Syrian rebels aim their weapons as they take position in a building during clashes with regime forces in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 16, 2013.(AFP Photo / Jm Lopez)
The Syrian opposition is made up of young men with little education, brainwashed into fighting President Assad, journalist Ankhar Kocheva told RT. Kochneva spoke about her time as a hostage, describing a ragtag group of men devoid of tangible ideals.
Ankhar Kochneva, a Ukrainian citizen and Palestinian national, spent 153 days as a hostage in the custody of Syrian opposition guerrilla fighters. RT's Nadezhda Kevorkova has met with the journalist to see an altogether different picture of the rebel fighters to the one drawn in Western media - young men in their twenties conned into fighting for the opposition by the farfetched stories of sheiks.
RT: Can you describe these rebel fighters? What kind of people are they?
Ankhar Kochneva: The ones that held me captive were Syrians, Sunnis. There are no foreigners in that particular group. Most of them are former neighbors or relatives from a southern Homs district – Baba Amr. Their apartments and houses were destroyed a year ago, because they were fighting against the army there and, as they put it, they made a tactical decision to withdraw. The withdrawal basically meant crossing the Homs-Tartus highway, moving from its northern to its southern side. They moved into the empty houses in the village and paid some rent to the owners – $50-100. Rent is getting higher, because the demand for housing is growing, since there are more and more refugees. And it is impossible to live in summer houses. In some houses, there are over 30 refugees. Electricity is scarce; there is a schedule for when it comes on. Those who have a generator are considered very lucky. My kidnappers didn’t have a generator.
RT: What kind of guerrilla activities are they involved in? Are they constantly attacked by the Army?
AK: The army didn’t really do anything to them. There were occasional shootings. These are just small groups in rural areas. So the army doesn’t really target their residences. They attacked the government forces and their checkpoints every once in a while, kidnapped people.
RT: What is the relationship between the guerrilla fighters and the locals?
AK: They try to co-exist peacefully with the people who surround them and give them shelter.
They are mad at the Christian community of El Quseir though. Some time ago there were reports about kidnappings of Christians [in September 2012, almost 300 Catholics, half of them women and children, were kidnapped, when they were picking apples in Rehle, on the border with Lebanon – RT]. But it was not mentioned anywhere that by doing that the rebels tried to bring back four of their friends, who were captured by the Christian community – so it was the Christians who upset the peaceful co-existence.
According to many accounts, this is what happened. Four rebels were kidnapped by the Christians. I was told that these four people were kidnapped when they were not doing anything against this Christian community. They were just going about their business.
In order to set their people free, opposition fighters took almost 100 Christians hostage. The guerrilla fighters returned all the hostages alive, whereas their people came back in body bags, cut into pieces.
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra reacts as a picture is taken of him as their base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, March 14, 2013. (Reuters / Hamid Khatib)
They were offended by that, saying that these people didn’t harm the Christians in any way.
All this happened during my first days in captivity – and they kept talking about this. I overheard some things. They are mad, because their people were brutally killed, but nobody in the West is saying anything about it. They were ordered not to kill Christians, otherwise the West would stop helping them. These cases have to be brought to light and investigated. Maybe because these four people were killed, a chance to achieve a truce was missed… Now the residents of this Christian suburb don’t go anywhere, they don’t go to Sunni villages to buy groceries.
‘They believe most insane stories’
RT: Who are these people, these Syrian guerrilla fighters?
AK: Most of them are in their early twenties. Some have served in the army. Twenty-seven-year-olds are considered very mature. Most of them are single. Some didn’t even graduate from high school. Their parents told them, “You know the alphabet, so go work now.”
They don’t have any clear ideology. They don’t really think about things, don’t discuss anything. At least, they didn’t have any such talks with me, they said right away – it’s impossible to argue with them.
Their logic really suffers – and you can see that in everyday life. They believe the most insane stories, if they hear them from some religious teachers.
My guard’s name was Ahmad, 27 years old, finished four grades in school. He told me that he had heard in a sermon that in 1990, Soviet scientists drilled a tunnel to the center of the Earth, saw fire there and recorded the screams of sinners in hell. He believes in that story, because it supports his worldview.
I tried to argue that in 1990 this was the last thing on Russia’s mind, that there is no recording device that can work in such temperature, that spirits don’t have voices – I couldn’t convince him. Most of them have never been outside the country, and didn’t travel around Syria much either. But they remember the blessed times of low prices, somebody even managed to go to the seashore, which is not far from there. But they cannot draw connections between the current situation and their actions.
They talk about how they used to go to restaurants, to cabaret.
