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Syrian Army soldiers at a chekpoint in Damascus in June
Syrian Army soldiers at a chekpoint in Damascus in June
Celine Ahmad

AL-HALBOUNI — Adel, a teenager, worked with his father at their small shop near al-Halbouni, not far from Damascus. By age 17, he had dropped out of school to support his family, as their financial situation grew desperate after years of war.

Adel wasn't a supporter of Syria's government, but that didn't prevent him from being forced to fight on its behalf. He was arrested at one of the army checkpoints in the town of Qudsaiya in the Damascus countryside, then sent off to battle.

"We were on our way to work," Adel's father recounts. "We got stopped at a checkpoint, and there was the usual ID check. One of the men manning the checkpoint took a closer look at Adel's ID before heading off to talk to the rest of the soldiers. He returned and told me that Adel would be serving in the army. I asked him to check Adel's ID again. He wasn't of age to serve. He screamed at me and said I'd get arrested if I didn't comply with their orders."

His attempts to rescue his son were futile. He went home, terrified of being arrested. Four days later, he received word that his son had been killed in battle.

"One of the soldiers knocked on our door and asked me to sign a document, showing I received word about a family death," Adel's father recalls. "In the beginning, I thought there was a mistake, but it was true. The soldier informed me that I needed to go pick up the body from one of the military hospitals. I couldn't believe my eyes. I cried like a baby."

The next day, he headed to the hospital to pick up his son's body. One of the hospital caregivers told him Adel was killed during a battle between the regime forces and opposition fighters in the Damascus countryside.

"I still don't believe it," Adel's father says. "He was only away for four days. He was supposed to be in a training camp for at least six months. The caregiver told me Adel was brought in with other wounded soldiers and that his injuries were fatal. He died immediately. It was a real nightmare."

A commonplace occurrence

Adel isn't the only young victim of conscription. Abdul was two months shy of his 18th birthday and also a high school dropout who left his studies behind as the situation in Syria deteriorated. He had been serving in the Syrian army for only 20 days when he was arrested in a security raid meant to stop new recruits from leaving.

"I was planning to flee to Turkey this month to get out of compulsory army service, but I got caught," he says while on sick leave at home. "I was assigned to one of the barracks in the al-Sabboura area where training camps are held. Many of the guys there were my age or a little older. We practiced for only a week how to shoot a gun."

Abdul said that he was sent with a few others to fight at the Joubar front in Damascus after a week of training. Officers told the new recruits that they would train on the battlefield, adding that there was no need to be scared.

"I found myself on the front lines the next day," he says. "I was terrified. I was scared of the other soldiers. The clashes were heavy, and we were ordered to open fire. I was shot in the foot and fainted. I was then transferred to the Tishreen military hospital."

When Abdul woke up, he was lying on the hospital floor, because all the beds were taken by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. He risked losing his foot to infection, as the injury went untreated. But he was later given care, then granted sick leave.

"I have no choice now," he says. "I can't desert the army, and they will definitely put me back on the field as soon as I get better. All I want is to survive the battlefield. There's nothing else I can do."

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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