JOBAR — Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter Abu Ali stood grinning and waving at me with his right hand. Two of his middle fingers were missing.
“Look at me, I’m like a Ninja Turtle now,” he said, dry humor intact.
It had been three months since I last saw Abu Ali, who used to fight on the front lines of Jobar, a rebel-held district in the eastern city limits of Damascus. “My rifle exploded,” he said, beginning the story of his last few months, of how he lost his fingers, preparing his extra-sweet tea. “This was back in June, while we were fighting in Deir Sleiman,” a village close to rebel-held Marj al-Sultan military airport, east of Damascus.
“We managed to push the enemy back in that day from four buildings and killed a few of them, and then we found five AK-47s and about 800 AK-47 bullets.”
He looked at where his two fingers used to be. “The joy that I felt for those goddamn bullets,” he said, “is something I truly regret.”
FSA fighters in Jobar and the neighboring suburbs of eastern Ghouta are encircled by regime forces. Arms and ammunition are not easy to find. Ordinarily, the discovery of a case of ammunition would be like stumbling onto a treasure chest.
But the threat of sabotaged bullets has created a new headache for the outgunned rebels.
A week later, Abu Ali and his fellow rebels were engaged in a bloody battle, armed with the fresh ammunition supplies.
“It was one hell of a fight. I spotted four Iranian soldiers trying to escape. I took aim and shot the first guy, then the second,” he said. “But when I shot at the third, bam! There was a huge explosion. That was the last thing I heard before I passed out.”
He woke up in a pool of blood to find his rifle had mysteriously exploded into seven pieces.
“It looked like it exploded from the inside out. At first I didn’t understand anything, and then I started to feel pain in my right arm. I woke up again in the field hospital to see my two middle fingers missing. How did it happen? Simple: explosive bullets.”
The regime's “bullet trap”
It was the first time I had heard about exploding bullets. I began to ask the other fighters about it and was told about a man named Abu Zaid, a commander in the Asood Allah battalion, who was killed in action on July 4.
The only thing clear about Abu Zaid’s death is that his rifle mysteriously exploded, similar to Abu Ali’s.
“I’m almost sure my dad was killed by an explosive bullet that shattered his rifle and sent a splinter into his chest near his heart, causing him to bleed to death,” said his son, also named Zaid. “My dad was a very brave man, and he was always on the front lines even though he was a commander. The regime used a very cheap trick to kill him because they can’t get a man like him in a fair fight.”
Abu Zaid and Abu Ali are only two suspected victims of the so-called “bullet trap,” which has become the latest way to die on the front lines of east Damascus.
In September, the Asood Allah issued a warning to fellow FSA formations about the TNT-filled ammunition that was wounding and killing their men.
“An explosive bullet is filled very carefully with highly explosive material and built to have exactly the same shape and weight of a normal bullet, so the fighter doesn’t realize the difference,” said Abu Basheer, a weapons expert with Asood Allah.
“When he shoots, the rifle explodes instantly, causing severe injuries to the rebel, not to mention destroying the rifle. The trick is they put just one or two explosive bullets in a stash of about 300. It’s a deadly trap, so I advise fighters not to use any bullet they seize right away. Wait until after the battle and let an expert examine them to make sure there are no explosive bullets.”
I went back to Abu Ali to tell him what I had learned from Abu Basheer, but he was dismissive.
“In the end, death has so many ways to visit you in this country,” he told me. “You can either live in constant fear of the death that surrounds you, or you can live life to the fullest free of fear, shouting, ‘I am here!’ to this deaf world.”