The “surprising display of violence” inflicted by Syrian government forces against civilians in the town of Daraya 10 years ago has been laid bare in the first detailed investigation into the massacre.
At least 700 people were killed when forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the city between August 24 and 26, 2012. Troops went door to door killing and detaining men, women and children. Terrified people sheltered in basements.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the atrocity, a team of Syrian and Syrian-born investigators, supported by the Syrian British Consortium (SBC) advocacy group, have tracked down survivors and witnesses scattered around the world to record and analyze their testimonies. Some of the investigators’ names have been changed for security reasons.
The team hopes the findings, released Thursday, will be used by UN bodies and other legal institutions to prosecute some of those responsible.
“This report records the atrocities perpetrated in Daraya based on the testimonies of witnesses and victims, thereby commemorating their stories and preserving a record for posterity,” the report said.
“It also shows that despite the passage of 10 years and the collection of substantial evidence, accountability and justice continue to elude the people of Daraya. Despite their disappointment with the international system, witnesses testified, recounting the heinous crimes committed in Daraya by their own government, based on their belief that their story – their truth – not only deserves to be documented, but could one day help with justice and accountability.
At the time, the events in Daraya, a few kilometers from Damascus, were considered the worst massacre of the civil war. The Assad regime described it as an anti-terrorist operation. Internationally, he remained largely undocumented except for a brief mention in a broader UN report on Syria in 2013, which acknowledged that government forces had committed war crimes and said further investigation was needed.
“We chose to investigate this massacre because it was the beginning of the dismantling of Daraya,” said Yasmine Nahlawi, an expert in international law and the prevention of atrocities. “The army had already engaged in skirmishes, entering the city and firing on demonstrators. But it was the first major event that led to a spiral of targeted campaigns against the city, further massacres, a siege and bombardments.
Investigator Yafa Omar, who recalls hearing the shelling from her home in central Damascus, said: “If you allow these crimes to happen in Syria, it will become the norm, and it will happen elsewhere.
“Syrians doing this are paving the way for victims in other countries to use the same tools to seek justice.”
In the days leading up to the massacre, witnesses, many of whom were being asked about the events for the first time, said the Assad government and its allies had indiscriminately shelled neighborhoods in Daraya, killing and injuring civilians.
A witness said: “The regime’s escalation against the town of Daraya started on the first or second day of Eid (August 19 or 20). The shelling became worse than normal. There were mortar shells and the worst kind of shelling with weapons we didn’t know, with new sounds.
“We knew our sector’s turn was coming when the mortars stopped,” said another.
A witness told researchers the scene at the hospital after an attack was “horrible, like the apocalypse”.
“Everyone was looking for their relatives, trying to get them treated. People were running and hiding… Many people came to the hospital. Everyone was shouting, saying, “Save this person or they will die. Going into the hospital meant you were going to see people die. I only thought of my brother… [and whether he] was alive or not. The sight of blood was frightening. I still remember the cries of people; everyone was calling the name of their loved one… I remember wondering if some people were dead or alive because they had stopped screaming.
The report said investigators were able to identify Iranian and Hezbollah government forces and militias involved in the attacks by their uniforms, insignia and weapons. The team has also identified some responsible individuals.
The investigation also details how the massacre and its aftermath were the target of disinformation, including evidence that television journalists pressured seriously injured civilians to bolster the state’s narrative that rebel forces were responsible for the murders.
Efforts to blur the facts about what happened “were almost worse than the massacre itself”, said investigator Ahmed Saied, who grew up in Daraya.
Saied said it was difficult to document the crimes that took place in his hometown. “You think you’re stronger and these stories don’t affect you, but sometimes you realize they are in subtle ways,” he said. All researchers received guidance during the work.
Mohamad Zarda, who lost his father, brother and cousin in the attack, said testifying provided an outlet for his traumatic memories. He added that he found comfort in talking to other Syrians, who were in a better position to understand what he had been through.
“I think it’s important to have official documents, an investigation saying these groups are responsible and we can prove it. But the people of Daraya all know who was responsible,” he said.
A recent trial in Germany saw a former Syrian officer convicted of crimes against humanity, but attempts to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council have been vetoed by Russia and from China.