TIME Syria

Don’t Expect Assad’s Prison Amnesty Pledge to Amount to Much

SYRIA-CONFLICT-VOTE
A woman holds a picture of re-elected Syrian President Bashar Assad as she celebrates in Damascus after he was announced as the winner of the presidential election on June 4, 2014. Joseph Eid—AFP/Getty Images

The unexpected announcement that Syria's prisoners would be granted amnesty in the name of national cohesion is a welcome step, but human-rights groups, and former prisoners, are skeptical

A sweep in Syria’s presidential election last week, no matter how roundly denounced as fraudulent by the U.S. and other Western powers, seems to have put President Bashar Assad in a magnanimous mood. On June 9 state TV announced a general prison amnesty, in which Assad promised to commute death sentences to life imprisonment, reduce jail terms and even pardon those accused of joining “a terrorist organization” — regime-speak for members of the armed opposition.

If applied with the same sweeping generosity as the announcement suggests, the amnesty could result in tens of thousands of prisoners being released back into Syrian society. But families with loved ones in prison may want to temper their expectations a little bit longer, warn human-rights groups. Previous amnesties fell short of their promise, and presaged an even greater crackdown on human rights. And ambiguities in the wording of the current amnesty offer, including several nonspecified exemptions, could mean that many remain behind bars for years to come.

“Let’s see what happens on the ground first,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher for Amnesty International. “If this is carried out, then of course it will be welcome. Still, it only goes a small way to addressing the concerns we have about the numbers in Syria’s prisons, their access to lawyers, their adequate medical care, their right not to be subjected to torture and the prompt investigation of those accused of torture.”

According to state television, Justice Minister Najem al-Ahmad said the decree had been issued in the name of “social forgiveness [and] national cohesion,” as “the army secures several military victories.” In short, it’s a gesture meant to consolidate support as the regime readies for new military assaults on areas still out of government control.

It could also assuage a significant problem: massive prison overcrowding. It is unclear, exactly, how many Syrians are currently under some sort of detention. Former U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who stepped down in May, said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel over the weekend that Assad “knows that there are 50,000 to 100,000 people in his jails and that some of them are tortured every day.” Whatever the numbers, the conditions for those who do end up in detention are abysmal.

Antigovernment activist Samer — who asked not to be identified by his full name for security reasons — estimates that there are about 10,000 detainees in the central prison in Homs, his hometown and Syria’s third largest city. “It’s overcrowded,” he told TIME via Skype. “The space is too small for the number of prisoners they are holding there.” Bilal Ghalioun, who escaped from detention in Homs in April, described jail cells packed so tight that “we couldn’t even sleep on our backs; we had to crush together on our sides,” in a recent interview with TIME.

On paper, the amnesty offers a pardon to foreign fighters who have joined the rebels aligned against Assad, as long as they identify themselves within 30 days. Army deserters have 90 days to hand themselves in, and those over the age of 70 or suffering from incurable diseases would be released. Traffickers of drugs and weapons will have their terms reduced, the amnesty promises, and even kidnappers will be let go as long as their victims are freed.

But as far as human-rights advocates can tell, the new amnesty only refers to prisoners who have been formally charged in Syria’s courts. That means the untold thousands who are under illegal detention, either with the military, the intelligence services or the shadowy paramilitary groups that have sprung up in the past few years, may not be affected at all.

“The criminal-justice system in Syria is an elastic band, it can be stretched or tightened however the security or judicial forces decide best suits their needs,” said Sammonds, of Amnesty International. Ghalioun, who survived torture, starvation and abuse for two years in various detention centers in Homs, was never formally charged with a crime. That made his eventual escape easier — his family was able to bribe a prison official — but others like him are unlikely to see freedom under Assad’s new amnesty.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Afghanistan

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

Captured US Solider
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army. U.S. Army/AP

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, a commander laughed. “Definitely."

In the days and hours leading up to the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl last week, his Taliban captors in Pakistan prepared for a big send-off. Those selected to physically hand Bergdahl over to U.S. officials at a pre-arranged location on the other side of the border in Afghanistan rehearsed the messages they wanted to convey to the American people. A videographer was assigned to cover the event, for propaganda purposes. And those closest to Bergdahl commissioned a local tailor to make him a set of the local tunic and trousers in white, which, given as a gift, denotes a gesture of respect.

“You know we are also human beings and have hearts in our bodies,” a senior Taliban commander affiliated with the Haqqani network, which was holding Bergdahl captive, tells TIME. “We are fighting a war against each other, in which [the Americans] kill us and we kill them. But we did whatever we could to make [Bergdahl] happy.”

The commander, who has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity, is not authorized by his superiors to speak to the media, so he has asked not to be identified by name. The commander spoke to TIME by telephone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl, who was the only known remaining U.S. prisoner of war from the long conflict in Afghanistan, had learned basic Pashto during his incarceration and had made several friends among his Taliban captors, according to the commander. The tunic set, along with the woven scarf that can also be worn as a turban, but is draped across Bergdahl’s shoulders in the Taliban video documenting his release, was a parting gift designed to demonstrate no personal ill will, says the commander: “We wanted him to return home with good memories.”

Bergdahl’s release, as part of the first prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban in 13 years of war, was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year process marred by Taliban intransigence and Afghan government meddling that eventually saw the near simultaneous transfer of five top-level Taliban officials from detention in Guantánamo Bay to a form of house arrest in Qatar. The outcome has sparked fierce criticism from Republicans in Congress.

So dispirited was Bergdahl with the process, says the commander, that he didn’t even believe his captors when they announced his pending release. Bergdahl had been there once before, in March 2012, when negotiations were so close that he had already been handed over to senior members of the Taliban council in Afghanistan conducting the talks. When they collapsed, Bergdahl was shuttled back to Haqqani captivity in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas along the border. “That’s why he didn’t trust us this time when he was told about his likely release,” says the commander.

It is not entirely clear what made the negotiations more successful this time around, other than the sense of urgency triggered by Bergdahl’s apparent declining health and U.S. plans to significantly reduce military troop numbers in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. For the Taliban, it doesn’t matter. They see the exchange as an unmitigated victory. “Our talks finally proved successful for the prisoners’ swap,” says the commander. “We returned our valued guest to his people and in return, they freed our five heroes held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002.”

Another senior Taliban commander, who is close to the senior Taliban leadership based in Kandahar, Afghanistan and Quetta, Pakistan, and is close to the negotiations, describes scenes of intense jubilation among the Taliban leadership and their supporters. Candies and sweet pastries are being passed around, he says, speaking to TIME via telephone from the Kandahar area. Those close to the leadership and the detainees are feasting on “whole goats cooked in rice” — a special meal usually reserved for celebrations. “I cannot explain how our people are happy and excited over this unbelievable achievement.” (He too has been known to TIME for several years.) “This is a historic moment for us. Today our enemy for the first time officially recognized our status.”

The news of the detainees’ release, says the commander from Kandahar, spread like a wildfire. “Besides our field commanders and fighters, our leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is so happy and is anxiously waiting to see his heroes,” he says.

There was some disgruntlement among Taliban ranks over the terms, admits the Kandahar commander. Some members wanted a ransom payment for Bergdahl, in addition to the release of the Guantánamo detainees. But the leadership prevailed. “We told them that these five men are more important than millions of dollars to us,” he says. He was more tolerant of complaints from Taliban foot soldiers who pointed out that for all the celebrations surrounding the officials’ release, there was no reward or recognition for the Taliban fighters who captured Bergdahl in 2009. But that’s not likely to get in the way of future attempts to kidnap American soldiers, across all ranks.

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, he laughs. “Definitely,” he says. “It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people. It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

— With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Commander: More Kidnappings to Come After Bergdahl Deal

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border
U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (C) waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border, in this still image from video released June 4, 2014. Al-Emara/Reuters

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told TIME Thursday that the deal made to secure Bergdahl’s release has made it more appealing for fighters to capture American soldiers and other high-value targets.

“It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander said, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

The commander has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity.

The U.S. agreed on May 31 to exchange five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for Bergdahl, America’s only living prisoner of war. Following the deal, the outpouring of relief by those who had long lobbied to “Bring Bowe Home” was soon eclipsed by accusations and recriminations as Republican lawmakers accused the administration of making a dangerous precedent.

“What does this tell terrorists?,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on ABC’s This Week the day after Bergdahl’s release. “That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorist prisoners?”

With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME Syria

Tales of Torture Go Unheeded in Syria

Syria War Crimes Evidences
This undated photograph made available in a January 2014 report by the Carter-Ruck law firm, commissioned by the Qatari government, shows evidence of alleged torture and execution at the secret jails of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. It is part of an archive of 55,000 images said to depict 11,000 dead bodies photographed over the last two years and leaked to Syrian opposition forces by a Syrian military photographer. Carter-Ruck—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An interview with a victim of the regime's torture machine shows the dark side of an all-but-guaranteed Bashar Assad victory in this week's election

One of the most terrifying memories Bilal Ghalioun has of his two-year detention in a Syrian prison never happened directly to him. But the fear that it might turned his life, already plagued by daily beatings and torture with electrical shocks, into a nightly plea that God would take his life before he awoke.

Early on in his detention, Ghalioun, a movie-star-handsome 28-year-old plumber from Homs, witnessed a woman being tortured for information about a family member who had joined the uprising against President Bashar Assad. When she failed to satisfy her interrogator, he thrust her into the hands of a nearby guard, instructing him to, “let your men have fun with her.” The woman’s screams echoed through the barracks-like facility for hours after. A few days later, Ghalioun found himself in the same situation: unable to answer questions about the location of a cache of rebel weapons he had never seen. The same interrogator instructed the guards to have fun with him. So deep was his fear of rape that it was a relief when they just beat him with rubber hoses and metal rods. “We knew rape was happening, the worst was not knowing if it would ever happen to you,” he tells TIME, just a few weeks after his escape from one of Syria’s most notorious detention facilities, a military intelligence compound in Homs.

Homs has since been pacified through a series of ceasefires. And Assad, who is about to cement a third seven-year-term as President in elections that took place this week, is seeking to turn that victory into a popular mandate for finishing the war by any means possible. Short of major international military intervention on the side of the rebels, he is likely to be successful. Ghalioun’s story, told to TIME over more than three gut-wrenching hours in a Beirut coffee shop—the details have been confirmed by international human rights organizations—is a sobering reminder of just how brutal the Assad regime has been over the past few years, and how it’s likely to get worse as he attempts to consolidate power.

Ghalioun’s only crime was one of family relations. The apolitical second cousin of Burhan Ghalioun, a prominent member of the political opposition in exile, he says he never picked up a weapon, even as his neighborhood of Baba Amro in Homs collapsed under regime attack. He helped his parents run an ad-hoc medical clinic in their living room to aid residents who had been wounded in the fighting. But he was singled out for questioning, and then torture, in March 2012 because of his family name. “They wanted to know how the rebels were getting money from [the political coalition in exile].” Ghalioun says. “They wanted to know where the weapons were. They just didn’t believe that I didn’t know anything.”

For four months until he was transferred to Homs central prison, he endured ever more cruel tactics in an effort to get him to speak. “If I had known anything I would have said it,” he says. “I just wanted it to end.” His arms and legs were pulled through a car tire that was then rolled around the room while guards beat him with sticks in a gruesome version of the Victorian-era game of hoop trundling. He was hung by bound wrists from a hook on the ceiling and beaten. When he was finally let down, the plastic ties were so tight around his wrists that his guards removed them with a lighter, he says, as he shows the mottled scars. “There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the types and methods of torture that these people running the regime hellholes are willing to inflict on their detainees,” says Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International’s Syria campaign manager. “From interviews with former detainees, it seems that techniques and cruel practices are becoming ever more inventive and inhumane.”

Ghalioun’s graphic descriptions of torture at the hands of the Assad regime are nothing new. Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, in confirming his second cousin’s account, remarked in an email, “This is well known, that this is a regime that uses torture systematically.” For years, activists and human rights groups have decried arbitrary detention and torture in prisons. Human Rights Watch issued a horrifying 2012 “Torture Archipelago” report on prison abuses. And a cache of some 55,000 digital photos recently leaked by a defected military police photographer that depicts the regime’s use of starvation and extra-judicial killing in detention on a scale not seen since the Holocaust, according to a prominent war-crimes prosecutor who examined the footage.

But the accounts of the regime’s routine use of torture, illegal detention and extra-judicial killings in government detention facilities, even those released by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, appear to have had little impact. Last week the U.S., France and 11 other members of the United Nations Security Council submitted a draft resolution that would refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But the resolution was vetoed by Syrian allies Russia and China in a move that rewards impunity and opens the way for further acts of savagery, according to a group of independent United Nations human rights experts. “The failure to hold those responsible for the violations to account may fuel further atrocities,” they said in a statement released on May 30.

Rebel forces, too, are accused of torture in detention, but on a far less industrial scale. Nor are they representatives of a political leadership that purports to act on behalf of all Syrians. The Syrian government denies that it detains civilians, though it does refer to all those who oppose Assad as “terrorists” worthy of being targeted, killed and captured in the name of bringing stability back to Syria. Regime representative also hold that government forces do not use torture in interrogations. Ghalioun, who eventually managed to bribe his way out of prison in April and then escape to Lebanon, has the scars to prove that they do. If the account of one man, or those of the thousands of others interviewed for human rights reports over the past three years, is not enough, Benedict of Amnesty International fumes, then why doesn’t the Syrian government open its prison doors? “If the regime wants to say this isn’t happening, they shouldn’t block UN requests to enter their detention facilities. Clearly they have a lot to hide.”

TIME Syria

Syria’s Farcical Election Will Boost Assad

The vote was stage-managed but the dictatorial President is genuinely popular among many Syrians

Election observers from North Korea and Zimbabwe monitored the fairness of the voting. Government employees shuttled other government employees to the polls by the busload. Soldiers granted passage through the ubiquitous military checkpoints only upon presentation of ink-stained fingers – proof of having voted. All told, Syria’s presidential election on June 3 was a flawlessly stage-managed affair designed to not only grant President Bashar Assad a third, seven-year term, but to do so with a resounding mandate. The vote may have been called a “charade” by the political opposition in exile and “farce” by the United States, but in government-controlled areas, supporters of President Bashar Assad turned out in such high numbers election officials say they were forced to extend voting until midnight. Some polling stations claimed that they ran out of needles especially stocked for voters who preferred to mark their ballots in blood, rather than ink.

Within three hours of the polls’ closing, election officials started tallying the votes. Nobody doubts that Assad will win, but the questions now are by how much, and with what kind of turnout. Results will be announced in the coming days.

With large swathes of the country under rebel control, and more than nine million Syrians displaced from their homes as a result of the civil war, a true national election was an utter impossibility. Citizens from areas that have withstood months, if not years, of military attacks, aerial bombardment and siege warfare are unlikely to have voted in support of a President who responded to 2011’s peaceful protests with a vicious military crackdown. But they were not allowed their say. Residents of pro-government areas more than made up for their silence, voting out of fear, out of compulsion and even out of enthusiasm, setting the stage for continued conflict as Assad prepares for his July inauguration.

The election was nominally between Assad and two little-known, government-approved challengers: Maher Hajjar and Hassan Nouri. But throughout the campaign, the election was cast as choice between Assad and radical elements of the armed opposition that have terrified many Syrians with their brutal tactics and pledges to implement Islamic law. So great is the fear that it is quite conceivable that Assad could have won, even in a perfectly transparent process. In the 2007 referendum he won with 97.62 percent of the vote; cynical Syrians assume that this year his numbers will be lower, not because of reduced support, but in order to cast a veneer of legitimacy over the process. “I think 70-something percent would look best,” says one former regime official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But could his ego handle it?”

With informants in virtually every apartment building, school and workplace, Assad opponents tell TIME they were afraid not to go to the polls, for fear that a refusal to vote could be interpreted as dissent. “There are many eyes for the regime,” says Arts al-Shami, a 31-year-old employee of a non-governmental organization in Damascus, via Skype. Government employees and students, he said, felt they had no choice but to vote, for fear of losing their jobs or being expelled from school. A 75-year-old from the central city of Homs, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, fretted that his son and wife, who work in government offices, were being forcibly transported to polling centers. He planned to stay home. “I don’t believe our voices can change the status quo anymore, but if I can’t get rid of corruption then at least I won’t participate in it.”

Other Syrians participated with zeal, equating a refusal to vote with leaving Syria in the hands of radical Islamists. Besides, says 26-year-old accountant Baraa via Skype, Assad’s Syria is a fine place, as long as you don’t dabble in politics. Via Skype, from his hometown of Aleppo, he expressed confidence that things would get better after the elections. “The regime is on a promising path even if the change doesn’t happen overnight.” Even though he spoke in support of Assad, he did not want to give his full name out of fear for his safety.

For Assad, successful elections are an integral part of his victory. With what he terms a clear mandate, even if it comes from loyal supporters, he will try to justify continuing his brutal military campaign by citing popular support. And with no real alternative to his leadership, foreign countries and the United Nations will have no choice but to deal with him on issues of humanitarian assistance, refugee repatriation, peace talks and eventual reconstruction. Zeina, a 27-year-old interpreter, described Damascus as a city overtaken by “ultra-ridiculous pro-Assad festivities.” She complained, via Skype, of a headache brought on by pro-Assad chants in the streets. “We’re stuck in a dystopian nightmare,” she said, asking to go by her first name only, for security reasons. “There’s a general sense of defeat. The revolution is coming to an end and Assad has managed to triumph.”

