By Richard Spencer
The journey from Gap store shop assistant to rebel executioner was short.
Six months ago, Yaman Hamoud was selling fashion, under the watchful eye of a British shop manager. By August, back home in Aleppo, the 22-year-old was part of a Free Syrian Army squad that arrested a member of the Shabiha, the hated Assad militia.
After a few hours of to-and-fro with his commander, the squad was given permission to do what they wanted with him. “We took him to the graveyard, where there was a hole in the ground,” he said, laughing. His confession was entirely unprompted. “We shot him. He fell.”
He had no remorse, but admitted he had thought about his mother. “She rings me all the time to tell me to try to avoid killing people,” he said. “She says, 'It’s haram [forbidden], please don’t if you can help it’. But we have to do this. He was Shabiha. They have killed so many people.”
The executions and other abuses committed by the Syrian rebels do not appear to display the mass brutality of those carried out by regime forces, particularly the Shabiha. But Human Rights Watch researchers have interviewed rebel leaders and have documented regular cases of killing of prisoners.
In some, killings happen after brief trials at courts set up by rebel committees across territory they control, with imams and lawyers as judges. Charges attracting the death sentence include murder of civilians and rape.
But in others, “justice” is immediate, and sometimes the only accusation is of being a sniper—a class of soldier that is regarded with special venom, even if the victims have been combatants.
Yaman Hamoud’s version of justice was not long hindered by due process.
An engaging and English-speaking young sophisticate in shades, he divided his time between studying at Aleppo University and earning money in Dubai. He worked as an assistant at the Gap store in Dubai Mall, the acme of the city’s bling culture, next to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
He had a supervisor from Manchester whose accent he could not understand but who taught him what to do, he said, and another Briton as manager, a woman whom he respected because she took no quarter. “If I was five minutes late, she would shout at me and tell me that’s not what we do here,” he said. “I liked that.”
But twice earlier this year, Aleppo University was raided by security forces in response to protests. Among those arrested was a friend who was hung up by his wrists from the ceiling of his cell for three days until the skin broke and rucked up over his hands. Girls were raped, he said—allegations widely reported after the raids, although there has been little chance to verify them.
He came back, and was accepted into the FSA. He was not a brave soldier, he said—he was too frightened to go right to the front line in Salaheddin, the current battleground being pummeled by tank fire. But he had fought and was proud to admit he had “scored” 12 times, with 10 victims being military and two Shabiha.
He spoke with disgust of the man he executed, saying he had been disguised as a woman and had been caught only because he was injured and mistook their checkpoint for a government one. The man had videos on his mobile phone of the scenes of Shabiha crimes, Yaman said, bloodied corpses of civilians. “He said he hadn’t killed anyone, but he was obviously there, wasn’t he?” he said.
He and his friends had asked their commander if they could kill him but were told to take him to hospital for treatment. “The doctors said he would die of his wounds in a day or two, but he didn’t so we asked our leader again,” he said. “This time he agreed.”
He did not identify the leader, but he is now in the security detail around Hajji Mari, the military commander of the Brigade of Unity which is leading the rebel fight in Aleppo. Hajji Mari’s men carried out the execution of four members of the Barri clan, Shabiha leaders whose killing was filmed and seen around the world.
Hajji Mari defended the killings in an interview last weekend with The Daily Telegraph. He insisted the men had been tried by a panel of six judges and found guilty of murder.
Yaman Hamoud was not part of that firing squad, but said he had no regrets about his own killings. He also looks forward to a normal life after the revolution, and to going back to university to finish his degree. He is studying law.