Syrian rebels left lives as butchers, barbers

In their previous lives, they were butchers, barbers, construction workers and university students.

Now they are rebels fighting a civil war they hope will end Syrian President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule.

The rebels are a mixed bunch, a combination of army defectors, Islamists, intellectuals, laborers and other ordinary people who took up arms against one of the Middle East's most brutal police states.

"We kept saying peaceful, peaceful. But they came at us with guns and shells and airplanes, so we finally said: "This peaceful isn't working," said Mohammed Sami, 22.

He said he sold vegetables and worked in a grocery store in this small town in northern Syria before persuading his father to invest in his dream: a barber shop.

He worked with a friend and their shop had two chairs, big mirrors, electric clippers and a TV set.

After the uprising started, he said they hung a revolutionary flag on the wall. When soldiers raided the village, Sami said they set his place on fire.

Soon after, Sami said he joined the rebels.

Bader Farouh, 17, said he got arrested soon after catching the revolutionary bug. Police nabbed him from a protest in the northern city of Aleppo. For three days, he said they folded his body into the hole of a car tire and beat him with sticks. They let him go after he signed a pledge to stop protesting.

But they caught him at another protest a week later and he said they hung him naked on a wall for more beatings. Twelve days later, he was freed in a prisoner exchange between the regime and the rebels.

Afterward, he said his father took him to the head of a local rebel brigade and told him: "Take him and treat him like one of your sons."

That was six months ago.

Ahmed al-Saleh, 22, said he wanted to go to university after he graduated from high school but didn't have the money to pay for it or the grades to get the government to do so. So he said he joined the police and stamped passports at an isolated border crossing with Turkey. He liked the job and earned $270 per month.

When the uprising started, he said he supported it "in his heart" but kept quiet.

He marched in his first protest while on home leave, and he said it felt "amazing."

Last month, he ran away. Once he got home, he said he borrowed $1,000 from a friend to buy a Kalashnikov rifle.

Like many, he said he intends to go back to his normal life if the regime falls, meaning he'll rejoin the police force.

"I volunteered to serve my country, not to serve Bashar or anyone else," he said.

Sami the barber also hoped to resume his old life after the war, though he said it would be different without the regime.

"They torched my shop because I put up a flag," he said. "After the revolution, I'll put up whatever I want. There will be flags all over the place."