The Assad regime may not be able to engender true, nationwide support, but with these elections, it has paved the way for a coronation.

With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

TIME Guantanamo

These Are the 5 Guantanamo Detainees Being Released in Exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress on Saturday that the United States would be transferring five detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Their release is in exchange for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly five years ago.

Though Hagel did not mention any names in his statement, TIME has confirmed their identities with a senior administration official.

Previous releases of terror suspects from Guantanamo have seen mixed results. Some have returned to private life, others have gone on to fight again in Afghanistan and now in Syria. That’s the case with Ibrahim bin Shakaran, a former Moroccan detainee who was recently killed while commanding an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group in Syria.

This time, the U.S. isn’t taking any chances. The five, high-ranking members of the Afghan Taliban — whose names were first floated as part of an exchange deal in 2012 — will be transferred to Qatar, where they will live under close observation in some form of house arrest.

A look at who will be released:

1. Mohammad Fazl

One of the first detainees captured in Afghanistan to be transferred to Guantanamo — in January 2002 — Fazl is the Taliban’s former deputy minister of defense. He was one of the Taliban’s founding members, rising through the ranks to become Taliban Chief of Army Staff when it ruled Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch accuses Fazl of presiding over the mass killings of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Muslims in 2000 and 2001.

2. Mohammad Nabi

The former chief of Taliban security in Qalat, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Zabul Province, Nabi was a latecomer to the Taliban, joining only in the late 1990s. After taking a few years away, he rejoined in 2000 to work as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office. He has claimed during U.S. military interrogations to have been working for the C.I.A. in the search for Taliban Chief Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda operatives. Those confessions may earn him difficulties upon his release.

3. Abdul Haq Wasiq

Also accused by Human Rights Watch of mass killings and torture during the Taliban’s time in power, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence is considered to have been at one time one of Mullah Omar’s closest confidants, with a direct line to the elusive leader.

4. Mullah Norullah Nori

Nori was the senior Taliban commander in the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif when U.S. forces arrived in late 2001. A former governor of two northern provinces, he is considered to be one of the most high-ranking Taliban officials ever to be held in Guantanamo. He is also accused of being involved in the massacre of thousands Shi’ite Muslims in 2000 and 2001, when the Taliban attempted to purge Afghanistan of what it deemed a deviant form of Islam.

5. Khairullah Khairkhwa

The former Taliban governor of Heart Province, which borders Iran, Khairkhwa has also served as a military commander and a minister of the interior. He was close to Mullah Omar as well as current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who briefly worked with the Taliban administration in the 1990s. According to the Associated Press, Khairkhwa’s U.S.-based lawyers have argued in court filings that by the time of his capture in 2002 he had already distanced himself from the Taliban.

TIME Afghanistan

America’s Only Prisoner Of War Released by the Talilban

Just shy of the fifth anniversary of his abduction from a military base in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American P.O.W. still in captivity, was released by his Taliban captors and is back in American custody Saturday. The news came via a statement released Saturday by the White House, in which U.S. President Barack Obama expressed gratitude to the Emir of Qatar for his efforts in securing Bergdahl’s freedom.

“On behalf of the American people I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return,” said Obama in the statement.

A separate statement from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that he told Congress earlier in the day that the U.S. would be transferring five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Though the names of the detainees were not mentioned, it is most likely that their transfer is linked to Bergdahl’s release: in March of 2012, a similar exchange, negotiated between the U.S., representatives of the Taliban, the Qataris and the Afghan government, collapsed. That deal fell apart likely due to Congressional foot dragging and a schism between the Taliban faction that wanted to negotiate and the group that held him captive.

How Bergdahl, 28, fell into the hands of the Taliban remains unclear. Within days of his disappearance on June 30, 2009, a Taliban commander crowed to the media that his group had captured a drunken American soldier outside his base. Two and a half weeks later, they released a video in which Bergdahl, dressed in local garb and showing the beginnings of a wispy beard, said he had been captured after falling behind on a routine foot patrol. Unnamed soldiers from his base, however, told international media outlets that he had wandered into the scrub-covered mountains on his own with his journal and a supply of water, leaving his weapons and armor behind. An unidentified U.S. official told the Associated Press at the time that he had “just walked off” after his guard shift was over.

