As Aleppo’s districts change hands between rebels and government forces and back again, keeping your true allegiance to yourself at a checkpoint could be the wisest thing you do
Negotiating Aleppo’s checkpoints is not an easy task. As the frontlines shift, rebels and government soldiers come to resemble each other: they dress the same, are equally menacing, and put fear in your heart. One afternoon, as the fighting in Salah al-Din subsided, I stood with a group of rebels manning one of these roadblocks.
State TV channels had declared Salah al-Din “free from terrorist elements”, and a few civilians had taken the opportunity of the lull in fighting to try to find loved ones or visit their apartments. The rebels checked ID cards and pulled some people for questioning, but mostly tried to dissuade people from driving into the middle of a war zone.
A young, pink-faced man dressed in a clean, short-sleeved white shirt and black trousers arrived at the checkpoint. He was brought to Captain Abu Mohamed by a fighter who said he thought two of the man’s cousins were working for the regime.
The captain questioned the pink-faced man politely, until it became apparent that he had mistaken Abu Mohamed and his men, who were all dressed in military fatigues, for regular soldiers.
The captain played along, asking if there were members of the Free Army in the area the man was crossing into.
“There are, sir,” said the young man. “If you have enough men I can lead you to them. I know their places I can assure you.”
Abu Mohamed called one of the rebels over and told him they had found a proud citizen who could help them. This man was also dressed in military uniform, but he had a thick beard and his jacket was adorned with FSA insignia.
The boy flinched. “Are you rebels, sir?” he asked.
“No, no, but we dress like them to infiltrate them,” said the rebel.
“Sir, I want to join you and help you fight them.”
“Great. We will take your name and give you two weeks’ training and can make you a lieutenant.”
The other rebel started filming the young man with his phone, pretending he was doing it for the pro-regime TV channel. Like a schoolboy standing in front of the teacher, the young man started parroting regime rhetoric: “The terrorist elements are in the school right now. They number 56. Only 11 of them Syrians, sir, these terrorist elements are committing terrorist activities that are terrifying the innocent citizens. They entered my house took our TV set and tried to rape my mother they go around stealing houses and raping young boys and girls.”
The joke ended when the rebel with the phone landed a huge slap on the man’s neck. The boy froze as the extent of the trouble he was in dawned on him. More rebels gathered. The boy tried to change his story and then changed it back again, knowing he was in the middle of something bad.
Captain Abu Mohamed intervened. He led the young man onto a nearby bus and asked one of the fighters to guard him. But a crowd of rebels had gathered around the bus and another slap landed on his face. He was clearly shocked, confused and didn’t know who had captured him. He fluctuated between denouncing the army and the FSA.
Four men led him out of the bus, Abu Mohamed shouting at them not to hit him. The men took him into an office they had been using as sleeping quarters and for the first time a look of horror covered the young man’s face.
Then four of the rebels took him into a smaller room and closed the door. The men grew disturbingly calm.
First they made their suspect kneel. “Sir, sir, I made a mistake,” the young man pleaded. “Please sir.” His voice was quivering.
The rebels went silently to work. They didn’t speak, but each seemed to know exactly what to do. They made the suspect lie on his stomach as one fighter put his foot on his spine and pulled his arms back until he screamed.
Two more knelt by his feet, pushing his lower legs between a kalashnikov and its sling and twisting the gun until it was tight around his calves. A fourth rebel pinned the young man’s shoulder to the ground with his foot, placing the tip of a bayonet on the nape of man’s neck.
A fifth man tore through the contents of a cabinet until he found a power cable. He sat twisting it and wrapping it in tape until it resembled a nightstick. A sixth young rebel sat with a pen and paper to take notes.
“Sir, sir, it’s a mistake! I thought you were soldiers!”
“Tell us who are the shabiha [government militia] that you know,” asked the man with the bayonet.
“Sir, I don’t know. I am a normal citizen!” His voice was high-pitched and filled with terror.
The man standing on his spine pulled back the young man’s arms while the men at his feet twisted the gun’s strap tighter. He screamed.
“I will talk,” he said, gasping for air. “I will talk.”
He gave the rebels several names, which the man with the paper wrote down. They asked for more. He gave more.
“You are lying now.”
“Sir, I am not.”
The interrogator’s every question was accompanied by the man’s arms pulled to the back, a tightening of the rifle sling and more pressure on the bayonet.
Then the two men lifted his feet and the man with the power cable swung it high and landed it perfectly on the man’s fat, bare feet. The screams became more like squeals now. The sweat was pouring from the torturers faces as they bent to their task.
“This is so you can remember!” shouted the man with the cable.
“Stop! I will give all the names you want!”
When the young man who was writing lifted his head and said he was repeating the same names, the man who was pulling his arms jumped up and landed on the young man’s kidneys. He began to weep so they started another round of beating.
“Why don’t you tell us what we want?”
But there was nothing he could have said that would have stopped the men.
When the young man’s ordeal ended for the day, the sun was setting. Abu Mohamed said he was sure the kid was mad.
Three days later, I met one of the men who had been torturing the young man. He had a sorry look on his face.
“All the names he gave us were fake. Those people don’t exist. Now the Islamists have taken him. They are interrogating him and they are not letting anyone else see him.”
• Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved