Caught in the Crossfire

Adnan Amon asked us not to be photographed. These are his hands during the interview / JENNA ROHDE

“If I return, the government will take me to serve in the military. I don’t want to fight; I don’t want to be part of this war. I am left longing for the day when I can return to my family, to my home—to Syria.” – Adnan Amon.

* The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of those included.

“I was with her. Everyday, Yana and I would walk to the main street to take the bus, I to the university and she to the high school. She was supposed to make it to school that morning, but she didn’t. She had stopped in a perfume shop along the way. There was a bomb in the car outside of the shop, and everyone—all of the people inside—they caught fire. They identified her only by her fingernails,” recounts Adnan Amon with a heavy sigh of the last moment he had with his cousin.

“This is what chokes me. There are so many innocent people that die in the street like that, from a shell or a bomb. In one moment, someone is walking in the street, and in the next, you will never see him again,” he says with palms open, as if waiting for an explanation of his nightmare of a reality.

Five years later, Adnan finds himself a declared refugee in Seville, over 5,000 kilometers away from his family, friends and neighbors in Daraa, Syria, a small town just south of Damascus.

“In 2010, Syria seemed to be doing so well. The economy was great and we had good relations with our neighbors and with Europe,” describes Adnan. “But there were people in the countryside that were unhappy with the government.”

With a steady job as a freelance architect and a hefty salary, Adnan was blind to the escalating tragedies soon to unfold in Syria, including the violent deaths of over 140,000 people.

Since 1971, the al-Assad family has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic, currently under the direction of president Bashar al-Assad. In 2010, a wave of pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring Movement swept through the Middle East and Northern Africa, catalyzing a slew of protests for political and economic change in Syria. “I participated once while studying at the university. We were carrying together both flags, the Syrian flag and the three-starred flag of the liberation,” recounts Adnan. “To me, we are all Syrians. I wanted to show that we all have the right to voice our concerns, but that we must do so with love.”

In March of 2011, the peaceful protests took a turn for the worse. A group of 15 children were arrested after painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of the schoolhouse in Daraa. While imprisoned, the children suffered extreme mistreatment, some to the point of death. The officers responsible received no punishment. After turning a blind eye to the problems of his people, a mix of ex-military officers and citizens banded together to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the intent of overthrowing President al-Assad and establishing a new government.

Here lies the problem, according to Adnan.

FSA fighters return fire in clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor, May 2013 / NAMPA (AFP)

“You can’t just remove one form of government and put in a new one. It’s like a mosaic,” he explains, motioning towards the decorative Arab tiles on the wall. “You have to take it apart piece by piece until it’s a completely new work. Or like a baby, for example, you can’t take a baby’s doll away without the baby screaming; someone stronger can’t take the power from the government and expect it to just be okay.”

In November of 2012, Adnan and his family had a threatening encounter with the FSA. Adnan’s younger brother, Anas, and some friends were kidnapped while walking to town to buy bread. “They kept them in a bathroom like this,” he says, motioning as if his hands were bound and tied firmly behind his back. “His feet as well.” Anas and his friends suffered physical and mental abuse, among the worst moments being placed in a grave and partially buried alive.

“During those 51 days my family and I were going crazy. We didn’t eat; we didn’t drink. My mother was going mad; she couldn’t function at all,” describes Adnan. “When we spoke to the rebels who kidnapped him, they said they wanted the head of the president, the head of al-Assad,” he says. “My family said to them, ‘If you aren’t able to get the head of the president, how will we be able to get it?’ We told them to ask for something logical,” continues Adnan, with tones of tired frustration in his voice. Adnan’s family exchanged a ransom for Anas’ life. Shortly after, however, the Syrian government held Anas captive for two months, and interrogated him about his experience with the FSA. “For that, I trust neither the rebels nor the government,” says Adnan. “My brother was roughly 21 years old at the time and he has suffered what a man of 50 years should never have to endure.”

When it first began, the FSA lacked the manpower and arsenal necessary to attempt a coup. Therefore, without question or hesitation, they welcomed the support of other rebel factions attempting to overthrow al-Assad. The civil conflict that once served as a mere cry for independence has now grown into a raging bloodbath between power-hungry factions that will stop at no cost to get what they want. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is one such insurgent military faction attempting to seize control of Syria and other Middle Eastern nations under extreme jihadist beliefs. Jihad denotes any vigorous, emotional crusade in support of a cause, idea or principle. In the case of ISIS, the rebels seek to spread and defend Islam by any means necessary.

“When I lived in Syria, my family and I left our house because ISIS was 200 meters from my doorstep,” says Adnan. “The government came into my town and set up a border right next to our home to keep the rebels from encroaching more.” Since 2011, the once internal civil dispute has grown to involve neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with over 6.5 million Syrian residents displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge elsewhere.

“I am worried that ISIS is getting stronger,” says Adnan. “I support the Syrian government in its effort to put down the rebellion, but only so that we may lay the foundation to reform and rebuild our nation under a completely new government.”

Adnan lacks faith in the ability of foreign governments to intervene and put down the war. “No one wants to get involved unless it will directly benefit them,” says Adnan. “When everything in Syria has been destroyed, the new construction will be by foreign companies from Qatar or the United States or Russia.” According to Adnan, the main interests of the latter two nations is a stake in Syria’s petroleum deposits and in planting military bases along its Mediterranean coast. “I don’t think anyone is trying to solve the conflict for the sake of the Syrian people,” he says.

In February of 2014, Adnan came to Spain with a student visa in order to avoid the Syrian military draft. “Normally, I would be proud to serve my country, but the situation now is really crazy,” he says. “You don’t know who you are fighting for or who you are fighting against. It’s a mess.”

Upon arrival in Seville, he found temporary shelter at the Refugee Reception Center in the neighborhood of Sevilla Este. “I didn’t want to declare asylum, to have the title of ‘refugee’ hanging over my head. But when you come to a new country having nothing and there’s a possibility to get some help—of course you take it,” he explains. “I’m thankful for all that the center has done for me.”

Adnan, now 29 years old, graduated from Damascus University in 2010 with a degree in Architecture, a career he hopes to pursue further during his time in Spain. “For me, an architect is like a god. He creates something for the benefit of the people,” says Adnan with the first glimmer of hope in his eyes. “I left Syria and now have this opportunity to make something of myself by helping others. This is what destiny has chosen for me.”

A little over one year after arriving, Adnan considers his friends in Seville like family. “I tell them about my parents, siblings and my experiences in Syria, and they really understand. They helped me find work and even opened up their homes to me, offering me a place to stay,” says Adnan.

“In Damascus, when you walk down a street you feel this connection in your soul. You feel this spirit in everything,” he describes, reaching for his heart. “The Arabs were here before, in Andalusia. When I walk in these streets, when I look at the faces of the people, the buildings, the churches—I feel a similar connection.”

Adnan is sad to think that the Syrian crisis may continue for at least five more years, yet he hopes for the day when he can safely return to his parents and nine siblings, all of whom are still in his home country. “In my town, we look out for one another. If one man stands alone, you can break him. But if people come together and work together, they are much stronger. I believe this is the only way my country will make progress.” •