Almost exactly four years ago, a Syrian called Abu al-Zein, from the village of Katbiya in Aleppo province, appeared before the ‘General Court of the Revolutionary Police’ in the town of Deir Hafer to betray his cousins.
Saeed and Ibrahim Abdul al-Ghafour, he testified, had been heard cursing the ‘Free Syrian Army’ – especially a unit of the opposition rebels run by Abu al-Zein himself. “So I presented a complaint [for] military investigation and was surprised that on the second day they were released with no charges,” Abu al-Zein told the revolutionary court. “They are always talking against and cursing the ‘Free Army’ and so I appeal to you for an investigation and accountability [sic] to hold them responsible for all the things they said.”
By mid-summer of 2012, the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’, a loosely controlled group of militiamen which included deserters from the Syrian army – supported and later armed by Western nations –controlled much of Aleppo province. They set up their own system of police and courts. But within months, Islamist fighters took control of vast areas of Syria, including the town of Deir Hafer. Their ‘Sharia’ rule stretched all the way back to the Isis ‘capital’ of Raqqa and would soon include much of eastern Aleppo city. Only last month were Isis finally driven out of all of Aleppo province by Syrian government troops under Russian air bombardment.
But how had the Syrian citizens of these vast territories survived under their revolutionary new rulers? Did they resist? Did they ‘collaborate’? Or did they – as a Jewish historian of the Holocaust described those who did not resist Nazi rule – ‘help to give the wheel a push’? Because the moment you accept the rules and judicial courts of any new authority, you give them legitimacy.
A few in Deir Hafer spied for the Syrian government and paid the price – on the day of the town’s ‘liberation’, I saw with my own eyes the iron crucifixion bars outside the local black-painted Islamist court. I spoke to a man whose brother had been shot in the head on the very same execution site for flying the Syrian flag from his roof.
But on the floor of the ‘courthouse’, I found hundreds of photocopied, hand-written documents listing the cases which came before the four Islamist judges – all of them Egyptians, according to the townspeople. Isis was fleeing from the eastern end of the town; its incoming mortar fire was still exploding around the centre of Deir Hafer.
Amid a group of Syrian soldiers, one of whose officers had just been killed, I scrambled into the ‘court’ and was able to grab a few documents, one of them accusing a man of attacking an Isis fighter – and presumably put to death. He had been charged with “breaking the rule of God”. Later that day I returned and was able to scoop up dozens more papers lying across the floor of the court and stuff them into my camera bag.
They were incomplete, many were undated, many others left beside the broken desk on which they had been lying. Their contents, however, provided a vivid portrait of poverty, desperation and family feuding; of petty theft and violence under the rule of both secular and Islamist militias in Syria’s civil war.
Saeed al-Ghafour – the man who had "cursed" the ‘Free Syrian Army’ – accused a 47-year old local farmer from the village of Zaariya of securing his arrest, warning his neighbours to stay away from the man who he named as Hussein al-Daban. The court documents record Hussein al Daban’s response: “So I went to him [Saeed] and asked ‘why are you accusing me [of this] when I am ready to swear that I am not the one who informed on you and I am innocent of these accusations’. So Saeed told me to send someone to conduct a military investigation – but I refused and I demand a proper investigation to return to me my dignity.”
Al-Ghafour was re-arrested, according to the court records, and would be referred back for “military investigation” within 15 days “if the allegations prove true”. There was no trace of the verdict.
But at almost the same time, another informer appeared before the Islamist court; this time a 36-year old shop assistant called Mohamed al-Haroud who – coincidentally, perhaps – appeared to work for Abu al-Zein. This time, the judiciary was referred to in the records as the “Revolutionary Islamic Police Court”.
Mohamed al-Haroud came to betray another cousin called Saeed al-Haroud. This cousin, he said, collected money from local villagers when there were wartime electricity cuts – presumably to supply them with generator power – and suggested that the ‘Free Syrian Army’ itself had pocketed cash which was supposed to be spent on the power grid. Saeed al-Haroud, the court was told, “tells people the ‘Free Syrian Army’ are thieves...and says they are blasphemous and then he curses and says terrible things I cannot repeat – and I do not want to say so in case the ‘Free Army’ should think I have a personal problem with him [Saeed al-Haroud]…I came [to the court] out of a sense of duty and there are witnesses to all I have said.”
