12:00 AM, February 03, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:21 AM, February 03, 2017
Narrative of a Bangladeshi engineer reveals how he reached Raqqa to 'fight for Muslims' and returned home 'disillusioned'
Zayadul Ahsan writes for The Daily Star
Gazi Kamrus Salam Sohan went to Syria in December 2014 to join Islamic State, believing he was answering a holy call. But after five months in the war-torn country, he got disillusioned as he learnt that the terror group kills Muslims as well.
Sohan returned to Bangladesh on May 16, 2015. He was picked up by law enforcers 10 days later and kept confined for one and a half years, according to a transcript of the interrogation by counterterrorism unit of the police. (The Daily Star has the copy of the transcript obtained by the writer.)
The Rapid Action Battalion told the media on November 17 last year that they detained him the night before from a café in the capital's Adabor. Sohan was later handed over to the police who interrogated him.
Now in jail, the 27-year-old narrated to the counterterrorism unit of the DMP his experience in Syria and how he had got there.
After passing HSC in 2007 from a cadet college in Dhaka division, Sohan completed BSc in electrical and electronics engineering. He joined Energypac Engineering in 2012 before joining Desco.
In January 2014, he joined Facebook group "EX Cadets Islamic Learning Forum", whose admin was Saifullah Ozaki, a Bangladeshi expatriate in Japan.
One of the key members of the forum was Aminul Islam Beg, an ex-student of another cadet college in southern Bangladesh, who graduated in computer science and engineering from a Malaysian University and later became the head of the IT department of a multinational company.
In February, Sohan and Aminul met in a mosque in Dhanmondi-7 and discussed the Syrian war.
Sohan told Aminul that he had been following news on Syria since 2011. The “persecution of Sunni Muslims by the Syrian regime” upset him, he said, adding, "I want to do something for them."
"War" is the only way to do something for the Syrian people, replied Aminul, who was arrested in Uttara on May 24, 2015. "If you want to go to war, I can send you to Syria."
ROAD TO SYRIA
Aminul gave him Ozaki's Japanese phone number and said that Ozaki would send him a Facebook friend request and talk to him at night. The call did come at night.
In the following days, Ozaki, an ex-student of another cadet college in the northeast of the country, kept on encouraging Sohan to go to Syria.
Born into a Hindu family, Ozaki earned a scholarship and eventually started teaching business administration at a university in Kyoto. He is believed to be in Syria now.
In mid-2014, he came to Bangladesh and met Sohan at a mosque in Uttara. In October, he told Sohan that he will help him get a visa for Japan as a visa for Turkey is not required if anyone has it for Japan.
Sohan got the visa after applying for it with documents sent by Ozaki and visited Malaysia and Japan.
Ozaki informed Sohan that he would attend a conference in Turkey on December 11 and Sohan should start for Turkey on December 9.
He also asked Sohan to collect some money and give it to him when in Turkey.
Sohan said he managed Tk 37,000 from Shamim, a former student of a cadet college in the north (2007 batch); Sayeed, former student of a cadet college in the south (2007 batch); and a man named Zaki. Interestingly, Sohan is also 2007 batch.
On the night of December 9, Aminul dropped Sohan at Shahjalal International Airport by his car and gave him Tk 1.5 lakh.
Reaching Turkey, Sohan stayed at a hotel. Ozaki landed in Istanbul the next day and called Sohan on Skype.
Sohan and Ozaki flew to Hatay, a province in southern Turkey bordering Syria, on a domestic flight.
Ozaki phoned a person named Abubara, a translator working for IS, reaching there. Abubara, born in Syria but raised in Australia, took them to his house where the duo stayed overnight.
Sohan gave Ozaki all the money he took from Bangladesh.
The next afternoon, Abubara gave Sohan six Turkish phone numbers and a bus ticket to go to Gaziantep, a city in the western part of Turkey's southeastern Anatolia region, some 97km north of Aleppo.
Around 3:30pm, Ozaki and Abubara saw Sohan off as he boarded a bus.
Four hours later, he reached a Gaziantep bus stand. He dialled the first number but nobody picked it up. On the second number, he reached a man who responded in broken English.
"As I introduced myself as Abdullah [a name given by Ozaki], he asked me to stay in a hotel nearby for that night," Sohan said.
Around 11:00am the next day, the same person, a Turk, phoned Sohan and 30 minutes later, came by a car. Taking Sohan on board, the man drove through a highway.
The next step was boarding a taxicab.
"As I got into the cab, I saw a family -- a husband, a wife and four children -- in the rear seat. They said they came from Turkistan," he said, adding that the taxi stopped after driving through the highway for nearly an hour.
After a while, Sohan and 15 to 16 others boarded a microbus which had no seats. A person was sitting towards the front. It left the highway and took a muddy road.
After five minutes' drive, everyone got down and started following the man. "We walked for 15 minutes and then crossed the border by running on the dilapidated muddy road."
Entering Syria, they found four to five Hilux pickups. Ten to 12 men, mostly in army uniforms, stood with arms in their hands. They started calling the names of different groups. There were people from four groups -- Jabhat Al Nusra, IS, Islamic Front, and Ahrar-Al Sham.
"One of them asked me which group I belonged to. I told them that I wasn't aware of any group.... I showed him a piece of paper. He checked it and got me onto a jeep," said Sohan.
"Four to five of us were taken inside a village and kept in a two-storey house where nine to 10 people from other countries had already been staying.
"We were frisked. They kept our passports and all electronic devices including cameras, mobile phones and tabs.