RT: Does religion play any role in their life? Do they pray?
AK: They try, but not always succeed. They might fall asleep or fail to wake up. Some other excuses: “I am cold, I am hungry.” I did not see them pray together, they prayed individually. They don’t quote the Koran, don’t say Bismillah or Insha'Allah all the time. These are simple people, who were thrown into some new circumstances, but it didn’t change who they are.
RT: We read all the time that mercenaries are paid “huge money”. What can you say about that?
AK: They don’t consider themselves mercenaries. They are guerilla fighters, volunteers. They made a conscious decision to be part of the unit, to follow this commander, whom they respect. They are not paid salaries, they only get an allowance.
My captors got $100 per month – they spent 40-50 per cent of that on cigarettes.
Fighters in other units get twice as much, or even more. But those who held me didn’t mind staying on the allowance, as long as Ammar was their leader.
RT: Who is this commander? What sets him apart?
AK: He turned 40 recently. Before the war, he used to be a house painter in Homs. He’s single. His father was a well-known Sufi sheik who could talk to snakes. My guards knew and respected him.
‘Simple provincial folk’
RT: And how do these things go together – their respect for a Sufi sheik and brainwashing the public that this unrest is the Salafist doing?
AK: They are neither radical Muslims nor Salafists, they are simple provincial folk that have been told by sheiks about freedom and democracy.Ammar has been in the guerilla force for over a year.
RT: What made him join?
AK: He saw what he thought to be a major injustice taking place. Both the opposition and the army kept firing, and innocent people kept dying in the crossfire. In his circle, the perception was that it was army’s and the regime’s fault.
I asked him once, “What would you do if this civil war never happened and instead Israel attacked Syria?” He replied, “I would join the army and fight for Syria.”
But there’s no going back for him now.
RT: Any war ends in a truce.
AK: He’s gone way too far. He is the enemy of the state. He is a leader and head of the military council of the Farouq Brigades in Homs area. He supervises attacks on checkpoints, they have partly killed and expelled all the Shia, and all the Alawites. He led the resistance to the army taking over Homs from Bab-Amr. I believe this is the man it would be worth running negotiations with – that’s of course if he chose to resort to a dialogue. He is not beyond compassion and understanding. He can let people free. During my time there, he let two Sunni fighters, professors with Homs University free.
He is a very simple man, he doesn’t require much, and strives to deliver justice. He gave over his room and bed to me and slept on the floor. People often send him gifts of nice clothes and he gives them away to his fighters. He has no material ambition to get rich.
RT: Did he mention what goals the guerilla forces pursue?
AK: No. They thought it wouldn’t take long and hoped to get support from abroad. He believes they have been decoyed and used, as they didn’t receive the help they had been promised and now it’s obvious they are not going to receive it at all.
He is not a bigot or radical – he is a civilized person with that Syrian conception that everybody has the right to have its own idea of how to follow their religion. I was forced to put on a headscarf only for the time of filming [a video about the terms of release – RT].
People respect him as he is reasonable and has no material ambition to get rich.
The man who kidnapped me behaves differently and people notice such things. For instance, when they [people from the first detachment – RT] attacked the village of al Haidaria, not only did they steal people’s belongings from the abandoned houses, but they knocked down the walls, pulled out electrical boxes, removed windows and doors, plug sockets and switchers in order to sell them all.
Those who kept me hostage disapproved of that.
Many told me that if I had gotten in hands to some other field commander, I would have had a far harder time.
Rebel fighters load their weapons in the majority-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 4, 2013.(AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)
RT:The rebels’ hatred is focused on Bashar Assad - can you say why?
AK: They hold him responsible for everything. They even say the carrot crop failure is his fault. It’s a trend to hate him. And they get brainwashed to believe that the majority of people think the same. They don’t want to know that the majority actually does not support them.
The brainwashing techniques are quite primitive. For example, their fatigues have been manufactured in Turkey, with each set numbered, and the numbers they used exceed 11 million. But that’s nonsense. Syria doesn’t have that many men. Its entire population is 23 million people, and children account for more than a half of this number. This is the way they’re trying to support the myth that the FSA has the majority on its side. And you know what happens in those small areas they control? Many are forced to keep their real attitude secret.
RT: What about Hafez Assad? Did their parents hate him, too?
AK: They don’t talk about him. I never heard anything. They don’t even need that kind of logical argument.
‘They plan to celebrate victory with attacks in Moscow and Chechnya’
RT: Do they hate Russia?
AK: They plan to celebrate their victory by blasts in Chechnya and Moscow – these are their exact words. My guards happily assured me this will happen. It’s possible they just said it to dispirit me, and use other words with other people.