As the months passed his captors released videos — proof of life, perhaps, but also propaganda. In one video, dating to April 2010, Bergdahl sports a thick beard and wears an army sweatshirt that looks fresh out of the package. Bergdahl says he is being treated well and is allowed to exercise. One of his captors, a commander with the Haqqani network that was holding him, told TIME in 2012 that at that point, Bergdahl, who was raised a devout Presbyterian, started talking about converting to Islam. Suspicious at first, his captors asked if it was out of fear or frustration that he wanted to convert.

“He told us, ‘Your way of life has impressed me, and I want to live like you,’” said the commander.

Bergdahl escaped a few months later, only to be recaptured several days afterwards and severely beaten.

In November of 2011, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban in Qatar in the hope of bringing an end to the war. In the course of the discussions, the Taliban told the Americans that they wanted five senior Taliban officials released from Guantanamo, according to a senior Administration official. The U.S. then raised the possibility of including Bergdahl in the process. The two sides soon had a tentative agreement.

However, the talks fell apart on March 15, 2012. Discussions of an exchange then faded into the background as the U. S. started considering other ways to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close. The White House and the Pentagon, however, insist that Bergdahl had never been forgotten, and that efforts to secure his release continued non-stop. Today’s statements from Washington indicate that after a two-year delay, they finally met success — Bergdahl is on his way home.

For Bergdahl’s family in Hailey, Idaho, it will be the end of an agonizing journey.

“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement Saturday.

But for Bergdahl, who has been criticized by many for the circumstances surrounding his capture and his appearance in propaganda videos, it will be just the start.

“He will always be separate from everyone else–not an outcast, but isolated,” Jere Van Dyk, a CBS news consultant who was captured and held for 45 days in 2008 by the same group, told TIME in 2012. “And it won’t be right, but he will be called a traitor. He has a long road ahead.”

TIME Syria

To Vote, Or Not To Vote? Syrians Ponder Their Choices

SYRIA-DAMASCUS-PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION-RALLY
Syrian supporters of presidential candidate Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian national flags during a rally in Damascus, Syria, on May 30, 2014. Pan Chaoyue—Xinhua/Sipa USA

As Damascus prepares for Presidential elections on June 3, Syrians must make the difficult choice between casting a meaningless vote or boycotting the process as the country's brutal civil war shows no sign of ending

In an exercise heavy in symbolism but light in meaning, Syrians will go to the polls on June 3 in an historic vote all but certain to hand President Bashar Assad another seven-year-term. Preparations have been underway for weeks in the capital city, Damascus, where the Syrian flag and posters of Assad are ubiquitous. Technically, this is the first time in decades that citizens will be able to choose between multiple candidates — since Assad’s father Hafez took power in a coup in 1970, presidential terms have been decided by referendum — but the result is widely believed to be a foregone conclusion: Assad is likely to come out of the elections with a new mandate that energizes his base at home and strengthens his bargaining position abroad.

Western powers have dismissed the elections as a farce, pointing out that with nearly three million refugees, more than six million internally displaced and only parts of the country under government control the result will be illegitimate. Nor do they believe that the government can hold a truly free and fair election. But with no viable opponents—the two other candidates, vetted under stringent conditions set by a pro-Assad parliament, are virtual unknowns—“Assad will win even in a completely transparent election,” says Waddah Abd Rabbo, Editor-in-Chief of the nominally independent but pro-government al Watan newspaper. In a country where election turnout has historically been low, the international opprobrium has had the effect of rallying Syrians to vote, even if they know their participation is unlikely to bring change. “Sure, the elections are compromised. But it is not up to [United States Secretary of State John] Kerry to declare they are illegitimate even before they happen,” says Ammar, a shopkeeper from Damascus’ old city. “Maybe this time Bashar wins. But what about next time, or the time after that? Maybe he loses. Give us at least the honor of trying.”

Ammar, who gave only his first name, was keeping an eye on his shop from the terrace of al Nawfara coffee shop, a Damascus institution that has been plying residents with coffee, traditional entertainment and shisha pipes for more than 150 years. Inside the singer-poet Majid Hamdan exhorted citizens to vote in a soaring melody he had composed for a local TV station’s public service announcement. “Go vote for Syria,” he sang to the cameras. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just let him be as great as Syria should be.”

