“Why is the world not doing anything to help us? We demonstrated peacefully and from the first day we were beaten and shot at. Then the army came into our villages and fired at us with tanks and helicopters and burned and destroyed our homes. Is the world just going to keep watching and do nothing until we’ve all been killed?”
This was the recurring theme during my week in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area (northwest of Hama) investigating human rights abuses.
Everywhere I went people told me about relatives being dragged away and shot dead, and everywhere I saw houses and shops which had been deliberately burned down.
“These grave and large scale abuses – extrajudicial executions, deliberate and wanton destruction of property, indiscriminate attacks and torture of detainees – constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.“
Civilian casualties are rife and detainees are routinely tortured – in some cases to death – by the various Syrian security and military agencies. Indiscriminate shooting and shelling from army positions into villages continues.
These are not isolated incidents. They are part of a much wider pattern across the country, very similar to what I found further north, in Idlib city and surrounding areas, where I carried out field investigations at the end of last month.
These grave and large scale abuses – extrajudicial executions, deliberate and wanton destruction of property, indiscriminate attacks and torture of detainees – constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Syrian activists decry ‘massacre’ in Houla
It is shocking that to date the international community has spectacularly failed to take any effective steps to ensure protection for the spiralling numbers of ordinary people caught up in the violence or to hold the Syrian authorities accountable.
Such inaction has no doubt emboldened the perpetrators. It also fuels increasing resentment among the population who feel abandoned by the international community.
Even as the ceasefire provided for in UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan was being negotiated, Syrian armed forces launched a series of attacks on towns and villages in Jabal al-Zawiyah and elsewhere.
In a small village near al-Bashirya the families of three children, aged 8, 11 and 14, told me that in the morning of April 8 (2012) soldiers grabbed them, made them kneel and shot them dead:
|“The children were grazing the sheep on the hill. When we saw the army come towards the village my nephew ran up to get the children and bring them home. The soldiers caught up with them. They made them kneel and shot them dead. Little Jumaa, eight years old, was shot in throat and in the palms of both hands; his hands were raised.”|
In another village some 20km further south families showed me the place where 16 young men were shot dead in February. A witness told me:
|“News came that the army was coming towards our village with dozens of tanks and heavy military vehicles. The young men ran out to go hide in the hills but the army was shooting into the area around the village from far, so most of the youths went back into their houses. When the soldiers arrived they took 16 youths, one of them who was only 16, and dragged them to a field right opposite the houses and shot them dead. Four other youths who were trying to run away were also shot dead. Then the soldiers left but we could not pick up the bodies for one and a half hour because the army kept shooting into the village from up on the bridge.”|
The army may have removed their tanks from some of the main population centres, but army positions and checkpoints are everywhere around villages and towns.
Soldiers frequently fire indiscriminately, causing civilians casualties. The day before I got to Qoqfeen, on May 12, a five-year-old girl, Maryam Qaddi, was killed when a hail of bullets hit her home. Her 10-year-old cousin and 70-year old aunt were injured.
“Horror stories are illustrated by broken bones, missing teeth, deep scars and open wounds from electric shocks. Savage beatings and lashing with electric cables and other implements are commonplace.“
The shooting came from an army position on a hill across the valley.
Living and dying in fear
In Mashamshan, a village near the town of Jisr al-Shughur, seven members of the Yusef family – three women, a child and three men – were killed and several other children were injured when one of several shell fired in a seemingly indiscriminate manner struck near their home on May 1.
Many men don’t dare to leave their villages for fear of being detained at army checkpoints or shot at on the roads.
On May 12 a 20-year-old man was shot at as he travelled on his motorcycle from his relatives’ house to his home in a nearby village. His passenger, who managed to escape, said his friend was injured, fell and was then seized by soldiers who shot him repeatedly in the head.
Everywhere I met men, young and old, who had been detained and tortured by the various Syrian security agencies – State Security, Military Security and others.
Horror stories are illustrated by broken bones, missing teeth, deep scars and open wounds from electric shocks. Savage beatings and lashing with electric cables and other implements are commonplace.
A 71-year-old man wept as he recalled the torture and humiliation he endured. Some told me they would rather die than go through the torture again. All pleaded for something to be done for those left behind in detention. For some it is already too late, as they have died under torture.
A first year law student told me how his cousin Ahmad, aged 45, arrested with him and five others, died in detention:
|“We were taken to the Military Security HQ in Idlib city and were put in a room measuring about five by four metres with about 120 other detainees. It was so crowded we could not move. We were tortured during interrogation sessions, lasting two to four hours. Ahmad was one of the first to be interrogated on the second day. He was in a terrible state and could hardly move when he came back. He was again taken to interrogation on the fourth day. He must have died because he never came back to the cell.”|
Ahmad’s family told me they found his body in the morgue of Jisr al-Shughur 20 days later, having been tipped off by a hospital worker that there was an unclaimed body of a detainee which had been brought in by military security.
Putting a stop to this endless list
For more than a year the major world powers have been doing little more than collectively wringing their hands about the “complex political situation” in Syria. It is imperative that human rights and humanitarian concerns be addressed without further delay and not be held hostage to an as yet elusive political process.
The only initiative which the main international players could agree to, the UN’s observer mission recently deployed as part of the Kofi Annan plan, lacks a mandate to monitor and investigate human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Yet the need for such a mechanism is all the more pressing given the Syrian government’s persistent denial of access to the country to independent human rights organisations.
The establishment of a robust mechanism for monitoring and investigating crimes against humanity, war crimes and other human rights abuses, which should be equipped with the powers and resources necessary to ensure that those responsible for committing and ordering such crimes will be held accountable, would send a clear message to those responsible for such crimes that they cannot count on perpetual impunity.
The prospect of a possible forced retirement behind bars might just prompt some of those who are part of the system responsible for some of the worst excesses to rethink their options sooner rather than later.
Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s senior crisis researcher with experience in the field in Syria.