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How a man who helped run a brutal military machine lives with the fallout

“The exact words the regime has is a ‘starvation policy’. Once they entered the towns, they destroyed everything. The people fled and they destroyed their homes. They looted even the windows and doors so that people don’t think of returning to their villages.”

Members of Yasseen’s own family even became victims. After two years, he could do it no longer. So one afternoon in March, 2013, he defected. “I finished my work at 2pm and then I got rid of all the SIM cards, and I went,” he says.

A view of Zaatari camp in Jordan's desert. The Syrian border is to the north.

A view of Zaatari camp in Jordan’s desert. The Syrian border is to the north.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Yasseen packed his wife and children off as refugees to Jordan, and went to join the rebels, seeking to deploy his secrets (“they’re all in my head”) to help overthrow the regime.

Two months later, he had seen enough. The rebellion was fractious, disorganised, full of extremists and ideologues, and run from a number of interfering foreign nations. They were “even worse” than Assad.


“I thought that they had ethics but I was wrong. There was no strategy, and other countries were controlling them,” Yasseen says. “The opposition groups … wanted to kill other people, even civilians.”

“Russia is worse than the Syrians … Bashar al-Assad is not the one making the decisions. Every colonel and leader in Syria has the decision to do things.”

So he joined the stream of people fleeing across the border to neighbouring Jordan.

“I was dropped off and I walked 10 metres and was picked up on the other side. I left everything behind and brought just the clothes I’m in and the laptop in a backpack,” he says. “It was raining and I was covered in mud.”

Now he lives with his wife and five children and almost 80,000 others in the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert. You can see the Syrian border from where we are talking. He works in the camp as a volunteer in a labour program run by a non-government organisation.

“I was living in one of the best areas of Damascus, I had a good car. Everything was available to me. Then I came here,” he says. “It was difficult at first, but I’ve got used to it. Because the feeling inside me is much more comfortable. I was not comfortable before.”

A Syrian man rides his bike past shops on the main shopping street, the 'Shams Elysee' in Zaatari camp.

A Syrian man rides his bike past shops on the main shopping street, the ‘Shams Elysee’ in Zaatari camp.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The war in Syria is winding down, and neighbouring countries are growing tired of the six million or more Syrians still living in their midst, and still crossing the borders. Assad recently offered amnesty to people including military deserters to try to entice them back.

But Yasseen could not return even if he wanted to.


“I have betrayed Assad: I would be executed if I returned. They shoot them,” he says.

For now, his focus is on getting a bigger caravan. The addition of another baby to the brood qualifies him for an upgrade. Beyond that, he has not thought very far about where he will live.

“But I feel satisfied with the decision that I’ve made,” he says.

“And I’m also sure that God is happy with my decision not to be a party of this war, or to lend support to those killers.”

Michael Bachelard is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s foreign editor and the investigations editor at The Age. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.

Kate Geraghty is a photojournalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She has won multiple awards including the Gold Walkley in 2017.

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