days, but his captors are still not convinced of his innocence.
“My cousin gave me the vehicle the night before I went to bring the release papers,” he recalls. “After he left, I figured I should call on one of my closest friends in the village who had connections in the FSA to help me get across. I drove that night to stay with my friend. He contacted some of the rebels and they promised to let me through at the checkpoints surrounding the prison. The next morning, we exchanged goodbyes and I headed over there. It was mix of a euphoric sense of adventure and paralyzing fear. I felt like I was on the hunt for Treasure Island,” he says.
At the time, he says, all he thought about was returning home to his family with the money. “That would have been a great achievement. But even that wasn’t enough to help me shake off my fear of death. Imagine being in between two warring parties, each of which will think you’re their enemy.”
He had driven the minibus just a short distance before a mortar shell hit it. It led to a chain of explosions that drew the attention of the FSA. Three of 10 tank shells hidden at the rear of the bus had exploded.
Hassan insists he had no knowledge that there were tank shells on board, maintaining that his cousin tricked him. But FSA investigators believe he was serving as a smuggler to provide regime forces, who are under siege in the prison, with ammunition to fight off the rebels’ advances.
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.