Syria massacres seem to show slow, steady killing strategy
DARIYA, Syria — As he hid from soldiers in a field next to his neighborhood, a young man watched as a cat wandered down a street. Suddenly, it was shot dead. That’s when Zuhair noticed the sniper on a nearby roof.
But a father and son walking along the street didn’t see the gunman, Zuhair said. The sniper lowered his head and peered through his scope.
He shot the boy first. As the man tried to grab his son, who looked to be about 10, he was shot as well.
The two are among a reported 700 victims of snipers, shelling and summary executions, most of them men, since forces loyal to President Bashar Assad stormed the Damascus suburb of Dariya in late August, one in a growing list of Syrian towns and villages that briefly enter the world’s spotlight, only to be replaced by another one when a new mass killing is committed.
Unlike a massacre by government forces three decades earlier in the city of Hama, which left more than 20,000 dead in just three weeks and still haunts the country, the reported atrocities have been spread over months of bloodshed in Syria. That has led some to call the government campaign a kind of slow-motion Hama.
Late last year, as the government siege of the city of Homs was underway, activists began tweeting: “Homs 2011 = Hama 1982, but slowly, slowly.” As the conflict becomes more bloody on both sides, the same can be said for the entire country.
“They killed them in one sweep [in Hama]; with us, it’s in stages,” said Um Hussam, a mother of five who runs a small convenience shop in an old neighborhood of Dariya. “We expected they would kill and terrorize people, but not to this … level of barbarity.”
After videos of children’s bodies emerged after a massacre of 108 people in the town of Houla in May, there was brief international outcry, and several Western countries expelled their Syrian ambassadors and diplomats. Less than two weeks later in the town of Qubair, 78 were killed and United Nation monitors were fired upon when they first tried to visit the village.
On Thursday, activists said 36 civilians had been executed in Yalda, a Damascus suburb.
Like the Hama massacre before, these mass killings are an effort not only to crush dissent but also to ensure that future generations don’t think of revolting, said Muhammad Shihadeh, an activist in Dariya. He also sees a sinister motive in the relatively smaller toll in each mass killing.
“It was a smart tactic on the part of the regime so there wouldn’t be a shock from the international community,” Shihadeh said. “But we’re seeing that the world has a very expansive red line.”
The opposition estimates at least 27,000 have been killed, and the numbers are rising.
“It keeps getting worse. When we first went out in protests, they killed three, and then they began raiding homes and killed 10, and then they started killing more, until they came into Dariya and killed 700,” said Abu Kinan, a resident and activist. “Maybe next time they come in, they will kill 1,000.”
Dariya, a five-minute drive from the capital, had gained some level of independence in recent months, not through rebel force but as the government gradually withdrew its troops to fight elsewhere.
The city of more than 200,000 was home to some of the most famous peaceful acts of dissent early in the uprising, including giving roses to forces sent to attack demonstrators. Moreover, the rebels and activists here say they learned from the mistakes of other areas that declaring a region “liberated” would just invite a government offensive that they were ill-equipped to fight.
But rebel militias based in Dariya have been involved in some of the targeted operations against the government, including a recent attack on the nearby Mezze airport.
The shelling of Dariya began on a Monday in late August, on the second day of the Eid al-Fitr celebration. Free Syrian Army rebels in Dariya, aided by opposition militias from other suburbs, launched a weak defense, attacking tanks and armored vehicles with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The following Friday, as the shelling worsened and the injuries surpassed 1,000, the rebels withdrew.
By that evening, the soldiers of the 4th Division, stationed in the mountains above the city and identified by a red band they wear on their left sleeves, had entered Dariya. The next day, they began systematic raids, pulling dozens of men from their homes and taking them to empty basements where they were summarily executed, according to activists’ accounts and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch. Others were killed by snipers on top of buildings.
Activist Abu Muawya had slept over at a friend’s house and was awakened at 7 a.m. Saturday and told that soldiers were about to raid the neighborhood. He opened the second-floor window to jump out, but the soldiers were already spread throughout the street.