RT: You said that the commander of the detachment would have joined the army if Israel had attacked Syria. What do rank-and-file guerrillas think about Israel?
AK: According to some rumors, the Qataris and Saudis became regular visitors to Israel, and their visits were quite friendly. That’s why the command of the opposition ordered to be kind to Israel. As for the Palestinian people, there is another directive – they should treat them with disdain. They say that the Palestinians were selling their own land, and the Jews, on the contrary, are good people. I heard several people saying such things, and it sounds like an echo of some programs, conversations and opinions someone had instilled in them. I repeat that there is no mindset there.
Speaking of the Palestinians, Kurds, coastal population and the population of the regions – they believe that they are all traitors, because they haven’t taken the side of the revolution.
Turkey is not respected either – they don’t get anything essential from them, although some useful small items come from Turkey from time to time. For example, there were book series dedicated to the “Blessed Syrian Revolution” published in Turkey, and they read them. These books include quotes from the Koran and say that God welcomes the events in Syria.
RT: Is hatred towards Alawites religious in character?
AK: No, there's nothing about religion, although some statements about incorrect believing did take place. But this is not the key point. They have some way stronger emotions. For example, I heard them complaining that the houses of Alawite scum were the only ones that were heated. The thing is they were offered big multi-dwelling units with heating, but they refused saying they wanted to live in their private homes.
‘They don’t mess with Christians for fear of losing European support’
RT: And what do they think of the Christians?
AK: They are regarded as wayward, but they don’t dare mess with the Christians fearing Europe would turn away from them. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget there are a lot of Christians in Syria, as well as plenty of different communities and sects. They all live side-by-side with the Muslims and regard them as neighbors, without paying extra attention to what they believe in.
RT: How do they regard the Americans?
AK: They criticize them, claiming the Americans have decoyed them. The guerrillas are told that the Americans might be spies. There was an American man who had pretended to be a journalist and he had been caught before me. According to the guerrillas, he was leaking some information about locations, so he was caught and accused of espionage. I heard he was bartered – there was a grand operation.
‘They are hostile towards opposition groups abroad’
RT: Do they realize how the opposition can represent them abroad? Does anybody monitor and evaluate their activities?
AK: They don't like the opposition members settled in Europe, Istanbul and Moscow, and have promised to slaughter them if they come back to Syria. Regular fighters say they have been shedding blood and those people just want to get everything for free. So they are quite hostile towards the opposition that settled down abroad.
RT: What arms do guerillas use?
AK: Russian hand grenades, Kalashnikov guns – both Russian and Chinese. As they said themselves, they have got lots of Belgian weapons.
RT: Did you see if they had money?
AK: Two bundles of $8,000. And they were speaking of such sums like pocket change. They were counting money before my own eyes. What’s more, after I had already been released, I ran into a video in which Ammar was counting a huge bundle of money. It is clear they don’t keep this money to themselves – they buy weapons with it.
RT: Did you see anybody get wounded?
AK: Lots of wounded people. I saw about nine people bandaged and loads of murdered. There is a field hospital, but I’d rather call it a regular clinic. The chief doctor is a pharmacist, who – according to my experience – doesn’t know what is what even in terms of pharmacy. There was some wounded man delivered from Homs – he begged to be handed over to the army, as he knew he wouldn’t get proper medical treatment and would die.
RT: What do the rebels think of volunteers from abroad?
AK: They are at odds with Jabhat al-Nusra. There is some killing list with the names of al-Faruk Brigades’ leaders on it, and about five people have already been killed – they try to eliminate the lead figures. Moreover, there are ongoing serious wrangles among the rebels themselves. There were no foreigners in the areas I have been to. To say the least, they are not welcomed and regarded as competitors.
‘People are exhausted’
RT: How do people feel over there?
AK: People are exhausted. Most of them have lost everything. Those who had wanted to take part in the revolution already joined – so human resources inside the country ran out. Still the Syrian people are not used to living in such conditions. They don't leave their homes after 7pm: any noise and you may be shot.
They eat pigeons and sparrows that they shoot, pluck and roast, which is clearly caused by hunger and distress, but there are some unmotivated actions taking place, too. They can shoot a dog or a little puppy kids have been playing with. I have never seen the soldiers of the regular army turning their guns on living beings.
RT: Which mass media is popular?
AK: They watch Al Jazeera, Orient TV – all in all about eight opposition channels. They use the internet as well. There is an information center where correspondents of Al Jazeera Mohammad Arabi and Hale dabu Saleh worked.
Интервью брала Надежда Кеворкова