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Fearing Detention, Many Young Syrian Men Stay In The Shadows

Young men ride a horse cart in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo last year. Many young Syrian men stay indoors and off the street because they are afraid they may be detained as suspected rebels or rebel sympathizers.
Phillipe Desmazes
AFP/Getty Images
Young men ride a horse cart in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo last year. Many young Syrian men stay indoors and off the street because they are afraid they may be detained as suspected rebels or rebel sympathizers.

The author is a Syrian citizen living in Damascus who is not being further identified for safety reasons.

The young men of Syria account for many of those fighting on both sides of the country's civil war. Yet those on the sidelines of the conflict are facing heavy burdens of their own.

All over Syria, many young men, particularly those from rebellious towns, spend their days holed up at home to avoid running into trouble with the Syrian authorities.

Some want to avoid compulsory military service required of most young men. Others live in areas where the rebels are active and therefore are suspected of being rebel fighters or at least sympathizers.

In parts of the Arab world, particularly in conservative, traditional communities, the streets are full of men while women are relatively scarce. But in parts of Syria, this dynamic has been reversed.

In the embattled province of Homs, displaced families have taken shelter anywhere they can. But with government checkpoints all around them, many men stay indoors while the women go out to run errands and buy food.

The same holds true in other areas where the government still has a strong presence, including the capital, Damascus, and all along Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Once Detained, Now A Recluse

Abdulrahman is a young man in the capital who leaves his house only on days when the authorities haven't set up a checkpoint at the end of his street. Otherwise, he runs the risk of being harassed, detained and imprisoned, something he says he has already experienced.

Abdulrahman was born in a rural area outside Damascus that took up arms against the government. He opted not to join the armed rebellion. Instead, he fled his embattled town with his wife and four children to another Damascus suburb, where the government is in full control of security.

By doing so, Abdulrahman joined more than 4 million other internally displaced Syrians.

He thought he would be safer in his new location. But his place of origin can easily be determined from his ID card, and this carries with it a dangerous stigma. In the eyes of the authorities, Abdulrahman is a rebel sympathizer simply because of the place where he grew up.

Abdulrahman says that last month he was detained at a checkpoint, imprisoned in terrible conditions and tortured for four and a half months. The charge was "conspiracy to distribute bread loaves to rebels." He never had a trial.

Many In Custody

Activists estimate that thousands of civilians are still being held on similar kinds of charges at intelligence branches throughout Damascus alone. The activists believe there are about 17 such compounds in the capital.

It is not uncommon to hear about people who died in custody after having been detained at a checkpoint with food or medicine in their possession. That alone is enough to be accused of collaborating with the rebels.

While women and even children can suffer this fate, the burden of suspicion falls mostly on men, especially ones of military age.

One former detainee recalled how his jailer separated men under 40 out of the group and corralled them into another section of an underground prison. He said the men over 40 could often hear the "horrendous screams and cries at all hours of day and night" of the younger men in adjacent cells.

Omar, a 20-year-old resident of Damascus, fled to the city center with his parents and siblings several months ago following fierce battles in his rebellious neighborhood of Barzeh, just east of Damascus.

His ID card shows his origin as Barzeh, so although he opted against carrying arms and fighting the Syrian Army, he is still suspect.

But in some ways, Omar is lucky. For one thing, he belongs to a middle-class family; food and rent for their temporary home are not an issue.

Otherwise, Omar would have to face the struggling Syrian economy and soaring unemployment as many others do.

Omar is also lucky because he is exempt from the compulsory military service. He receives a pass because he is his parents' only son.

But like so many young Syrian men dodging their draft orders by hiding at home, or fleeing the country, Omar too must stay out of sight. His sister, meanwhile, goes about town and attends classes at the local university.

Omar has lost two years of college so far, and he rarely leaves the house. But his parents say that's a small price to pay.

"Because we don't want him going through some checkpoint and getting questioned and God only knows what sort of trouble they'll get him into," Omar's mother says.

"It's best he never leaves the house at all," his father says.

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