|Protesters hold a poster reading: “All cities in Syria are terrorist!???” during a demonstration after Friday prayers in the Syrian port city of Banias on May 6 [Reuters]|
Fawaz al-Haraki had only minutes to live.
As the shots rang out, Abu Haidar and the other protesters ran for cover, grimly familiar with what to do when the mukhabberat (secret police) attacked.
But Fawaz fell, the blood soaking his trousers where the bullet from a Syrian secret policeman had torn into his leg.
It was Friday April 22 in the industrial city of Homs, famous for being the nation’s main producer of jokes and cement.
Few are laughing for Homs or its dirty factory these days. Last Friday, 11-year-old Aiham al-Ahmad became the latest among dozens of people killed in Homs since the city rose up in some of the largest numbers yet seen to call for freedom and an end to the Assad family’s 41-year-old dictatorship.
As the bullets sparked off the street around them, Abu Haidar and two other protesters hauled 42-year-old Fawaz into a car, desperate to get him to a doctor before his time ran out.
But Fawaz, growing pale under a blanket in the backseat of Abu Haider’s car, was already a dead man: Killed not only by a bullet, but by the regime’s decision – appearing, increasingly, to be systematic – to prevent injured protestors from receiving medical care.
From the moment he was shot until the moment he was buried in the ground, Fawaz’s fate was not in the hands of the doctors, friends and family who wished to save him, but in the hands of secret policemen whose actions ensured that he died, and that as few people knew about it as possible.
Nowhere to go
“They have checkpoints everywhere and we knew they could stop the car at any moment, even if we were acting normally,” said Abu Haidar, who has been a consistently reliable source for Al Jazeera’s reporting from Homs since the uprising began.
He had good reason to be worried.
On that same Friday, three other cars ferrying wounded protestors from Homs disappeared after approaching a security checkpoint. One of the drivers, Raed Mehran, had been on the phone with Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a Syrian human rights organisation, hanging up saying he was approaching a checkpoint.
Several weeks later, Tarif received news that four of the men in the cars had died while the others had been imprisoned.
“It is beyond arbitrary detention. It is people being kidnapped. In many cases injured people are being kidnapped and we do not know if any medical attention is provided or not,” said Tarif.
In Jabla, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the injured from an attack on April 24 couldn’t even be bundled into a car, pinned down inside the Hamwi Mosque by snipers shooting anyone who moved outside.
“We can’t even get to the pharmacy to get medicine because of the snipers on the roofs,” said Dr Zakariya al-Akkad. “All I can do is try and stop the bleeding.” He couldn’t, and 17-year-old Ali Halabi, along with several others, died.
Abu Haidar and his team had managed to avoid the checkpoints, but didn’t spot the plain clothes security men pulling up to them in the car behind. The security men opened fire.
“We were driving really fast and trying to keep our heads down. There were bullets all around. We were risking our lives but also the life of Fawaz because when you are injured like that every moment is important,” he said.
The car swerved down a back alley to escape the mukhabberat.
“It was complete chaos but we know the neighbourhood much better than the security so we managed to escape with our lives,” said Abu Haidar.
Not so for the man they were trying to help: “Because we were forced to make that long journey, Fawaz bled to death.”
Al Jazeera has also reported that security forces, including snipers on rooftops, prevented residents from assisting the dead and dying during the siege of Deraa.
Human Rights Watch documented cases of security forces preventing casualties reaching hospital and firing on protesters seeking to help the wounded in Harasta, a town 12km north-east of Damascus, and also in Deraa.
‘They entered the hospital’
Even without the secret police attacking their car, Abu Haidar said his options for getting Fawaz to a doctor had already been drastically limited: “We were not willing to take him to the national hospital in Homs because we thought he would be arrested and kidnapped there.”
In cases repeated in several different Syrian cities, Al Jazeera has been able to document raids on hospitals by members of the secret police who have snatched injured protestors from their beds and forced them, some on stretchers, into police vehicles where they are driven to what are suspected to be military hospitals.
On April 22, the same day Fawaz died, a young nurse was on duty in the emergency ward of a hospital in Duma, a town 15 km north-east of Damascus, where tens of thousands had been protesting against the regime.
It was her fifth consecutive Friday on call. Before the protests began, the emergency department would receive three or four people per day, usually from car accidents, she said. This Friday, as before, the hospital would admit 30 to 40 emergency cases, almost all of them gunshot wounds to the upper body.
“I was in the hospital between eight and nine in the evening when about 20 security men with Kalashnikovs entered the hospital and asked reception to give them the names of all patients submitted that day,” the nurse told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition that her identity and the name of the hospital not be revealed.
“We were afraid of them. They asked us to bring them all the wounded, not those who were just normally ill.”
The doctors and nurses were made to escort all 30 injured protesters, some of them carried on stretchers, from their beds to the police vehicles.
