By Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher
Two weeks ago ‘Amina’ lost her legs, her husband and her two small children.
In a Tripoli hospital she tells me with remarkable composure how her life was, quite literally, blown apart.
“When the regime forces attacked our village – an hour from Homs city – we fled and stayed outside, slept in an empty building,” she said.
“Two days later it was quiet and so we were returning on motorbike. I was on the back, holding my 13-month-old daughter in my left arm; my husband was in front of me and our three-year-old son in his lap. Missiles hit us, I don’t know which kind.”
While the accounts given to Amnesty International during a research trip to Lebanon in May blame government forces for the attacks which destroyed Amina’s family as well as a number of others, restrictions placed by the Syrian authorities on visits by NGOs like Amnesty International to Syria mean that it is extremely difficult to investigate the circumstances in which such horrific injuries and deaths were caused.
A physician with international experience in injuries from armed conflicts, ‘Dr Nabil’, explains later that the most common emergency injuries among Syrians here are from mortars, which he says are fired at groups assembled in public – whether students, people in marketplaces and shops and so on – and explode in their entirety into shrapnel.
No matter the exact circumstances of such attacks, mortars are notoriously imprecise weapons and should not be used in densely populated areas.
Second to mortars in causing injuries requiring emergency treatment at the hospital he works in, says ‘Dr Nabil’, are projectiles, whether from tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launch systems or others.
He estimates that only one per cent of those injured in Homs governorate will be able to make it to treatment in Tripoli.
“The field hospitals cannot cope,” ‘Dr Nabil’ adds, “and are not ‘field hospitals’ but rather ‘first aid hospitals’ at best, given the equipment, medication and expertise available.”
Abd al-Aziz, who had worked at a “first aid hospital” in Baba Amr, for example, was a language student at university. A self-taught ‘doctor’ at another such medical facility, I’m told, is a shopkeeper.
The uncle of a boy hospitalized after losing his arm goes on to tell me of the wider tragedy that has befallen his family.
Bassam Wazir says: “Eight weeks ago I buried my brother, Abd al-Latif Wazir, who was 23. On 20 February he went with a friend, Ahmed, from our village, al-Buaydha al-Sharqiyeh, to visit our aunt who lives in Tell al-Shur, 5km away.
“We know from a neighbour who was detained in the same place they were picked up by a patrol and that my brother was held by Military Intelligence in Homs. Later, on 10 March, my father, who is 80 and less at risk of being arrested, went to ask about him at the Military Hospital in Homs.
“A nurse said my brother was dead. To take his body my father had to sign a paper saying he was ‘killed by an armed group’. But he had been tortured to death.
“He wasn’t wanted by the security forces and he wasn’t with the Free Army. He had a badly bruised leg, a smashed skull, lesions from electric shocks on both arms and three bullet wounds in his stomach and chest. Nothing is known of Ahmed.”
Bassam continues sombrely: “Some days earlier, on the day the FSA left Baba Amr [1 March 2012], shabiha [pro-government armed gangs] slaughtered my cousin Abd al-Hakim Kerabji and his family in their home in Jober, Homs city.
“Neighbours say that more than 100 shabiha entered the area wearing green headbands. They found Abd al-Hakim, 42, who ran a small ice-cream business, cut his throat and those of his children Louai, 11, Suleiman, 8 and Rukaya, 5.
“His wife Mayada was stabbed in the stomach and upper chest, but miraculously survived. His brother, Abd al-Bari, 40, was also slaughtered. They weren’t with the FSA, or even with the opposition. They didn’t go to demonstrations, unlike us.”
The account given by Muhammad Sabouh is an example of how families are being destroyed and left without justice in the web of claims and counter claims by government and opposition.
He takes from his shirt-pocket a piece of paper with 29 names written on it. “This is my father, my grandfather, this one my uncle, another uncle, my aunt, my cousin, my niece, my nephew… this one a baby,” he says, pointing at various names.
Most, he said, had their throats cut in the Basateen area of Baba Amr [an attack for which both sides blamed the other], another three were killed in an earlier Grad missile attack on Baba Amr, and one, a nurse, in an attack on a field hospital in Baba Amr.
Once again, I was reminded of the importance of human rights monitors being able to access Syria to conduct independent investigations.
What have the Syrian authorities got to lose by allowing monitors in if, as they claim, such attacks are carried out by “terrorist armed groups”?
**The surnames of all individuals except for the Wazir, Kerabji and Sabouh families have not been revealed for fear of reprisals against the families. Some other names have also been changed.
Inside Syria’s crackdown: ‘I found my boys burning in the street’ (Blog, 4 May 2012)Syria: Repression continues despite Annan plan hopes (News story, 3 April 2012)