As defections from Syrian forces mount, hundreds of Kurdish Syrian soldiers have put down their guns and fled into Iraq. They tell of how they were forced to open fire on civilians and hide the bodies in mass graves.
In an amateur video posted online, demonstrators march through the Syrian city of Deraa, protesting against President Bashar al-Assad. It was at a similar protest last year that Hassan, a 21-year-old Syrian soldier, says he was ordered to shoot at unarmed civilians.
“They came out to demonstrate and we killed them. We were forced to kill them," he said. "After the protesters fled, we went into the shops and broke the windows and then we destroyed the water tanks. We went inside the mosques and destroyed them, too.”
And those soldiers who refused to follow orders? Hassan says they were simply executed.
“I saw how they killed them. They shot them dead. They put them against a wall, blindfolded them and then shot them. I saw this with my own eyes,” he said.
In another refugee camp near the city of Dohuk, Abdullah, a former tank driver, tells of his role in the bombardment of Homs.
“We were in a group of tanks outside of Baba Amr and we were shelling indiscriminately," he recalled. "We weren’t shooting at selected targets; we were shooting indiscriminately. The targets weren’t specified for us to be either civilian, opposition, or Free Syrian Army. Nothing was specified. A lot of people were killed.”
After the bombardment, Abdullah says he witnessed the Syrian army dumping bodies into mass graves in an attempt to cover up the massacre.
“There were a lot of civilians in Baba Amr being killed," he said. "There was a massacre in an olive grove. We have a lot of olive trees there so we call the area Al-Zeytoon which means 'olive.' They buried a lot of people there to hide them.”
Although the men are physically safe now, their mental health appears affected.
“I remember these sights. Wherever I look I see them. Especially when I try to go to sleep. I remember these things," he said. "I’m tense, angry, and confused. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep for hours.”
The Syrian government tries to play down the defections. But as the violence continues, more soldiers like Hassan and Abdullah are likely to come to Iraq. Iraqi officials say at least 130 soldiers have fled Syria and they are preparing new camps to house 500 in all.