KUALA LUMPUR: It’s really an odd moment when a humanitarian comes face to face with a man who is training to kill. It happened to Syahrir Azfar Saleh.
Syahrir Azfar was volunteering in Hama, Syria, in April when he came across fellow Malaysian Ahmad Salman Abdul Rahim.
“I was there to give food, water, medicine and help establish schools. He was there with a militant group.
“I knew there were Malaysians fighting in the jihadist movement so I told my driver to take me to Hama because I knew some of them were there.
“The moment I saw him, I knew he was Malaysian. I went up to him and introduced myself in Bahasa Malaysia. He looked at me and asked what was I doing there. I told him I was giving aid to the Syrian people.
“I asked him how was he doing and he said he was still training with the group before he could be a fighter. I asked how the other Malaysians in the movement were and he said they were fine,” Syahrir Azfar said.
It was an odd, uncomfortable five-minute conversation between a humanitarian and a militant.
They shared the same mother tongue and Kuala Lumpur was their home, but their ideologies were worlds apart.
Syahrir Azfar, who is the coordinator of Malaysia Life Line for Syria (MLLFS) estimates there are about 30 Malaysians fighting in various militant groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil) and with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
He said that Ahmad Salman and his commander Ustaz Mohd Lotfi Ariffin were part of a little-known militant group Ajnadusy Syam, which is trying to align itself with Isil.
MLLFS volunteer Faisal Hamdi said Malaysian recruits in the movement were usually approached by militant groups via social media.
“I’ve been approached before to join them as well.
“They asked me if I wanted to fight in Syria. They said if I did, I would die a martyr. I asked them why do they want to go? Do they know what was actually happening there? They said they didn’t.
“Most of them who join are fanatics, mat rempits, those without high education or were from problematic families.
“Some of them committed some big sin and were told that they could purify themselves by taking part in the jihad. They want a short cut to heaven,” he said.
Faisal said he had also met some of those who were now militants in Syria and tried to convince them to leave the group.
“Some listened but others didn’t want to hear me out. These groups have very powerful propaganda tools on social media that influence their emotions,” he claimed.
Faisal and Syahrir Azfar would rather focus on the innocent civilians caught in the tussle for power in the republic. Through MLLFS, they have made 10 visits to Syria by entering the Turkish border in Killis.
They carry nothing but money, which is used to buy supplies, hire teachers and rebuild schools.
Syahrir Azfar said the group has managed to establish six schools, four water wells and medical centres and a bakery through its humanitarian missions in A’zaz, Soran, Aleppo, Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Idleb and Hama.
He described the civilians in the conflict as “people waiting for their time to die”, living without a proper government, food, water, electricity or education system.
“We want them to survive. But it is not easy.
“None of us have been injured but we have been under many threats of attack before. We are constantly afraid when we are there,” he said.
Recounting a visit in May, Syahrir Azfar said the team was to visit the Ain Jalut School in Aleppo where students had opened an art gallery for charity.
“We were waiting at the hotel nearby when we heard the sound of a missile.
“Its normal there, believe it or not. We were then told not to go to the school as it had been hit and that 15 children were dead.
“They drew our flag and had posters saying ‘Thank you Malaysia’. We were going to go collect them and sell it to raise funds. Sadly, the children and the drawings are gone ,” an emotional Syahrir Azfar choked.
Faisal said although he and Syahrir Azfar were married with children, it was life-threatening events like those that drove their humanitarian cause in Syria.
“I have two children, aged two and four. But they are lucky enough to be in Malaysia.
“The children in Syria have nothing. They need my help more.” he said.
MLLFS, which is a coalition group made up of eight non-governmental organisations, has pumped in RM2.3mil of donations into various aid projects in Syria since 2013.
Those who wish to donate to the cause can do so to the Maybank account no. 5622-1820-7666 or visit https://www.facebook.com/MLL4S for more information.
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