The poet Majid Hamdan calls on Syrians to vote

Even though he had strong criticisms of Assad’s regime, Ammar said he was most likely to vote for the Syrian President. Given the circumstances in the country—a conflict now in its fourth year, economic collapse and the rise of extremist groups among the anti-Assad rebels—he opined that it was not the time for change. “At this time Bashar is the only person capable to combat terrorism. He is the only one who can bring back international investment.” But, warned Ammar, he had high expectations, and would be willing to take back his vote in the next election if Assad doesn’t deliver. “He has a responsibly to bring democracy and social justice. We have to get rid of corruption. We want good, educated and competent people in the right positions to take our country forward.”

Across town, in the upper-class neighborhood of Malki, five friends from Damascus University gathered at a popular cafe to smoke shisha pipes and watch a football match on the cafe’s giant outdoor screens. When the game ended, the conversation moved from soccer to the upcoming elections. Of the five, four said they would vote for Assad. Alma, a third-year accounting student, said that despite recent events, she owed at least that much to a man who had made Syria so much better over the previous decade. When Assad assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000, he brought in a rash of reforms that radically transformed the lives of most urban Syrians. He brought in the Internet, and mobile phones. He opened the way for private banks and universities, and privately owned newspapers, magazines and TV stations competed with state-run institutions. The economy was booming, and young Syrians, like Alma, believed that things would only get better. “Before the ‘revolution,’” she says, using air quotes, “Syria was the best place to be in the Arab world. Bashar was making changes, and if this crisis hadn’t happened, we would all be in a better place now.”

Life in Damascus ahead of the elections

Mohammad, who like Alma, asked to go only by his first name, disagreed. For the first four months of the uprising, which started in March 2011, he was out on the streets protesting against the government. But when the revolution turned violent, and was taken over by Islamist rebels, he dropped out. That doesn’t mean he has abandoned the cause. When it comes time to vote, he will leave his ballot blank as a form of protest. “Voting white,” it is called, and many disgruntled Syrians said they were considering doing the same.

Maram Daoud, an outspoken member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a semi-tolerated, peaceful opposition group with branches all over Syria, says “voting white” legitimizes a process that is riddled with problems. His group is calling for a boycott. “There are 10 million displaced. There are 200,000 detainees. So what kind of ‘election’ is this if half the country can’t vote? We don’t think this will be useful for the Syrian people at all.”

An anonymous Facebook group, Don’t Vote, Raise Your Voice, is also calling for a boycott in a clever English and Arabic campaign that asks how votes can be counted when Syrians are suffering in so many different ways. “People are counting the shells that regularly fall on them…not empty votes incapable of bringing any change..”

But not all opposition groups are pushing for a boycott. “What’s the alternative?” asks Elia Samman, a senior member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, one of the officially recognized opposition groups in Syria. “Should we throw our fate in with [the al Qaeda-affiliated] Nusra Front? The opposition in exile, which is a disaster? No, we have to participate in any political process, no matter how flawed, that lays the groundwork for eventual change.” The SSNP, which was founded in the 1930s, did not put forward a candidate in this election, mostly, says Samman, because party leaders knew they had no chance. And, he adds, “Frankly speaking, even if we had a president today, we have no solution to the crisis.”

Victory in the elections, as with the war, will be Pyrrhic, says Samman. Assad will be responsible for an economy in tatters, a people desperate for jobs, and an infrastructure destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild. One Damascus-based businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, likens Assad to a drunken man who has gone on a destructive rampage, only to be confronted with the damage when sober. “The day after the elections, Assad is going to wake up the president of a country in ruins, and it’s going to be a big headache.”

TIME Syria

Local Ceasefires are Unlikely to Bring an End to the Syrian War

Men gather at a newly reopened mechanic's shop in the Barze neighborhood of Damascus on May 14, 2014.
Men gather at a newly reopened mechanic's shop in the Barze neighborhood of Damascus on May 14, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Government officials and their Russian allies believe that a rash of locally negotiated truces provide a uniquely Syrian solution to what has become an international problem. But they are unlikely to last.

When a ceasefire in a rebel-held enclave of Homs, Syria, concluded on May 9 with the peaceful exit of fighters aligned against the government of President Bashar Assad, Syrians on both sides of the divide celebrated the end of a vicious, urban battle that had cost thousands of lives. Now the government wants to use the Homs Old City ceasefire, and others like it, as a template for pacifying other opposition-held parts of the country. Already a similar truce is in place in the Homs neighborhood of Waer, which could mean that the entire city of Homs, once dubbed the “Capital of the Revolution,” will be in government hands. Government officials call the Homs ceasefire a turning point in a war now in its fourth year: “We are really optimistic that if we continue succeeding with these reconciliations, [we will have] a real victory,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad tells TIME. The only problem is that it is unlikely to bring a definitive peace, and it may not work in the rest of the country.

