|"Bodies revealed by the Queiq river's receding waters." (Thomas Rassloff/EPA)|
By Martin Chulov
The Guardian, March 11, 2013
"It is already one of the defining images of the Syrian civil war: a line of bodies at neatly spaced intervals lying on a river bed in the heart of Syria’s second city Aleppo. All 110 victims have been shot in the head, their hands bound with plastic ties behind their back. Their brutal execution only became apparent when the winter high waters of the Queiq river, which courses through the no man’s land between the opposition-held east of the city and the regime-held west, subsided in January. It's a picture that raises so many questions: who were these men? How did they die? Why? What does their story tell us about the wretched disintegration of Syria? A Guardian investigation has established a grisly narrative behind the worst -- and most visible -- massacre to have taken place here. All the men were from neighbourhoods in the eastern rebel-held part of Aleppo. Most were men of working age. Many disappeared at regime checkpoints. They may not be the last to be found. Locals have since dropped a grate from a bridge, directly over an eddy in the river. Corpses were still arriving 10 days after the original discovery on January 29, washed downstream by currents flushed by winter rains. Just after dawn on 29 January, a car pulled up outside a school being used as a rebel base in the Aleppo suburb of Bustan al-Qasr with news of the massacre. Since then a painstaking task to identify the victims and establish how they died has been inching forwards. The victims, many without names, were mostly buried within three days -- 48 hours longer than social custom dictates, to allow for their families to claim them. Ever since, relatives have been arriving to identify the dead from photographs taken by the rescuers.
Each family member who has made the journey to a makeshift office, set up inside a childcare centre, brings with them accounts of when they last saw their father, son, cousin, or brother and where he had travelled before he was murdered. There are no women on the grisly slideshow of dead men that is replayed in melancholy slow motion every time a relative arrives. Nor are there more than a handful of males aged over 30. Most of the dead dragged from Aleppo’s Queiq River were men of working age. Another thread strongly unites the fate of the river massacre victims; each of them had either been in the west of the city, or had been trying to get there. They had to pass though checkpoints run by the Syrian army, or their proxy militia, the Shabiha. The process involved handing over identification papers that detailed in which area of the city the holder of the papers lived. In mid-February, the Guardian interviewed 11 family members of massacre victims in the Bustan al-Qasr area, who all confirmed that their dead relatives had vanished in regime areas, or had been trying to reach them. Two other men who had been arrested at regime checkpoints and later freed were also interviewed. Both alleged that mass killings had taken place in the security prisons in which they had been held. They identified the prisons as Air Force intelligence and Military Security -- two of the most infamous state security facilities in Syria. 'If they took you to the park, you were finished,' said one of the men, who had been freed in mid-January. 'We all knew that. It is a miracle that I am standing here talking to you.' The man, in his early 20s, refused to be identified even back in the relative safety of the east of the city. Nowadays, he spends his mornings on the banks of the river, waiting for more bodies to float down. The concrete ledge from where the bodies were recovered is now covered by waters which, on 29 January, had receded leaving the sodden remains exposed, blood oozing from single bullet wounds to each of their shattered skulls. Further north, around four kilometres upstream is the park that the man speaks about, a large public space near the Queiq River in west Aleppo. The rebels in the east suspect that the bodies they recovered may have drifted from this point while waters were flowing strongly in the last week of January. Their suspsicions centre on two witnesses who came forward in the days following the massacre. One of them, Abdel Rezzaq, 19, arrived at the Revolutionary Security office, run from the abandoned daycare centre, in a muddy narrow lane in the heart of Bustan al-Qasr. Together with his parents, he wrote a hand-written statement alleging that, while inside the Air Force intelligence prison, he had heard the sounds of 30 men being shot dead. We found Abdel Rezzaq, now working as a straight vendor selling coffee in Bustan al-Qasr. 'I was living in Bustan area (in the west) and I was working as a carpenter,' he said. 'I went downtown (in west Aleppo) to buy a falafel sandwich. The military caught and they started beating me all over my body and they were saying that I am with the Free Syria Army. They beat me for 8 days day and night and demanded I confess. They were transferring me from one base to another airforce base. I was arrested on the 10th of October and stayed (in prison) for about 2.5 months to 3 months. Before I left the prison, they took 30 people from isolation cells and killed them.' Abdel Rezzaq said he was being held in Block 4, within earshot of the solitary confinement cells and the area where he alleges the prisoners were taken, then executed. 'They handcuffed them and blindfolded them and they were torturing them till they died. They poured acid on them. The smell was very strong and we were suffocating from it. Then we heard gunshots. The next day they put me and some of the others in front of men with guns, but they didn’t shoot at us. They freed me later that day. I heard women screaming. They were pouring alcohol on us and cursing us. Only God got us out of there, no-one gets out alive. And only god knows what happened to the rest of the people who were in there. I will fight for this cause because I want the whole world to see what is happening.' The account of the man who refused to be identified matched Abdel Rezzaq, although he claimed he was held in the Military Security prison. 'I was there for a month,' he said. 'Then one night they took us to an area outside, it was near a park and I thought that was it. I was preparing for death through by praying and they started shooting along a wall where they had libed people up. There were about four guys next to me, to my right, and they stopped shooting. I heard one officer say "let them go". And here I am. I will stay waiting for these bodies for the rest of the war. I cannot believe I am here.' [...]"