Witnessing Dera'a's Torment

Human rights campaigner tells of secret visits to beleaguered southern Syrian city.

By Wissam Tarif - The Arab Spring

Arab Spring Issue 14, 12 May 11

My first visit to Dera’a to document reported human rights abuses and killings was in March, when we managed to sneak in at dawn with the help of locals.

I saw many corpses in the city’s hospital; many had been shot in the head. We tried to collect testimonies from the doctors but it was difficult because we couldn’t stay there too long - there were soldiers actually inside the emergency room.

The staff told us that the security forces had come to confiscate bodies, which were only released after the families and tribal leaders had negotiated with the authorities to receive them for burial. They had to agree that there would be no political protests at the funerals.

I went to a funeral – several bodies were being buried at the same time and there must have been 20,000 people there, following the procession and coming to the traditional mourners’ tents afterwards. It was like after a natural disaster.

Yet the community was sticking together, with despair, sadness, anger. Among the mourners, women were crying quietly and asking God to take revenge on the killers of their children.

People told me how the security forces opened fire on protesters, and snipers targeted individuals. Heavy ammunition was also used. They asked me to tell the world that soldiers had used live fire when faced with peaceful protesters.

I was there for a week. It was clear people were refusing to give in and were prepared to face even worse repression. And what I sensed was a new sense of communal pride that I had never felt before in Syria.

There was a feeling that went beyond the individual, and a one which made people, ordinary families, strongly part of their community and country. I don’t think this existed before.

A combination of things led to Dera’a becoming a flashpoint. In addition to the influence of events in Tunisia and Egypt, what first provoked the protests was the detention of some young students who wrote anti-regime graffiti. Their family went to the police to ask for their release and were humiliated and insulted. The protests grew from that, and were met with violence, so provoking more protests.

And also, it is a largely agricultural province which has suffered a drought for many years, made worse by the fact that the irrigation system was crumbling due to corrupt contractors. At the same time, the province has one of the highest rates of university graduates in the country, but a serious lack of jobs.

The second time I visited Dera’a was just before the army invaded the old town last month, and I entered secretly from Jordan.

Dera’a was still very unified. In other parts of Syria I visited, people would warn us that so-and-so was an informer, for instance – this didn’t happen in Dera’a.

Everyone was still very energised. It seemed that the more blood that was shed and the more victims that fell and the more that were killed, the greater the sense of togetherness and self-respect.

The historic Omari mosque in the centre of town had become a community centre and makeshift hospital where the injured were being treated by volunteer doctors and medical students. The killing of the protesters was definitely not a mistake, as some officials have claimed. Many had been shot in the head, or clearly targeted by snipers.

Since my second visit, I have heard from local people that the army is still control, there is no communication, no electricity – I am not even sure if they have water. The Red Crescent was allowed to visit and provide essential supplies and there were reports of the army delivering bread but there is still a curfew.

People are being allowed out of their houses for one hour a day to do their shopping but no shops are open.

There has been a huge wave of arrests – we are talking about thousands detained.

Many people have been killed in their homes. One activist was shot because he was found with a sat phone. We documented 396 deaths in Dera’a and 78 others from the surrounding villages. But there are many more we don’t know about because we simply had no access. So much else has happened in Dera’a that we just don’t know about.

Wissam Tarif is executive director of the Insan human rights organisation.