Syrian sniper offers thoughts on life, death and faith

Anyone who has been to the Middle East, or who has spent much time talking to natives of that troubled region, knows that there is much more to its conflicts than religion.

At the same time, anyone who has visited the region, and talked to Jews, Christians and Muslims from its lands, knows that there are few subjects there that can be discussed at length — especially controversial issues — without religious beliefs and traditions coming into play.

That’s just the way things work over there.

Now, when these topics show up in the mainstream press, it seems that the conflicts and horrors that plague the Middle East are rooted in everything EXCEPT religion. Oh, journalists will mention Islam, Judaism or Christianity from time to time, but it seems that the issues that are really real are all economic, political or ethnic. Those that are linked to religion are referred to as “sectarian” conflicts and that is that.

Your GetReligionistas, through the years, have urged journalists to let the people involved in these conflicts speak for themselves and then turn to a variety of insiders to help readers understand what the words mean. When people in Syria, for example, talk about the revolution that’s going on there, one of the first things they talk about is the need to defend Islam and to stand up for justice (often expressed in Muslim terms). Meanwhile, members of religious minorities often talk about the need to protect themselves and the right to live their faiths in daily life.

However, rather than criticizing yet another mainstream report for a lack of human voices, I’d like to note that Time magazine recently ran a piece (to my amazement in this firewall age, I eventually found it online) that let one participant in the Syria speak for himself. The result is both fascinating, moving and, at times, appalling.

The headline: “The Confessions of a Sniper: A Rebel Gunman in Aleppo and His Conscience.” Here is the lede that sets the stage:

To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.

He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it. …

He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”

The sniper expects his land to be torn into warring camps, with the new reality being “many Somalias in every province.” At the time the article was written, this young man said he had killed 34 people — including, possibly, a childhood friend who as “dearer to me than a brother.”

That’s the setup.

As you would expect, the story includes lots of political twists and turns in a land in which many people who started out fighting to defend their faith have ended up selling their souls for money and, just as often, what appears to be protection.

This sniper now works for Liwa Suqoor al-Sha’ba, an Islamist unit of the Free Syrian Army. He spends his time looking for safe places from which to shoot, often a few hundred feet from snipers on the other side who have the same deadly aim. He sees the people he shoots. He sees the results, because it is too dangerous for others to come retrieve the bodies.

How did he end up killing one of his best friends? Please read that part for yourself. Suffice it to say that the two were loyal to different armies in an ever more complex war.

Now the sniper has quit smoking. He wants to cleanse his body and mind. Why does he do what he does? What is his ultimate goal?

Eventually the story lets the young man tell us. That’s what makes this news feature so unusual.

He was not always like this. An avid boxer before he was the Sniper, the young man lived in Hamburg for five years, returning to his homeland in 2010. He attended the Goethe-Institut in Damascus and says his Arabic was so poor, he could barely read. It has since improved to the degree that he now reads the Koran aloud to his fellow rebels. He has long since shelved his dream of returning to Germany and training as a boxer. In fact, he doesn’t want to survive the Syrian uprising and is seeking “martyrdom.” “I’m only comfortable on the front line,” he says. “My rifle has become not just like a part of my body, it is my life, my destiny.” He remembers his religious awakening, in the first assault he participated in. It was a hit on a checkpoint on the road to the town of al-Bab on Aleppo’s outskirts. “We ambushed them. There was an Islamist with me. My heart was filled with faith. He told me the only thing between me and paradise was this road, was dying on this road. I was sorry that I lived.”

A few days later, we returned to the issue of victims, of whether or not they are all shabiha, and his friend Mohammad. At the end of the day, I told him, he was a Syrian killing other Syrians. “I used to think about the people I’d killed, I’d think about their parents,” he says. “Yes, we are all Syrian, but we didn’t create these differences, they did. It is because I am Syrian, because these people, these civilians who are dying are Syrian, that I am doing this, that I am standing with and for my people. Those who are not standing with their people are not Syrian, they are traitors, and traitors must die.”

Yes, there is more:

“Whoever is going to be in my sights will die. That’s it,” the Sniper says. “My heart has hardened. I returned to religion, but after I killed, my heart hardened. A sniper sees who he kills,” he says, pausing. “It’s hard. A sniper sees his victim.”

That’s how the story ends. Or, I should say, that is how the story goes on and on.

Read it all.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John M.

    Tmatt,

    These are the stories that I love you pointing us to. One of these can compensate for two dozen posts about internecine episcopal warfare in the RCC.

    Thanks,
    John

  • Julia

    “two dozen posts about internecine episcopal warfare in the RCC.”

    What warfare is this? You mean in the US or where? About what?

  • John M.

    Julia,

    Sorry, as a non-Roman Catholic, almost any stories about RCC bishops anywhere make my eyes glaze over. I can occasionally get into the life of a parish priest if he’s doing interesting things (I heard a very interesting story on NPR the other day about an Australian-born priest serving in Ciudad Juarez), but “archbishop A moves from Paducah, KY to Walla Walla, WA: expected to piss off conservatives/liberals/homosexuals/the NRA/Franciscans” just makes me yawn.

    I get that it’s important to some people, but I’m not one of them. And those types of stories get a lot of ink here, IMHO.

    Consider it a poor attempt at a joke. I really wasn’t trying to complain, but to compliment.

    -John

  • Julia

    “archbishop A moves from Paducah, KY to Walla Walla, WA: expected to piss off conservatives/liberals/homosexuals/the NRA/Franciscans” just makes me yawn.

    I don’t like those kinds of stories either. But that’s not evidence of bishop fighting bishop.
    It’s speculation about what entrenched constituency the new bishop is maybe going to conflict with in his new diocese, not about upsetting other bishops.

    But I get your drift. On my part, my eyes glaze over reading about all the sports figures giving thanks to God for their success over other people – who may also be Christians.


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