Syria sniper shot high when officers ordered him to kill
For months Mohammed Ismael, a softly-spoken and clean-shaven 23-year-old, sat on the rooftops of buildings in Hama, menacing the city’s population with his powerful Chinese-made rifle.
He watched through his telescopic lens as men, women and children scattered in panic as his shots rang out, dropping their anti-regime banners and running for the cover of buildings and alleyways.
As a highly-trained sniper with the Syrian army’s elite 18th Division, he was repeatedly ordered by his officers to shoot protesters. He observed as the secret police arrested and savagely beat the people on the streets below him, and he listened as a handful of his comrades, hardcore regime supporters, boasted about their own prowess at hitting their mark - chalking up tallies of dead demonstrators who, they believed, were stooges paid $100 a day by Israel and other enemies of Syria.
But Mr Ismael, a Bedouin Arab from the desert region in the east of the country, was not so sure.
“At first we believed the officers when they said we were fighting against enemies of Syria,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to watch television and they took our mobile phones away, so we didn’t understand what was happening in our country.
“We were so excited. We wanted to do our duty and fight terrorists. But some of us soon realised that the crowds were just ordinary people, chanting for freedom.”
He dared not refuse to shoot, aware that if he did so he could be killed himself. Instead, he says, he was careful always to miss his targets: aiming slightly too high, silently praying that his bullet would hit nobody, and only then squeezing the trigger. To his relief, he claims, he never saw a body fall.
Finally it all became too much and in October - by now posted to a village near the Lebanese border - Mr Ismael decided to escape his unit. But as he did so he was shot in the shoulder, almost certainly by his commanding officer, he believes, and bleeding profusely had to be hauled to safety by other refugees.