The Syrian air force deserter driven to escape the war
- 11 October 2013
- From the section Middle East
At the side of a dusty unpaved road in the centre of Domiz camp, Lukman stands talking to his colleagues, whilst puffing on his cigarette.
With his low-waist jeans, short-sleeved shirt and tattooed tiger on his left arm, the 26-year-old could be mistaken for a young Western man.
But in fact Lukman was born to a Kurdish family in Qamishli, northern Syria. He did not finish his high school education, as his family could not afford it.
Lukman moved to the capital, Damascus, where he found employment as a construction worker building blocks of flats.
But behind his handsome looks and shy smile lies deep pain and anguish borne out of a particularly difficult experience.
Lukman is a defector - not from the army, but from the most feared security service in Syria, namely Air Force Intelligence.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The killing and torture of other Syrians right before my eyes was devastating but when I saw three of my colleagues killed right in front of me I made my mind up and started planning for running away," Lukman said, his deep voice choked with emotion.
Lukman was performing his military duty when the uprising began in March 2011. He was surprised that he would be allocated to a security branch given his Kurdish background.
"I didn't understand how I can be trusted and sent to such a place where only members of [President Bashar al-Assad's] Alawite community would operate," he said.
"But I had no choice. No-one has a choice in Syria but to follow orders."
Lukman took part in many security raids detaining protesters in different parts of Damascus.
He recalls one day in particular- though his account cannot be verified - when more than 100 men were arrested in a raid on the town of Muadhamiya, west of Damascus.
"The beating and torture starts from the minute we find our target. It won't stop," he says. "But on that day, we stopped on the Muadhamiya bridge, just off the neighbourhood that's inhabited by Alawites loyal to Assad.
"The men were brought to where our cars and buses were parked. One protester was taken from one car to the other and that's when the civilians of Alawite community arrived and started beating the protester.
"They used everything - sticks, stones, their fists and feet . While beating him they were chanting 'Long live Assad'. A few minutes later, the protester was a dead body on the ground. We took him in the car and put him in a refrigerator," Lukman recalled with bitterness.
"The only thing that makes me sleep at night is that I never participated in any of these atrocities. I never tortured anyone and never killed anyone," he said with a deep sigh.
To avoid such scenes, Lukman asked his boss to send him on simple missions where he didn't have to do any hard job.
He was lucky, he said, that his boss agreed and sent him to Damascus University whenever there was a protest taking place there.
But there was yet another scene of violence, this time at the hands of the Student Union, a branch of ruling Baath Party organisation.
"All the union people were Alawites and supporters of Assad," Lukman said.
"When a protest takes place involving 20 to 30 students, colleagues from the Student Union would come in triple the numbers and start beating them.
"It was too much to take, Syrians killing Syrians by order of the government," he said. "The torture that happened inside prison are beyond what you can imagine."
Lukman served at Mezzeh military airport, in the western suburb of Damascus on the route to Beirut.
It is known to be a detention centre as well as a military base where rockets are fired at rural Damascus and fighter planes take off on bombing raids.
The hangars were transformed into detention centres, with more than 1,500 detainees held in each, Lukman explained.
"You can find all sort of people there - politicians, protesters, Free Syrian Army members. They all face same destiny of torture and the ones who leave the detention centres alive, they become mad," he said.
"No government on earth can do this to its own people and they keep claiming there is terrorism. They are worse than al-Qaeda."
But the situation became more risky after the uprising became an armed one, Lukman said.
Sunni soldiers and others like him coming from the eastern side of the country were always sent to the frontlines and hot-spots where they got killed.
"The Alawite officers were always kept in safe places so they avoid any killing or retaliation, while Sunnis were sent to be killed while trying to kill other Syrians," he said.
The tipping-point came when three of Lukman's friends were killed on the battlefield where they had been sent.
"I couldn't take this. I didn't want to hold weapons and fire at other Syrians, nor did I want to be killed by fellow Syrians who were trying to protect themselves from the army. I made up my mind and faked my death," he said.
"I didn't want to switch sides as I fear informants," he added.
"There are many informants in the FSA [Free Syrian Army]. All their movements are reported and many times these informants would act under orders from the regime, committing atrocities in the name of the revolution to defame it," he claimed, although this is impossible to verify.
One day Lukman was on a mission in Harasta, an eastern suburb of Damascus that rebelled against President Assad.
He sent a text message to his boss telling him he was being ambushed by the FSA and would be killed. In fact, he was on a bus heading to Qamishli, using his friend's ID card so he could cross checkpoints.
He switched off his phone and "disappeared" from then.
For the Syrian government, Lukman may be dead or they may have discovered that he defected.
But for Lukman, his new life started here in Domiz camp away from the violence he witnessed.
"I don't want to think or tell the stories of what I lived through. This is a nightmare and when I talk about it I feel as if I am living it again. I want to forget and move on. I want to be normal."