What it's like to be a veteran of Syria's civil war


Abu Mahmoud, 27, from the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ez Zour, had his left arm mangled during a government air strike on his city last November. A Turkish doctor told him an operation to help repair his arm would cost $5000.


Stephen Starr

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The Syrian opposition is fragmented and informal. That has meant infighting on the ground, as well as an unclear mandate for opposition representatives in the Geneva talks.

But there are other, less obvious disadvantages. Like this one: The anti-government factions fighting in Syria rarely have support systems in place for their veterans.

In Istanbul’s multicultural Aksaray district, Arabic, African, and Slavic languages can be heard on the street as readily as native Turkish. Men sit on the edges of a vast plaza, sipping coffee or waiting to process residency applications at the nearby Turkish immigration authority. More and more, the men are Syrian. Some among them walk with limps, others with the aid of crutches.

A pile of battered wheelchairs lies outside the door of a nearby apartment where six ex-rebels live together. The men only met here, connected by friends of friends in Istanbul after the conflict forced them out of Syria.

In Geneva, Syrian government and opposition representatives are meeting this week to discuss the provisions of a 2012 communiqué that outlines handing government power in Syria from President Bashar al-Assad to a transitional authority.

But for the men inside this decrepit apartment, the politicking in Geneva is meaningless next to their more immediate difficulties. All of them say they began protesting against the government in March 2011 at the very beginning of the uprising, joining demonstrations after Friday prayers in their home city of Deir Ez Zour, in eastern Syria. They took up arms as the struggle grew violent.

Ibrahim, 27, lost his right leg below the knee in a battle with Syrian government forces last year. He left for Turkey soon after.

“The [Syrian] opposition has done nothing for us. We called them when we first got to Istanbul — the first time we spoke they promised to help with living costs but since then they’ve yet to answer our calls,” said Ibrahim.

But he is perhaps the least-worst off in this house of disabled fighters, who prefer to go by their noms de guerre, as they still have family in Syria.

Abu Mahmoud, who worked as a mechanic before the popular uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, looks like a man still haunted by war, having left the frontlines for Istanbul less than three months ago.

Today he faces more troubling concerns than war’s psychological effects.

His left arm is held together by steel frames, and for three inches between his shoulder and elbow, his bones have been blown away, he says. He fears that if he doesn’t have surgery soon, infection may spread to the rest of his body. He’s been told by a Turkish doctor an operation would cost $5,000.

Nor is the lack of medical treatment these men’s only worry today. They say that if they cannot collect money for rent within four days, they will be forced onto the street.

Abu Jihad, the eldest and only married member of the household, says that local Turkish residents are helping them, providing food and some medicine. “But our rent is the biggest problem today.”

He says the six pay $1,200 per month for their three-bedroom apartment. Monthly rent in many areas of Istanbul is often much less, but because the men have established ties in this neighborhood with locals and doctors, they’re unwilling to leave.

Many Syrian political opposition figures are currently based in Istanbul. Any aid from them to injured fighters, however, is informal: The fighters on the rebel side are not professional soldiers, nor is the opposition an established bureaucracy able to provide medical care for chronic injuries.

“As the political opposition, we can’t become involved in military issues,” says Khaled Khouja, a representative of the Syrian Coalition in Turkey. “Such people must go through the opposition’s Supreme Military Council and that way they can get treatment from the Turkish authorities.”

That's news to Abu Jihad and his five housemates. But even knowing that the Supreme Military Council is an option, they say they may not attempt to make contact, as they don't know anyone in the hierarchy.

Abu Jihad says he received a 25-day supply of vitamins to help with partial blindness — inflicted by debris following a government air strike in his home city of Deir Ez Zour — from the Syrian National Council late last year, but has received nothing else.

As well as taking over 130,000 lives, the war in Syria has made refugees of at least two million people, with 6.5 million more thought to be displaced inside the country.

For almost two years, Turkey has allowed the movement of injured rebels in and out of northern Syria, to the frustration of the Syrian government and the appreciation of the Syrian opposition. The government in Ankara has repeatedly called on President Assad to step down.

To date, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey has taken in 577,937 Syrians, mostly in camps situated along its border with Syria. Thousands more have eschewed the camps and struck out on their own — the Turkish border cities of Antakya and Gazientep have large Syrian communities today, though their influx has driven up rents and caused some animosity between Turks and their Syrian guests.

In Istanbul, a metropolis of around 14 million people, Syrian refugees are increasingly visible on street corners and in public parks. Many have been reduced to begging to feed themselves.

Some Syrians uprooted by the conflict are seeking new lives in Europe or Canada. The rebels here have eyes only for home.

“We want the situation to end and to go home to our houses,” said Ibrahim. “But Bashar must go. Everyone with Syrian blood on their hands must leave the government.”

Abu Mahmoud, who must move the fingers of his left hand every few minutes in order to ensure circulation of blood, looks on, saying little.

“A political solution could work,” said Ibrahim, an electrician before he took up arms against the government, “but only one that excludes Bashar al-Assad.”

None, however, are holding out hope that a solution to the conflict will emerge in a faraway European city.