AMMAN (Reuters) - Motivated by his mother’s tales of atrocities in her homeland three decades ago, British student Mohammad Qadi Riha said he set off from London to Syria to join the armed resistance against President Bashar al-Assad.
He said he convinced his mother, a survivor of the 1982 Hama massacre, that he was going only to film footage on behalf of British media. Rebels, with whom he said he spent six weeks, gave him rudimentary combat training as soon as he arrived in May and took him on their missions.
Armed with a pistol given to him by the fighters from the Jabal Shashabo Brigade, Qadi Riha said he witnessed the aftermath of artillery barrages that destroyed parts of the Apamea Citadel in Hama’s al-Ghab Plain, an Arab defensive position during the Crusades era where rebels have been sheltering.
He also said he filmed an attack by his fighter comrades on an army roadblock, although rebels were careful to place Qadi Riha, who says he is an electrical engineering student at East London University, at the rearguard of the attacking battalion.
“You feel something enormous when attacking. It is like the first time you hear a lot of bombardment, a lot of gunfire and you feel a shot of adrenaline,” said the 22-year old.
“That time I had a camera and at the same time I was holding a weapon. It was borderline for me.”
Blood greeted him when he first entered Syria, with wounded civilians and fighters, hit mostly by shelling and helicopter fire, ferried on dirt tracks into Turkey.
He hitched a ride with rebels going to the city of Hama, 210 kms (130 miles) north of Damascus, by car to deliver the body of a fighter killed in the north to his family.
“We entered Hama with the martyr with us. I have never been to Syria before. I don’t know how my country is. So it was something very great for me to be inside,” he said.
Qadi Riha said he was born in Iraq, where his family first went after fleeing Hafez al-Assad’s rule in the 1980s. He became a British national after his father emigrated to Britain to work at a Syrian-owned grocery story.
He said he grew up in the London district of White city, listening to his mother recount how she used to see from the shutters of their home in Hama death squads line up Sunni Muslim men with their hands up against a wall and saw off their fingers before killing them.
Wearing a checkered shirt and cargo trousers, the devout young man set off again to Syria three weeks ago, this time with communication gear and money he collected from Syrian expatriates for the rebels.
Speaking after returning to Turkey, the thin, bearded Qadi Riha said his second experience in Syria was harder.
“The army is now using artillery more heavily and helicopter gunships are bombarding at night. If anyone is caught by the bombardment they stand no chance,” he said, adding that most of the arms he saw with the rebels in Hama were rocket propelled grenades and AK-47s.
“We used to sit at night and the shells going in the sky and their sound and light. You don’t know where the shell is going but everyone watching thinks the shell is coming at him. It is just random indiscriminate shelling. They (Assad’s forces) don’t even know where it is going, whom it is going to kill,” he said.
The military crackdown rekindled tales of five relatives killed in Hama when Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Asssad, sent troops who razed whole districts of the city and massacred many thousands of its residents three decades ago.
“When the revolution erupted I started having these thoughts about how the regime is and how our fathers left. It took months of preparation and I finally made it,” Qadi Riha said.
“My mother told me the fingers she saw were cut with circular blades and they would stick to the wall and no one dared remove them. My father only survived the massacre because he was in jail. He told us stories how he lived the 1980s here and how he was imprisoned and tortured,” he said.
Thousands of Syrians expatriates have been helping the rebellion, mostly by contributing money, activism on the Internet, hosting refugees, or going to border areas in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to offer expertise, such as doctors who help the wounded, according to opposition sources.
There are no figures on foreigners who joined the rebels on the inside, but Syrian authorities say fighters have come from North Africa, Yemen, Gulf states and Afghanistan.
Qadi Riha said he plans to spend some time with his family in London before going back for a third “tour of duty”.
Editing by Anna Willard