Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Assad’s Syria: Wasteland only rich with mass graves

The mass grave site located between the towns of Hajira and Spina, south of Damascus

It was an autumn morning with a clear sky in the town of Hajira, located about 10 km south of the center of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The town’s rebels, numbering in the dozens, had been informed by the remaining residents of the area that Assad’s forces, supported by sectarian militias led by the Iraqi Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas militia, were about to storm the town. The rebels, with their individual weapons and limited ammunition, were unable to stop this intrusion, so the only option was to withdraw. As for the people of the town, they chose to remain in their homes. Why should they fear their own country’s army? 

At eight in the morning, Assad’s forces began entering the town after clashes that had not lasted for more than an hour. Soon a suspicious silence covered the area. During the next six hours, a massacre was committed in this town, the details of which have not been acknowledged to this day. There is no accurate information about how many civilians were killed. But according to estimates by survivors, the victims most likely number about a thousand. Among them were men, women, children, and the elderly. None of them were soldiers, political opponents, or wanted by Syrian security for any reason. 

The “Grave Digger” confirmed that mass graves are still being dug in Syria, and the Assad regime is systematically burying its victims in mass graves in secret and in large numbers, a large portion of them being detainees who died under torture in its prisons

I met one of the survivors who told me: “They were expelling residents from their homes. Some of them were killed by firing squad, and some of them were slaughtered by knife. Then they collected their bodies in one of the houses, burned it, then moved to the next street.” On that day, the town of Hajira turned into what looked like hell, but without the sounds of screaming, as the massacre was carried out in utter silence.

In 2022, someone who identified himself as “the Gravedigger” (which is the description of the work he was doing in Syria for the Assad regime before he fled Syrian territory) testified before the US Congress during a hearing on the conflict in Syria. The “Grave Digger” confirmed that mass graves are still being dug in Syria, and the Assad regime is systematically burying its victims in mass graves in secret and in large numbers, a large portion of them being detainees who died under torture in its prisons. This testimony was a surprise to some, but confirms many of the stories and testimonies that we listen to as researchers in the Syrian file.

Within our work as researchers, we repeatedly emphasize that the numbers of victims in the Syrian file are more than just numbers. Behind every name there is a family that has suffered in every sense of the word. But what is painful for me personally is that the numbers being published by the research and documentation institutions operating in the Syrian arena are inaccurate.

For example, the number of victims in Syria since 2011 according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, is 470,000, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the number of victims at about 498,000. The truth is that these numbers only convey part of the picture of the Syrian scene. 

As for the Hajira massacre that I described in the beginning of this piece, it is not even present on Internet search sites. Even the small number of residents who survived the Hajira massacre were unable to document the numbers of its victims. In addition, the families of those victims whose bodies were burned were not even able to identify their relatives. Consequently, many of them chose to believe that their missing family members may still be alive in detention in an attempt to cling to hope, even if it is weak. 

In Syria, there are mass graves of detainees who died under torture, there are mass graves for those liquidated by Assad’s army and its multinational militias during their storming of the rebellious Syrian towns

Of course, the town of Hajira, which is adjacent to Damascus, is not the only one whose massacre was not covered by the media. The same happened in other towns like Jdeidat Artuz, Daraya, Moadamiyeh, the towns in the countryside of southern Aleppo, the city of Deir ez-Zor, and others. In the end, we are faced with a reality that says that what we actually do know about Syria over the last 13 years is only a small part of a more terrifying picture.

Returning to the “Gravedigger”, the definition of a mass grave, according to the United Nations, is a pit, or a basement, containing the bodies of at least three people. This definition does not specify that the killer be the one who buried the victims himself, nor does it require that the identity of the victims be known or unknown. In Syria, there are mass graves of detainees who died under torture, there are mass graves for those liquidated by Assad’s army and its multinational militias during their storming of the rebellious Syrian towns. There are mass graves of civilians killed at the checkpoints of Assad’s forces spread over most of the areas under his control, and mass graves whose victims were killed as a result of indiscriminate bombing, snipers, or attacks with chemical weapons. In many of these cases, the victims buried in these graves are not documented, and therefore they are not among the half a million victims reported, for example, by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Through my interviews with a number of Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, I was able to document two sites of mass graves created by Assad’s forces and the militias supporting them:

Any attempts of reconciliation with this criminal regime, whether Arab, Western or Chinese, are clear partnership agreements on the part of these people over the massacres committed by Assad and his militias

Hajira Mass Grave:

This mass grave is located between the towns of Hajira and Spina, south of Damascus. The victims buried in this mass graveyard were killed in multiple attacks on civilians by Assad regime helicopters during the targeting of a funeral on Wednesday, July 18, 2012, by the helicopter and artillery bombardment on the town of Hajira on Friday, July 20, 2012, during the mass killing of civilians while storming the town of Hajira in September 2012, in addition to the many victims of snipers and random mortar shelling of the town for more than a year and a half. Over a thousand victims were buried in this mass graveyard. In November 2013, Assad’s forces took complete control of the town and their first action was to bulldoze the mass grave and then disguise it by placing the remains of the demolished houses on top of it (cover photo of this article).

Najha Cemetery Mass Grave site near Damascus

Najha Cemetery Mass Grave:

The Najha cemetery was opened in 2010 to serve the towns of the southern Damascus countryside. But over time this cemetery became a cover for a mass grave for those killed by Assad’s artillery, warplanes, and helicopters while targeting the towns of Al-Dhiyabiya, Al-Husseiniya, Al-Bahdila, Najha, and Al-Buwaydah between the summer of 2012 and the end of 2013. After the Assad regime’s forces took control of the towns south of the capital, it was also used as a cover to bury torture victims from security branches within the Syrian capital of Damascus (photo 2). This mass graveyard was also revealed by the “Gravedigger”.

This March marks 13 years since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and, despite the fact that the war on Gaza has overwhelmed the news, the continued protests of the people of Suwayda in southern Syria against the Assad regime confirm without a doubt that the Syrian revolution is still alive and ongoing. Any attempts of reconciliation with this criminal regime, whether Arab, Western or Chinese, are clear partnership agreements on the part of these people over the massacres committed by Assad and his militias, some of which we know and many of which we still do not know. Assad’s Syria, in short, is a huge mass graveyard with some of its victims dead, and some still alive.

Eva J. Koulouriotis
Eva J. Koulouriotis
Political analyst specialising in the Middle East with a focus on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Turkey; jihad and jihadist organisations and Greek-Turkish relations; Contributed to Al-Quds Al-Arabi, The New Arab, Al-Jazeera, Al-Sharq Qatar, Annahar, Orient News, Arab News, Huffington Post Greece, the Greek weekly Paraskinio and RT; Held several positions with the European Union of Women (EUW)

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