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Syrian deserter: 'It was like a war against your own people'

By Ivan Watson, CNN
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Sniper: Want exile over killing civilians
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian sniper deserts army, flees to Turkey
  • He says he was ordered to shoot unarmed protesters
  • Human rights group has been collecting accounts from deserters
  • 'There is very clear evidence that this is a crime against humanity,' says activist

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Six months ago, a slender, soft-spoken 21-year-old Syrian worked in an ice cream factory. The young man's primary concern then: spending time with his girlfriend.

But last December, he was drafted into the Syrian army. A lot has changed since then.

A few weeks ago, the conscript, who asked not to be identified to protect his family from possible reprisals, deserted and fled Syria after he was repeatedly ordered to open fire on un-armed demonstrators who were protesting against the Syrian government.

"Our officer gave us the order to shoot at the people," the soldier said, in an interview with CNN. "It didn't matter how many people would be killed, the important thing was for the protest to be dispersed."

CNN cannot independently confirm the claims of the man, who said he was a sniper in the 14th Division of the Syrian army.

But his account matches numerous eyewitness testimonies as well as those of opposition groups who accuse the Syrian regime of killing more than 1,300 Syrians over the last three months.

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And the sniper is certainly not the first soldier to have defected since the uprising first erupted in the southern Syrian town of Daraa last March, and then spread to other cities and towns across the country.

To prove his identity, the sniper showed his military ID card. It is similar to those brandished on camera by some other deserters who have appeared in defiant amateur videos distributed over the Internet by opposition activists.

"We're talking about around 2,000 soldiers, maybe more, who left [the military]," said

Wissam Tarif, director of the Syrian human rights group INSAN which has been trying to help a number of military deserters who fled to Turkey and Lebanon in recent weeks.

Tarif's organization has been compiling testimony from these soldiers, as well as the sniper interviewed by CNN, in an effort to bring the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.

"There is very clear evidence that this is a crime against humanity and its organized and widespread," Tarif said. "There's no mistake here, the orders were to shoot and kill the protesters."

The young conscript who fled to Istanbul, said he dreaded doing the mandatory 18-month military service required of all Syrian men.

But for a moment, he got a little cocky, while recalling his prowess as a military marksman.

"I was good. I could hit a target at 1,600 meters," he said. The sniper pointed at two white towers that pierced the Istanbul skyline in the distance, saying he could easily shoot a target located there with his weapon: a Chinese-made Dragunov 7.62 x 54 sniper rifle.

"No problem, I could hit someone there. Wherever you want, in the head, in the arms," he boasted, pointing to his own head and arms for emphasis.

When protests first began roiling the Syrian south last winter, the sniper said his officers introduced a new activity to the troops' daily regimen: watching the evening news on Syria's pro-government Dunia TV. The reports denounced the demonstrators, accusing them of being foreign agents.

"They [the officers] were telling us you have to watch this to know that there were infiltrators and a foreign conspiracy and money is being paid to these people to kill civilians and the military and destroy the country."

The soldier said officers distributed leaflets accusing Prince Bander Bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia of leading an alleged plot to destabilize Syria. By late April, when his unit was deployed from Damascus to Daraa, the soldier said he and his comrades were gung ho about protecting their homeland from what they believed to be the enemy.

"When we were traveling from Damascus to Daraa we were singing 'we are going to fight the infiltrators,'" the sniper recalled. "But when we arrived there, we were shocked by the truth. We discovered the government betrayed us."

The sniper first saw the protesters on a Friday, which has become the traditional day of protest for demonstrators across the country. Officers distributed weapons and heavy riot shields to the troops before dispatching them to the scene of the demonstrations. Because of his specialty, the sniper said he was deployed on a rooftop, hundreds of yards from the crowds.

"They were chanting 'down with the regime' and calling for freedom," the sniper said.

Some of the demonstrators waved signs, but none of them carried weapons.

Though they were un-armed, the soldier said officers gave the soldiers explicit orders to open fire on the crowd. In the ensuing hail of bullets, the sniper estimated at least 25 people were killed and wounded. Some protesters fought back with rocks.

"They threw stones. And if someone fell [shot and wounded] on the ground, they tried to pick them up. And they were trying to hide behind trees and walls."

Several amateur videos purportedly filmed in Daraa and posted on YouTube in April and May show squads of dozens of helmeted soldiers backed by tanks fanning out menacingly in fields around clusters of apparently un-armed protesters.

Many videos show civilians, screaming and struggling to rescue men and women, lying wounded in the streets, as deafening gunfire echoes nearby. One video shows bullets smacking the ground around a group of medical workers in white lab-coats as they struggle to pick up a bleeding man.

The sniper said his unit was dispatched several times a week through the month of May to attack demonstrators.

When the troops returned their weapons to commanders at the end of each day, he said it was important to show that much of the day's supply of ammunition had been used. Questioning orders was dangerous.

"When one protest was taking place, there was a guy from eastern Syria named Wael," the conscript said. "He had an argument with an officer and said 'I won't shoot at the people.'"

The next morning, when the sniper awoke at his temporary barracks, he noticed Wael was missing.

"I asked about him and they told me he got killed," the soldier said. "They told us he got killed and he's a martyr now."

The sniper has little doubt what happened to Wael: "If you don't shoot at people, they kill you."

Despite his skill, the sniper insisted he never once shot anyone during the weeks of gunfire. Instead, he said he deliberately aimed high and low and tried to fool his superiors.

"If the civilians had weapons and they were fighting the army, we would fire back at them," the sniper explained. "But they didn't have anything, so why were we shooting at them?"

After nearly a month, the young conscript estimated he had seen as many as 500 people killed and wounded.

Disgusted and demoralized, he joined a group of 20 other soldiers who secretly fled their base late one night after handing back their weapons. They traveled together by truck to Damascus, carefully evading checkpoints and patrols.

Upon arrival in the capital, the men separated because, the sniper said, if the authorities "saw 21 of us together they would think it was a protest."

A week later, the conscript smuggled himself across the border to Turkey where he has since applied for asylum in Europe with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Throughout an interview that lasted several hours, the young man at times fought back tears, appearing reluctant to discuss his role in the bloody crackdown that has claimed so many lives.

"It was like a war against your own people," he said.

The man has paid a heavy price for his defiance. He had little hope of ever returning to see his family again, unless the family of president Bashar al Assad, which has ruled Syria for 40 years, is overthrown.

And the young conscript admitted to being terrified, both before and after he fled Syria.

"If they caught me, they would kill me right away because I was a traitor to the country," the man said. "Here [in Istanbul], I am still afraid. Imagine how I felt there. One bullet costs 7 Syrian pounds."

That's roughly the equivalent of about 14 American cents.

A grim reminder that in Syria these days, life can be tragically, brutally cheap.

Producer Yesim Comert and journalist Rasha Qass Yousef

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