|(Caution: Graphic content) Shatri and other protesters came under fire as they neared the town of Saida. [GHSR]
On April 29, Ahmed al-Shatri and his 19-year-old brother joined a group of protesters on a march to Deraa, a city near the border with Jordan where the torture of 15 young boys in early March had sparked the uprising that swept the country.
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Security forces cracked down on Deraa, reportedly arresting hundreds of residents and killing dozens.
Shatri comes from al-Mousifra, one of many small towns that speckle the southern countryside around Deraa. Ahmed al-Shatri is a pseudonym; he declined to give his name. Because he feared his satellite phone calls would be traced by security forces, he told his story only in five-minute intervals, after which he would turn off the phone, remove its battery and move to a different place.
On the day of the April protest, Shatri's group linked up with others from nearby towns: al-Jiza, al-Walad, al-Karak. Some planned to march from up to 20km away to participate in what they called "The Friday of Ending the Siege on Deraa".
When the protesters reached the town of Saida, around six kilometres east of the outskirts of Deraa, they were ambushed and came under gunfire.
The attackers, Shatri said, were the shabiha, a name Syrians have given to irregular, plainclothes state militiamen who are said to work at the behest of the regime, a cross between a gang of neighbourhood toughs and a branch of the internal security forces.
"They were under a building with black clothes and guns," Shatri said. "Many of the shabiha, they are hidden behind a big sort of sign … when all the people reach there, they attack them by machine guns and kill many of them."
Lost in the confusion
The unarmed crowd fled from the main road and took cover. They pressed themselves against the ground in a grove of olive trees and behind nearby buildings. Shatri lost his brother.
An ambulance sped down the road toward the protesters. Gunmen hidden inside opened fire when they neared the group, Shatri said.
After the gunfire stopped and the situation calmed, Shatri went looking for his brother. Some of the men said he had been shot in the right hand and arrested along with hundreds of others.
Later, the Saida incident would gain international notoriety after it was reported that a 13-year-old marcher, Hamza al-Khateeb, was killed in custody. According to reports, he was returned to his family nearly a month later, castrated and ridden with bullet holes. Video footage posted online by activists shows a corpse, allegedly that of Khateeb, mangled, bruised and burnt.
Shatri's search for his brother was in vain. Three weeks later, his brother's dead body was turned over to the main hospital in Deraa, where Shatri's family came to retrieve it.
"They broke his face, they broke his neck, his head and his hair was full of blood, there is marks on [his] nose and ears from the electricity, there is a mark of a shock of electricity on his throat, there [are] marks of torture on his chest, something heavy they beat him on his chest," Shatri said. "In fact, I didn't know him the first time I looked on his face. I think he's another person."
Eight other bodies were returned in a similar condition, Shatri said. Some men were released, others shipped to Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus, whose medics believe the men had previously been tortured.
Shatri's mother dreams of her lost son, while Shatri continues to protest at the local military garrison, chanting: "We want to change the system."