It is intriguing to note that even when Deir Hafer was under the supposed control of the ‘Free Syrian Army’, financed and armed by the US and other Western nations, Islamist courts already existed. When I entered the town with Syrian troops this year, ‘Free Syrian Army’ documents were lying amid Isis files and I found piles of Islamist magazines published in Saudi Arabia inside an Isis field hospital underneath a motorway overpass. It seems that the ‘Free Army’ and Islamist militias could sometimes cooperate quite freely.
Several court cases were truly pathetic. Brother Moujahed [Fighter] Ahmed told judges that he had received a phone call from Lebanon in which he was told that someone in the Aleppo province village of El-Mazboura was breaking into his neighbours’ houses and “intruding on a girl in [one] household and meeting her at night while pretending to go to evening prayer, during which time he would see her. I did my duty by informing the Islamic police in Deir Hafer…and went to the village of El-Mazboura and the young man was summoned and…we asked him about this story and he confessed that he was going to see this girl.”
At another hearing a woman described as the first wife of Mahmoud Alloush, a 32-year old from the village of El Maazeh, declared that “it has been two years that my husband and I are in conflict and he constantly beats me, and he married a second wife and abandoned me and humiliated me and people can testify to this. Two days ago he beat me so hard that I left my house and went to the house of my uncle, Mahmoud al-Dabaan, to protect me and my two-year old daughter who was with me. And I stayed there one night and the next day in the morning he [her husband] came to my family’s house and he took my daughter and we had a fight in the house and I screamed that I could not tolerate living in the same room with his second wife and that I need a house alone with my children…all I am asking for is justice for me and my children…”
The husband later accused Mahmoud al-Dabaan of beating him and claimed that Dabaan’s son “used a knife that left a mark on my face…” This sad domestic drama shows how ordinary citizens sought ‘justice’ from the only court available to them.
A former ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighter complained to the court that unknown people had blocked up his well; another man blamed a gunman for shooting him after he intervened in a brawl between his son and a neighbour; a businessman complained that he had paid 200,000 Syrian pounds for seven tons of cotton but the crop never grew and he could not recover his money. There was, the revolutionary police court decided rather meekly, “no means of resolving the dispute”.
Other cases involved car accidents and petty theft (women’s clothing, an electric kettle, even a phone charger). A shopkeeper called Moussa al-Hassoun described how Ragheb al-Ali had stolen a set of electronic weighing scales from his shop and how he pursued him on a motorcycle. Al-Ali was subsequently beaten up by neighbours. The court forwarded this case to other judges because “it had crossed one of God’s red lines” – a remarkable verdict which combined both theology and American political cliché in one phrase!
More ominous charges suggested that Islamist militias were searching for a man who passed through a checkpoint on a motorcycle without stopping – had the man arranged with a guard to let him pass? – and were urging fighters “to cooperate with the ‘shebab’ [youth]” and arrest the man on the motorcycle and not to “obstruct” the work of the authorities.
This document was signed by “Abu Lokman [a patronymic], on behalf of The Muslim Soldiers, the Phalangists of the Liberators of al-Sham [Damascus], General of the Tawhid/Union of the Jebhat al-Nusrah Front”. Nusrah is, of course, al-Qaeda – of 9/11 infamy.
Thus the villagers of Aleppo province cooperated – or collaborated – with their Islamist masters in the villages around Deir Hafer. Was this a crime? Or was it a necessity? In the absence of the regime’s courts, who else could they turn to for ‘justice’? On the day of the town’s recapture by Syrian troops at the end of March, the citizens of 27 villages around Deir Hafer sent a joint petition to the army, seeking ‘reconciliation’. The army forwarded this appeal to the government in Damascus. Its reply remains unknown.