"Asked, they said many have returned home with their passports while some others worked as spies using electronic devices. Therefore, using such devices is prohibited."
FINALLY IN RAQQA
The next morning, Sohan and eight to nine others boarded a microbus for Raqqa, the stronghold of IS.
In Raqqa, Sohan was sent to a 10-storey building under the supervision of the engineering division head, an Egyptian whose pseudonym was Yeazid.
Yeazid said the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad destroyed the power stations of the city by airstrikes and, therefore, the electricity supply was poor. They got power for only three to four hours a day.
The man added that the stations will have to be repaired and sent Sohan to a mess. Six other engineers -- two Pakistanis, two Saudis, one Egyptian and one Tunisian -- were there.
Yeazid asked him not to roam around the area. In the house, Sohan was interviewed twice -- first by a Syrian diploma engineer and second by an Egyptian engaged in electronics-related work.
In his first month in Raqqa, Sohan bought a mobile phone from a nearby market with permission from Yeazid. The town had no mobile network but there were some shops where Wi-Fi could be used. From one shop, Sohan contacted Ozaki through Skype.
A month later, Sohan was called up to Yeazid's office and told that he needed to acquire Islamic knowledge prior to starting his job. And for this, he would be sent to Manbij, a city in the Aleppo Governorate.
During his stay in Raqqa in January, Sohan contacted his friend Nazibullah Ansari, also an ex-cadet, through Wickr messaging app.
Nazibullah said he went to Ozaki's place in Japan and would go to Turkey from there. At the end of January, he told Sohan that he reached Turkey and Ozaki would arrange his passage to Syria.
But Sohan could not contact him for the next one and a half months. He also couldn't get in touch with Ozaki.
SENT TO MANBIJ
At the end of January, Sohan and six to seven others were sent to Manbij, a 30-minute ride from Raqqa. They were taken to a house where 60 to 70 Turkistani had been staying.
They told him that they had been attending course on Islamic knowledge for 20 days and it would take 15 more days. Then Sohan's course would begin.
They were not allowed to go out of the home.
Fifteen days later, Abu Maria, a Syrian who was supervisor of Sohan and six others, wanted to know who knew Arabic.
Everyone except for Sohan and two Pakistanis knew Arabic.
"We're asked to wait for a few days as we needed a translator," Sohan said. They waited 12 to 13 more days.
"Abu Maria told us that there was no English translator in Manbij. There was one in Raqqa. Therefore, we were sent back to Raqqa again 10 days later."
AGAIN IN RAQQA
The course finally began in March under a Tunisian teacher named Abu Hazar. The syllabus included different Islamic topics like Tawhid, Shirk, Kufr, Iman, etc, and location of all groups in Syrian war. The course ended in April.
During one class, Sohan asked the teacher: "What is the relationship between IS and other groups involved in the war in Syria?”
The teacher replied: "There is no similarity between the ideologies of IS and other groups. IS wants to retain the areas they have captured and expand their international territories. For that to happen, if a Muslim has to be killed, he will be killed.”
Sohan said, "I was shocked to hear this. I went there to fight for repressed Sunni Muslims but found that IS kills Muslims."
Meanwhile, an airstrike took place in Raqqa. A Jordanian pilot parachuted after being hit with a bullet and got caught by IS. Three days later, he was burned to death.
Sohan said he then realised that the activities of IS were not Islamic at all. “By this time, I talked to different people and their miseries disheartened me."
In April, Sohan contacted his friend Mustafizur Rahman Sifat, his classmate at the cadet college, and Sifat's wife (name withheld). The couple later divorced. Sohan married the woman via Skype on April 26.
Meanwhile, Yeazid told him that the physical training would start soon.
On May 8, Sohan sought his passport for two days from the border admin office in Raqqa but the officials turned down his request.
Three days later, he sought his passport for three hours. The next day, they gave it to him and took a signature on a paper which had his details written.
With the passport in hand, he took a taxi and went to the edge of Raqqa, from where he got on a truck.
"Since I worked in the engineering division, I was provided an ID card," he said.
Four hours later, the truck reached Tell Abyad, a town close to Turkey border, around 9:30pm. On his way, IS men checked him thrice.
He waited in a restaurant till 12:30am.
"As I went out, the city looked empty. Suddenly, a patrol team of IS border guard turned up and checked my ID. They asked me why I was staying outside so late at night," he said.
"I said I had lost my way back but found it now."
Abandoning the road, Sohan crawled towards the border hiding behind the bushes. He saw a three-layer barbed wire with the armed Turkish soldiers standing guard on the other side.
After searching for two hours, he found a suitable point to trespass. He crossed two layers but got entangled in the third.
Three Turkish soldiers saw him and took him to their office. The next day, they handed him over to the police who sent him to jail.
After three days, he was asked to sign a paper that said he was banned in Turkey for life. Three days later, he was put on a Turkish Airlines flight and he reached Dhaka around 4:00am on May 16.
"Since there was no deportation seal on my passport, I faced no problem. I went home directly," he said.
On May 26, he went to his old workplace Desco to rejoin it.
"As I was returning [home] from my office in the evening that day, two men in civil dress called me from behind. They shook hands with me and took me onto a vehicle.
"They tied my eyes and handcuffed me pointing a pistol at my head," he said, adding that they kept him confined to a room for about one year and a half. During that period, he was quizzed blindfolded.
He was produced before the media at the Rab media centre along with four other people in November last year.
[The writer is Editor, DBC News and a militancy expert.]