But many Syrians, including low-level fighters and anti-government activists, saw the Homs ceasefire as a rebel surrender, negotiated after two years of continued shelling and a military siege that essentially starved the insurgents, and a few hundred civilians along with them, into submission. It has become a familiar pattern: the army starts with a blockade, pounds the area with artillery and airstrikes and, only once those trapped inside are exhausted and ready to give up, do they negotiate a ceasefire. Assad’s allies say the ceasefires are a Syrian solution to what has become an issue of international concern; at a recent security conference in Moscow, Russian envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov suggested that he saw “local pacifications in Syria as an important prologue to a subsequent comprehensive ceasefire.”

What Homs Looks Like After Two Years of Siege

 

But these ceasefires fall far short of true reconciliation. In a recent interview with al Monitor, an online newspaper dedicated to Middle East affairs, former United Nations envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who stepped down on May 13, called the U.N.-brokered Homs ceasefire little more than a tactic of war. “We cannot forget that we reached that negotiation through two years of starvation imposed on people, and this is definitely not right.” The Homs ceasefire, he said, “is part of the continuing war, it is not the beginning of a peaceful process.”

Once the scene of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, the Barze neighbourhood of Damascus has been calm since February, when a Syrian Army major and a rebel commander agreed to an armed ceasefire after three months of negotiations. The major, who refused to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the media, claimed that Barze’s “reconciliation” had been the “seed” for other similar negotiations, and that “90 percent” of the area’s residents had returned to pick up their lives. It was a statement belied by the ghost-town feel of Barze, where towering apartment blocks, scarred by mortar fire, remain dark. Mechanic Abu Nidal, who returned to Barze in late April to reopen his auto-repair shop, says residents have little faith that calm has returned for good. “There are still some tensions here,” he says. Even if their leaders had reached an accord, not all the fighters were on board. “I am afraid one side will get nervous, and things will explode.” It’s not an idle fear. A gang of young, armed men loitering nearby — remnants of a rebel militia — were visibly frustrated. “This isn’t a reconciliation; this is a ceasefire,” growled one young man sporting a thick beard and a handlebar mustache. His companions, automatic rifles slung casually across their backs, nodded in agreement.

Video report from the cemetery of Al-Zahra, Homs

 

Elia Samman, a member of one of Syria’s legal and recognized opposition parties (as opposed to the armed opposition), says that so far no real reconciliations have been achieved in Syria. These local agreements may reduce tension, violence and bloodshed, says Samman, who works as an advisor to the Syrian Ministry of Reconciliation, but they are inherently fragile if they are not accompanied by political reform. Nor can they work in parts of Syria where foreign fighters have infiltrated rebel groups, as is the case in the north and east of the country. There are an estimated 12,000 foreign jihadis fighting the Assad regime alongside Syrian rebels. Due to their discipline, military prowess and ample sources of funding from foreign backers, they have an outsize influence on how the war is conducted. “We hit a brick wall when we try to achieve reconciliation in areas where there is a strong presence of foreign fighters,” he says, citing the northern city of Aleppo as an example. “They are not interested in a political resolution. They want to establish an Islamic state.” Nor are they as likely to be cowed by a military siege. “They are here for jihad. Not [for] saving Syria for Syrians.”

Even in Homs, where most of the fighters were Syrian, the prospects for true reconciliation are limited. Former residents of the area, who celebrated the ceasefire by thronging the historic churches and mosques that had long been an integral part of this thriving, multi-sectarian neighborhood, are doubtful it will last. As soon as the blockade was lifted, 33-year-old woodcarver Talhat Ghanoum rushed to the 11th century Khaled Ibn Al-Waleed Mosque in the Old City to say prayers. “We are all happy with the ceasefire,” he tells TIME. “It means I can come back to my mosque.” But beyond the immediate prospect of being able to regain a life put on pause by the war, he is skeptical that the ceasefire will bring anything resembling peace, and may yet usher in a period of even more bloodshed. “You can’t ask anyone to forget the death of a son or a father. Everyone is waiting for revenge. People will be kidnapping members of the other sect, killing them, and then that sect will do the same. The search for revenge will continue for generations. We will not forgive what they have done to us.” The government may call it reconciliation, but until the old grievances that launched the uprising are addressed, and new complaints answered, resentment will continue to seethe, setting the stage for an another explosion of popular unrest down the line.

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