“I remember a teenager who was injured in his arm. He was exhausted, but they put him in a car anyway and he was crying from the pain. But I couldn’t do anything for him,” said the nurse. “They told us they were taking them to the military and police hospitals to treat them under their observation.”
On the same day, also in Duma, residents formed a human shield around the gates of the private-run Hamdan Hospital, trying to prevent secret police arresting the 25 injured protesters receiving treatment inside.
“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by the secret police,” said a man who took part in the human shield, which he said broke up after security forces fired on it and then arrested several injured patients.
In two other suburbs of Damascus, Berze and Maadamiyeh, Al Jazeera spoke to local doctors who said they had resorted to treating injured protestors in private homes or make-shift field clinics after relatives reported loved ones going missing from hospitals.
Also on April 22, a 13-year-old boy from Maadamiyeh died from a gunshot wound, said a local doctor, after secret police beat his father as he tried to get his son to hospital in neighbouring Daraya.
On April 23, an eyewitness in Deraa described to Al Jazeera how he saw military and plain-clothes security officers kill five people around the state hospital before breaking in and carrying out the wounded on stretchers.
In Homs itself, a week after Fawaz died, members of a local tribe stood watch around the Al-Barr private hospital to try and protect wounded protestors from police raids.
On May 5, Homs residents again formed a human shield, this time around the main hospital in Bab al-Sebah, while last Friday three people were killed when security forces opened fire on locals trying to protect a hospital in Homs’ Al-Waar neighbourhood.
“They prevent patients from being taken to hospital,” said a doctor directly involved in treating patients under the custody of the secret police. “It is something horrible. We feel hate towards this security regime.”
Treated or tortured?
Injured protestors in the custody of security forces also stand less chance of receiving adequate medical care, according to testimony from doctors speaking to Al Jazeera and human rights researchers.
“When we were treating patients from the protests the mukhaberrat said to us, ‘You don’t have to take care for these people, you have to care for the injured security men,'” the doctor who treated patients in police custody told Al Jazeera.
“As doctors we have our priorities, but the mukhaberrat don’t accept our priorities. It’s not like they say, ‘We will kill you if you care for the patients,’ but the doctors cannot say no to them. They are very afraid.”
As Al Jazeera first reported last month, Syrian doctors have come under direct pressure not to treat injured protesters.
Insan, a leading Syrian human rights organisation, documented the case of Hussein Moutaz Issa, 23, who died in police custody after being arrested with a gunshot wound left untreated.
Issa was shot in his right shoulder by security forces while trying to escape door-to-door raids on homes in Madaya, 40 km northwest of Damascus, on April 28. He made it to a neighbour’s house where several eyewitnesses, one of them with a medical background, told Insan they managed to stop the bleeding and the wound appeared non-fatal.
But later that night Issa was arrest and died in police custody, his body left at the main regional hospital in Zabadani. According to a doctor from the hospital who spoke to Insan, Issa had bled to death after receiving no medical attention.
“He was left without medical attention and bled to death,” said the doctor. “This is homicide. I saw the body myself. This young man was not offered any medical attention.”
Even more disturbingly, the body showed marks of torture.
“He was not even left to die in peace,” said the doctor. “It seems that after he was captured he was severely beaten.”
Issa’s death prompted a massive funeral march carrying his body from Zabadani back to Madaya, with thousands of people chanting for the downfall of the regime.
In a graphic and disturbing video from May 19, residents of Deraa display the body of a man said to be 75-year-old Mohammed Hassan Zubi, who was shot in the neck but whose body also bore the scars of severe beating and other torture.
Laid to rest, not in peace
Shot when protesting for freedom, Fawaz Haraki bled to death, like many others, because the actions of Syrian security forces prevented him from receiving the medical attention he needed.
Yet even after his death, the secret police continued to impose their restrictions and repression.
According to Abu Haidar, who delivered the body to them, Fawaz’s family were visited by secret police and forced to sign papers stating they would not bury Fawaz in the central Al Kateeb cemetery – now renamed Martyrs’ cemetery – but instead on the outskirts of the city, in the Tal Al Nasser cemetery, where the authorities hoped few would gather.
It was a scheme the mukhaberrat was using elsewhere. Just hours after residents of Homs gathered to bury Fawaz, to the south, in the Damascus suburb of Berze, a small group of mourners gathered in the dead of night to bury seven-year-old Israa Younes, shot by security forces the day before.
Having snatched bodies from the streets of Berze, the secret police forced families of those shot to sign papers stating their loved ones had been killed by “armed gangs” before they would release the bodies for burial.
Families had also to agree to hold the funeral at night. The same practise took place in Duma, only there the protestors, according to the regime’s paperwork, had been killed by “terrorists”.
But Fawaz’s funeral had the power of numbers. Born aloft by a procession of some 6,000 mourners, Fawaz’s body was carried not to the outskirts of the city, but straight to the Martyrs’ cemetery in central Homs, an act of defiance at the last, an assertion of rights in death which the regime had so systematically removed from his life, even in its last minutes.