The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t make threats lightly. And as they confronted the uprising in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, government security forces were blunt, according to the medical staff in area’s small hospitals and the local Red Crescent outpost there. Saving a wounded protester’s life could cost them their own. As a result, private medical clinics closed and doctors in the northern Syrian town’s public hospital fled. Of 200 Red Crescent volunteers, only five defied the threats to continue working, including “Abu Taha,” a 29- year-old volunteer ambulance driver whose bravery earned him a bullet in the back.
He was shot on the morning of June 5, hours before rights workers say several hundred of the soldiers deployed in the town defected, protecting protesters from other soldiers intent on carrying out their shoot-to-kill orders. Some 120 security personnel were killed that day, although the regime in Damascus denies there was a mutiny and says the deaths were at the hands of “armed gangs” and “terrorists” wearing stolen military uniforms.
“Samir,” 28, says there were signs that something was brewing in Jisr al-Shughour days before Sunday’s carnage. He was one of the first to be shot in the garden, he says, and also has no idea how he came to be in a Turkish hospital in this city. His body was riddled with bullet holes; one scraped past the left side of his neck, the other pierced the left side of his chest, above his heart, the third shattered his right forearm, which is now encased in plaster. The father of one and almost too tall for his hospital bed, Samir has severe internal bleeding, and speaks softly with great difficulty, in halting breathless bursts.
He said that there were unfamiliar vehicles without license plates driving around his town, sometimes shooting indiscriminately at buildings and bystanders. The young men of Jisr al-Shughour had set up several unarmed checkpoints around their town to prevent the entry of strangers. But strangers entered, including a bearded man in military uniform who did not speak Arabic and was nabbed by Samir and a group of young men. “I don’t know Iranian, I don’t have experience with Iranians, but the man didn’t speak Arabic,” says Samir. “Not a word.”
He denies government claims that the mourners gathered in the garden were armed. “If we had weapons, believe me, I would have been the first to use one, but we don’t,” Samir said. “And besides, what is a hunting rifle going to do against a machine gun, against a tank?” His father, who like almost all of the town’s 50,000 residents, has now fled, either to Turkey or in the hills around Jisr al-Shughour, told his son that “honorable soldiers” started defending the people that Sunday, and that many of them were killed. Many of the townsfolk already knew that there had been isolated military defections elsewhere in the country, because some 20 days earlier, the body of a young conscript was returned to his parents in Jisr al-Shughour. He’d been in the shot in the back of the head, Samir said, presumably for failing to shoot at protesters. “We went to bury him, to honor him, the security forces prevented us.” His voice fails as he tears up at the memory. “They didn’t let us bury him in an honorable way.”
Samir’s mother, wife and one-and-a-half year old daughter made it safely into Turkey on the weekend, taking illegal routes and avoiding main roads which many refugees say are patrolled by the military and armed thugs known as shabbiha. Abu Taha’s immediate family is too afraid to take the trek, he said, and like many others is hiding out in the hills between Jisr al-Shughour and the Turkish border. “They’re very, very scared,” he said. He pauses for a moment, saying his nine-month-old son is out there in the hills, forced to live in the open. “You know, my father God rest his soul used to tell us, ‘whoever speaks about politics will be made to disappear from the face of the Earth’,” he says wistfully. His father was of a generation that witnessed an earlier atrocity in Jisr al-Shughour in the 1980s, committed by current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s late father, Hafez. At the time, the town was a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood, and today remains a conservative Sunni Muslim bastion. Nobody knows how many people were killed back then, although now many refugees independently interviewed speak of a mass grave at the sugar refinery that they all knew about, but were too scared to reveal. “What is happening in Syria now has been a part of the Syrian regime for a long time; the torture, the removing of fingernails, the scalding of skin, it happened but it was hidden,” Abu Taha says. “We all knew about it, but now, thank God, now everyone can see the true face of this regime.”