x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

From France to a Damascus prison: grandfather joins Syrian rebellion

Djamel Amer Al Khedoud sits in a jail cell as he recalls a journey that brought him from doing odd jobs in Marseille to the front lines of civil war.

Djamel Amer Al Khedoud is being at a jail in Damascus. The 50-year-old grandfather is charged with entering Syria illegally and of carry a weapon. Anwar Amro / AFP
Djamel Amer Al Khedoud is being at a jail in Damascus. The 50-year-old grandfather is charged with entering Syria illegally and of carry a weapon. Anwar Amro / AFP

DAMASCUS // Djamel Amer Al Khedoud, 50, a grandfather moved by television images of Syria's civil war, left Marseille in France to join rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

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

Mr Al Khedoud's beard is long and white, and he wears a traditional robe. He is extremely thin, and says he has spent his whole life doing odd jobs.

At the age of 50, Mr Al Khedoud believed he had found his true calling, to join the rebels in Syria, where the UN says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the 22-month conflict.

The Syrian authorities allowed Mr Al Khedoud to be interviewed 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 Salafi, and like everyone else, I watch television," Mr Al Khedoud said.

"On 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, Mr Al 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 Mr Al 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 rebel fighters to enter Syria.

He eventually took a bus to Antakya, and then found out through the internet about a Syrian refugee camp in Yayanari, some 15 kilometres away, where he received some basic combat training.

"Most of it involved walking. Sometimes, we'd use a shotgun for target practice," he said.

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

The Turkish authorities, who oppose Mr Al Assad's regime, have left the border with Syria open and Damascus has accused Ankara of allowing rebel fighters of various nationalities to cross over to join the fight against the regime.

"One night, I was handed a Kalashnikov and we entered Syrian territory," said Mr Al 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.

Mr Al 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 because of his age and lack of military experience.

Bitter and helpless, Mr Al 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.

"On the way, armed men in civilian clothes stopped me and took me to prison."

On June 2, Mr Al Khedoud was transferred to a Damascus prison, after being held 10 days in Aleppo.

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

Mr Al 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.

"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.