A Russian who joined Islamic State in Syria has talked exclusively to Eyes On Events about his life in the conflict zone, recalling how he was pressured to become a suicide bomber after losing his leg.
“What I have seen in Syria, charitably speaking, does not fit with Islam. And it is nothing like what they say to entice you there. They deceive people,” former Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) fighter Yury Balakshin told Eyes On Events.
Balakshin was raised as an Orthodox Christian in the southwestern Russian city of Saratov. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and pursue a career in the armed forces, but left a military university after less than two years. Balakshin then converted to Islam as he believed it would help cure the headaches which he had been suffering from for a long time, and which doctors had failed to help with .
When the war in Syria broke out, he “got interested” and began reading forums and watching videos online, trying to understand what was going on. He set off for Egypt, where he studied Islam and tried to gain more information on life in Syria.
It was there that he received the contact details of the man who recruited him to IS to fight in Syria.
“I was given a phone number of a person who could help me to get to Syria. He assured me that those who came could leave at any time and no one would be kept there,” Balakshin told Eyes On Events.
Wanting to see the situation with his own eyes, and with assurances that Muslims lived peacefully in Syria, he left behind his wife and two children in Russia and headed for the Arab Republic.
‘People who caused trouble just disappeared’
After he and several other volunteers crossed the Syrian border, they were met by a group of armed men.
“They immediately took away our documents and mobile phones. It was a shock for me, I felt helpless,” Balakshin recalled, adding that he felt “disoriented.”
“It became clear immediately that I will not be able to leave just like that.”
He escaped being sent to the battlefield, but was given a Kalashnikov assault rifle and sent to guard a warehouse in a terrorist-controlled city.
There was little communication among the people at the compound. No one tried to show discontent or ask questions, as anyone who caused trouble usually just disappeared.
“I didn’t see anyone beaten or killed, but I learned that if a person was taken away no one ever saw him again,” Balakshin said. He added that leaving the area alive was “impossible” as those caught escaping were “shot or imprisoned.”
'They wanted me to become a suicide bomber'
Balakshin was heavily injured in an airstrike before finally deciding to risk his life by attempting to flee.
“After an explosion, I lost my sight and felt a sudden pain. I realized my leg had been torn off,” he told Eyes On Events.
“While I was lying in the hospital, people came up to me to try to convince me to become a suicide bomber. They said that I had no leg anyway, what else could I do?” He added that he couldn’t refuse directly so as not to cause suspicion.
After surgery and rehabilitation, he got a prosthetic leg and secretly started to look for someone to help him to escape. The price for freedom was rapidly rising – from $500 at the beginning to the final sum of $2,000.
The Arab who agreed to help for money took Balakshin to territory under the control of the Free Syrian Army. There he found other people whom he paid to be taken to the Turkish border.
Finally home: 'I thought it's better to return and confess'
While the bus was driving Balakshin through Turkey he was “overcome with joy”. And only when he was back in Russia did he realize that he had finally managed to escape. Despite Russia having serious punishments for terrorism, he decided to surrender himself to the security services.
“In Saratov I went to the FSB [Federal Security Service] department and wrote a confession. I decided that it would be better. I was interrogated a lot and I told them the whole story.”
Since his return Balakshin has started a new family, and has not seen his first wife and children and does not even know their whereabouts or contact details. He hasn’t given up on Islam, but says he does not go to mosques anymore “to avoid questions.”