He and his friend climbed into the attic over the kitchen and lay down behind old jars and large picture frames, careful not to touch the dust on the objects so they would appear undisturbed. The soldiers ordered the family to serve them breakfast and spent an hour and a half eating and ransacking the home, he said.
The troops threatened to take the family’s young son, but the mother cried and begged and they relented, Abu Muawya said.
They never searched the attic.
“Honestly, those are moments you don’t forget, while we were lying there every time we would hear a sound I would grab his hair and he would grip my hair,” he said. “We were pouring sweat and fear, and we left no prayers unsaid.”
That night, as the soldiers retreated from the streets, residents began discovering the bodies. In one basement, residents say, 72 bodies were found. In another, 50. In Freedom Square, 35 had been executed.
“When we heard 200 bodies we didn’t believe it — what is this number?” said Hussam, Um Hussam’s eldest son, who helps run her shop. “We didn’t believe it until the first video was sent.”
The next day, Republican Guard troops and shabiha militiamen came into Dariya and raided many of the same homes, repeating the same pattern of executions, activists said. Many residents tried to flee but were shot at on the roads.
That night, residents say, they began finding hundreds more bodies.
In one video shot in the following days, dozens of bodies lying on their sides are lined up in a mass grave, their arms slung over the body in front as if snuggling.
The majority of the city’s dead were executed in basements, away from the recording eye of camera phones that have helped document this conflict’s bloodshed.
One of the few accounts that has emerged came from a resident who is said to be one of four survivors in a basement where he said 72 others were shot to death.
In a video recorded days afterward, the man, who is shown only from the shoulders down to protect his identity, holds up a bullet and says, “This entered my cousin here, it entered his waist here and exited here,” indicating his right and then left sides, “and then it grazed my head here,” he said as the camera panned to a light scar on his head.
“I kept this bullet,” he said. “It’s all blood, it’s all blood.”
After he was wounded, the man fell to the ground and lay underneath the bodies of his cousin and other relatives for hours before another resident in the area came into the basement.
Those in the basement were all men from the neighborhood, he said. One man who had been brought with his four sons prayed loudly, “Please God take my soul, but just protect my children.”
All five were killed, he said.
When rebel fighter Abu Baraa got word that the soldiers were coming into the city, he and many other young men like him fled to the gardens and groves that rim the city. But troops still fired into the fields and some of the men with Abu Baraa were struck and bled to death.
From where he lay, Abu Baraa could see some of the homes on the edge of Dariya. From one building he saw the soldiers drag two men into the street. Each was shot once in the back of the head.
“They didn’t speak to them,” he said. “They just shot them.”
The government has countered activists’ claims that it was responsible for the massacre and blamed “terrorists,” the term it uses to describe the opposition.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than a dozen residents and activists and analyzed satellite imagery before and after the weeklong offensive. Ole Solvang, the group’s emergencies researcher, said it believes government forces or pro-Assad militias were behind all of the killings.
The rights group found no evidence that rebels with the Free Syrian Army were responsible for any of the deaths, he said.
At the chain-link fence separating the street from the mass graves, Abu Kinan peered at the list of 502 names.
Behind him a rickety pickup stopped and a boy leaned out the passenger window, “Any more today?”
“Sixteen,” Abu Kinan said, briefly glancing away from the list.
The boy nodded and the truck drove off.
It is the question that has been on the tips of residents’ tongues — even before “Good morning” and “How are you?” — since the attack on Dariya began.
Beyond the fence, five long dirt mounds hold the bodies of more than 600 people. About 100 others are buried in a cemetery filled to capacity in another part of the city.
Before the uprising even started, would-be opposition leaders debated among themselves what it would take to bring down Assad and what the human cost would be, activist Shihadeh said.
Some said Assad wouldn’t go with fewer than 10,000 killed.
“And then,” Shihadeh said, “we began to yearn for that number.”
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