Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

From Berlin to the barracks: a Syrian rebel returns home to fight

After escaping the war to travel to Germany in 2015, Mohammad Al Naeemi has now returned to fight Bashar Al Assad

Mohammad Al Naeemi, 23, had found safety and a future living in exile in Germany, but he returned to war-torn Syria anyway to fight President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Clutching a rifle to his chest, back flat against the ground, he shimmies across a dry field in north-western Syria on his graduation day from training to join an armed rebel group.

"I returned to give back to my country," said the young fighter, wearing a black T-shirt and beige combat trousers.

With an opposition group cap fit tightly on his head, he powers through push-ups, counting each one out at the top of his lungs in unison with fellow recruits.

From now on, "I'll reside in military barracks and on the front lines," he said.

"It'll be the best place I can possibly live."

Mr Naeemi was a high school student in Syria's southern province of Qunaitra when peaceful protests demanding change erupted across the country in 2011.

After a brutal crackdown on the demonstrations spiralled into war, he joined the armed opposition for several years.

In 2015, fearing a regime takeover of his region, he decided to leave and join his siblings in Germany.

Travelling through the summer, he and friends crossed Syria's central desert to the Turkish border, before travelling by sea to Greece, and then by land across Europe onto Germany alongside tens of thousands of other refugees.

"I lived in Berlin. I was studying [German]”, he said.

"I had an ordinary life. I had rights like any German citizen and a monthly stipend. I wanted for nothing," he said.

"But I wasn't happy and I constantly missed my home country," Mr Naeemi added.

Syrian government forces have taken back large swathes of the country since Russia intervened on behalf of Damascus in 2015, including Mr Naeemi's home province of Qunaitra last year.

Since late April, regime and Russian forces have ramped up deadly bombardment of the holdout opposition bastion of Idlib, which is controlled by Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

The strikes and rocket fire have killed more than 600 civilians in the hardline militant-held region of some three million people, almost half displaced by war from other parts of the country.

The fierce regime campaign on Idlib and a government takeover of Qunaitra are the main reasons Naeemi decided to head back to Syria, he said.

"My parents opposed my decision and tried to stop me from returning... but I insisted," said Mr Naeemi, who has no relatives in the militant-run bastion.

He arrived in north-west Syria last month and immediately joined Jaysh Al Izza, a formerly US-backed Syrian rebel group active in the north of Hama province and parts of Idlib.

He spent one month in a rebel training camp near the Bab Al Hawa crossing with Turkey, where life was governed by a strict routine.

He woke up early everyday for military drills, which consisted of diving through burning tires, jumping over cement blocks and shuffling across trenches.

He also sat for classes in religion and ethics.

His unit was named after Abdel Basset Al Sarout, a Syrian goalkeeper turned opposition fighter who died last month of wounds sustained in battle against regime forces.

The group consists mainly of fresh recruits spurred into joining rebel ranks by the latest flare-up in Syria's northwest, said Mustafa Bakour, a rebel commander.

"Each one of these men has a story," he said from the camp.

With training now over, Mr Naeemi said the "hard part" is behind him.

Looking back, he said he has no regrets.

"I liked Germany and considered it as my home but there is nowhere like my country, Syria," he said.

"I don't regret my decision, I did not return for money or wealth. If money was the goal, I would have stayed in Germany."

Updated: July 21, 2019 12:15 PM

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