By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior adviser on crisis response
Editor’s Note: Rovera has reported from numerous conflict zones on human rights violations since 1991, and has traveled inside Syria several times over the past two months to document human rights abuses. An op-ed by Rovera, Why Syria Feels Abandoned, was published May 30, 2012 in the Washington Post.
Every protest I observed during three days in Aleppo ended the same way: with the army, security forces and shabiha – the infamous militias who do some of the government’s dirty work – opening fire on non-violent demonstrators who posed no threats to them (or to anybody else).
On Friday May 25, at least seven people were killed, at least two of them were children, and dozens more were injured at demonstrations and funerals in the city.
Among those killed was Amir Barakat, a 13-year old schoolboy, who was fatally shot in the abdomen. Eyewitnesses told me that he was walking near his home as demonstrators were running away from the security forces who were shooting towards them.
Another victim was Mo’az Lababidi, a 16-year-old schoolboy who worked nights in a supermarket to support his mother and sisters.
It did not take long before they started to shoot and people had to run for cover.
He was shot in the chest in front of the police station in the Bustan al-Qasr district, just south of the city center, during the funeral procession for one of four demonstrators shot dead at a protest in the same area earlier that day.
A mourner who was next to him told me he died on the spot.
I observed the funeral procession from the beginning. The crowd was mostly made up of young men, but also included many women and children.
They clapped with their hands raised, as they did in all the demonstrations I watched, to show that they were unarmed, shouting “silmiya, silmiya” (“peaceful, peaceful”), chanting slogans in homage to the victims shot dead a few hours earlier and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to go.
Soldiers and plain-clothes shabiha appeared after about 20 minutes, carrying Kalashnikovs and rifles which fire deadly metal pellets, and started to close in on the demonstrators.
It did not take long before they started to shoot and people had to run for cover. Some were killed or injured; among them Mo’az Lababidi.
Earlier in the day I had observed another demonstration, in the Salaheddine district, southwest of the city center. It was one of the traditional demonstrations that take place after Friday prayers. The crowd was mostly young.
They walked from two different mosques in the area towards the Salaheddine roundabout chanting anti-government slogans. They had barely reached the roundabout when soldiers and plain-clothes shabiha opened fire at them.
Protestors and bystanders fled for cover in the little streets off the roundabout. Shop owners and shoppers took cover as best they could inside the shops.
It was over in minutes. A boy, Anas Qureishi, lay dead and several were injured.
I watched some of the soldiers and the shabbeha get back into the bus – an ordinary unmarked bus – and leave.
Others walked off, up the road where a couple of police vehicles and an ordinary pickup truck were waiting for them.
After the soldiers and the shabiha left the area I went to look for the wounded.
Where? Not in the hospitals, because those injured in demonstrations fear getting arrested if they go there. Their fears are justified, as many have been detained directly from their hospital beds.
Instead they have to hide and rely on doctors and nurses providing treatment in clandestine temporary “field hospitals”, located in the apartments of sympathetic people. These doctors and nurses themselves risk imprisonment and torture for providing life-saving treatment to the wounded, as do the owners of the apartments.
I found some of the wounded in one such “field hospital”. As I got there the doctors were crouched down on their knees and were treating a patient who was lying on the floor.
One of the injured had very nasty wounds; a bullet passed through his left thigh, leaving a gaping exit wound, before lodging itself in his right leg.
Doctors had managed to extract the bullet, stabilize the bleeding and were stitching the wound as fast as they could – speed is of the essence because of the risk of discovery.
Once treated, patients have to be evacuated as soon as possible – the more seriously injured are taken out of the city; some out of Syria, to Turkey.
They travel on small agricultural roads to avoid army checkpoints, and leave Syria “illegally”; they would be arrested if they tried to use the official Syrian border crossings .
The fear of being arrested does not apply only to wounded demonstrators.
Injured bystanders also are at risk because the authorities seem to reason that those wounded by the army, security forces or shabiha militias must have been demonstrating, and so must be arrested.
Later I met the family of one of the boys killed in the demonstrations. They said he had been standing outside near his home, watching the demonstrators, and was shot when soldiers began firing into and around the crowd.
They went on to say that they will sign a statement to the police that the boy was killed by “armed gangs” in order to avoid troubles with the authorities.
His sister told me: “The army killed my brother. They will punish us if we complain. It is a big risk for other family members, so we have to say that my brother was killed by an armed gang, a terrorist gang, whatever; as long as they leave us alone.”
Another young man I met, shot in the abdomen by the army during a protest, told me that he had been taken to a government hospital because his wound was lifethreatening. He then had to bribe a security officer to avoid being questioned about how he was injured, and had to sign a statement to the police saying he had been shot by a “terrorist gang”.
The following day I observed another funeral procession that turned into a demonstration.
Exceptionally the demonstration lasted two full hours and the protesters were able to march 2-3 km – from the Seif al-Dawla district, through to the Mashhad district.
People speculated that perhaps the army and security forces were given orders to allow the demonstration to take place because of the large number of people killed and injured in demonstrations the previous day.
But after two hours soldiers again opened fire indiscriminately. They fired both in the air – a dangerous practice in such a densely built up area – and at the demonstrators.
Some of the demonstrators were injured; yet more work for the courageous doctors and nurses who are always on call, with their bags of medical supplies ready to treat the next lot of casualties.
The young people I met – including those who had been injured – said they have no intention of stopping their protests.
So long as the international community continues to look the other way, doctors and nurses will keep putting themselves at risk in their makeshift mobile field hospitals, urgently trying to save the lives of those wounded by the unwarranted violence of the security forces and their militias. Such gross violations of human rights must not be allowed to continue with impunity.