'I Am Not al-Qaeda; When We Kill Bashar, I Will Shave Off My Beard'

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I spent late Saturday night north of al-Mafraq, in Jordan, along the Syrian border, where I witnessed the extraordinary sight of hundreds of Syrian refugees streaming out of the dark to safety. As these refugees filed past, I couldn't help but think in biblical terms -- except that these people were not crossing over the Jordan, but crossing into Jordan.

Here is some of my report:
We watched as a line of six trucks, which appeared as white blocks moving against a gray-black background, departed the village of El-Taebah, about two miles inside Syria. The Free Syrian Army operated the trucks. First, (Col. Nawaf) Tahrawi said, the rebels would deliver their wounded. The Jordanian army had ambulances stationed nearby. A line of refugees would be following behind, he said, carrying suitcases and children on their backs. The operator repositioned his cameras. Soon enough, we could see the outlines of people, hundreds, huddled in knots. They were seated on the ground. Then they rose, seemingly as one, and began moving slowly across the screen.

"They'll be here soon," Tahrawi said. "Let's go and greet them." We climbed down from the tower and walked across brown fields in the frigid air. We descended into a wadi, a dry riverbed, and waited. We might have been on Syrian territory; the border is unmarked, and although the Jordanians are assiduous about keeping to their side of the border, it's an impossible task in the dark.

Soon we heard a truck engine -- the first delivery of the wounded. The truck stopped before us. Gunmen hopped off. They were bearded, armed with AK-47s, and their nerves were torn. The Jordanians introduced me. "Weapons!" one rebel yelled. "Tell Obama we need weapons!" A second rebel said, "I only have 60 bullets! Sixty! What can I do with this?"

The shabiha -- pro-Assad militiamen -- were all around. The delivery of refugees was becoming more hair-raising by the night.

The rebels began unloading the wounded. "This man was tortured," one of the rebels said, pointing to a man prone on a stretcher. "Look what they did to him!" One of the rebels pulled down the man's pants; his buttocks had been whipped, the skin shredded. Another man was carried off the truck. A government sniper had shot him in the abdomen a few hours before. His clothing was soaked with blood.

"I don't think he will live," one of the Jordanians said quietly.

One of the rebels took me by the hand. We walked into the darkness. "I am not al-Qaeda" he said, though I hadn't asked. "When we kill Bashar, I will shave off my beard. I'm a law student, but I have no choice. Bashar killed my brother."

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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