A Syrian soldier who defected and joined the Free Syrian Army sits at an outpost near the village of Janudieh. Some defectors say the military is committing atrocities, but that the rebels are fighting back with their own brutality.
Since the uprising began in Syria last year, there have been a lot of stories about soldiers who have defected from the army to join the rebels. This rebel group is loosely known as the Free Syrian Army, and it's starting to look more and more like an insurgency.
Not all soldiers who leave the army, however, decide to join these rebels. Those who simply escape the army altogether offer a rare glimpse into a military they say is committing unspeakable atrocities and a rebel force that's fighting back with its own brutality.
Once a man turns 18 in Syria, he's required to serve in the military. A Kurdish man who calls himself Maxim started his service about a year ago, right about the same time the Syrian uprising began.
In those early days of the uprising last spring, when thousands of Syrians began protesting in the streets, Maxim's commanders told him the protests were actually a conspiracy by a Saudi prince to turn Syria into an Islamic state.
For a while, the soldiers believed it. Maxim says he was part of a special forces unit known as the "shock team."
"We [would] usually break into the area at 4 a.m., when the people are asleep," he says. "We would search the area, house by house, store by store, and we had a list of the wanted people with us."
Those lists came from the dreaded security forces, which are not part of the army but rather belong to one of more than a dozen of Syria's intelligence agencies. Maxim and his comrades turned the suspects over to security forces. He says many were tortured and some were killed.
That's when Maxim says he and his comrades started to doubt the regime's story. They found it hard to believe that all these people — including old men, women and children — were actually armed militants trying to establish an Islamic state. Instead, he says, when the people did start fighting back, it was to protect themselves.
One day, one of Maxim's friends, a fellow soldier, was shot by one of these rebels in the Syrian town of Rastan. His colonel ordered Maxim and his comrades to search a house where four suspects lived. They found a sniper rifle and two Kalashnikovs, but the colonel didn't stop there.
"He forced us to walk on the street and wherever we went we arrested more people," he says. He says they arrested names on the list until they had 30 men.
Maxim says all of the arrested men were lined up and blindfolded. Their hands were bound behind their backs, and they were told to kneel. Then the colonel and two of his bodyguards shot them all — dead.
To the nearly 100 soldiers who watched, the colonel said they had to "take revenge for our comrades," and that all of the killed men were bad people.
When the commanding general of the unit heard about the killings, Maxim says, he ordered the men to just leave the bodies.
Some of Maxim's comrades decided to get back at the general. They told some residents in Rastan to block the general's car with a large truck and cut off the road at the end of the bridge. Three soldiers climbed on top of the truck, fired at the general and killed him.
Residents verified both the killing of the 30 men and the killing of the commanding general.
When soldiers like Maxim decide to leave the army, they pay money to a network of smugglers who basically get them out of Syria. They cross rivers in the middle of the night, they climb over hills, and they eventually end up in a valley in Iraqi Kurdistan that has become a kind of refugee camp.
On a recent day, about three-dozen young and middle-aged men played a rowdy game of volleyball. Just beyond them were two unfinished cinderblock buildings where soldiers sleep.
The buildings have no windows, only tarps. The men inside sleep side by side on mattresses on the floor. If you were in the army or about to be in the army, you were either forced to kill or to be killed, so this is a better alternative than the situation they were in back in Syria.
In another huge, unfinished hall, about a hundred young men sit around smoking, lying on their mattresses, crowding around heaters and drinking tea. It's staggering to see so many people, so many faces all in one place.
When asked about why they left the army, the men say they were forced to detain people and to shoot people. These were their brothers, they say; they couldn't stay in this army and do this to their brothers.
Outside the hall, speaking in private, one man says he was working a checkpoint when security forces stopped a car and pulled a man out to be interrogated. He says men from the security forces then got into the car and harassed the man's wife and daughter.
"We heard shouting and crying from the car, especially the little one, the sister," he says.
The next day, the officers who had entered the car bragged that they had raped the women.
Officials from the United Nations say these atrocities could amount to war crimes. Right now, though, they aren't pushing for a referral to the International Criminal Court. Instead, they hope they can convince the Syrian regime to abide by a cease-fire that is supposed to start this week.
Escaping The Army
When Maxim finally decided to leave the Syrian army, he and 10 other soldiers faked a firefight with rebels to make their escape. They fired their own guns in the air, and Maxim's officer radioed to see what was happening.
"I told him, 'We are facing resistance here,' " Maxim says. "And he asked us, 'Where are you?' I cut off the call. So they think we are kidnapped."
Maxim says he isn't sure about the rebels, which is why he didn't join them once he escaped. At first they were just defending themselves, he says, but now it seems like the regime's myth is coming true. He says the rebels are starting to be more violent and more Islamic.
"I don't trust them," he says.
Still, Maxim says the regime is worse than the rebels. When asked if the killing of 30 men in retaliation for the killing of one soldier is an apt ratio — i.e., 30 times worse than the crimes of the rebels — he says no.
"They are a hundred times worse."