In late January 2013, 22 months after the Assad regime began its brutal retaliation against protesters calling for government reform, the bodies of approximately 110 men and boys with gunshot wounds to the head began washing up on the banks of the Queiq River where it ran through the opposition-controlled area of Aleppo.
Most of the victims were found with their hands bound behind their backs and their mouths sealed with tape. Many of them showed signs of torture and only a few were more than 30 years old. Family members of many of the victims had reported that they were last seen either in the government-controlled area of Aleppo, or as they were leaving to enter it.
Human Rights Watch had interviewed family members of the victims at the time and many had insisted that their murdered loved ones had not been involved with the armed opposition, nor had they actively participated in demonstrations. In fact, many of the victims had been merchants who worked at, or had shops of their own, in the government-controlled area but lived in homes that were located in the opposition-controlled area. Others had made regular trips into the government-controlled area to buy supplies that they sold in markets in the opposition-controlled area. Such was the nature of life in the business districts of Syria’s second-largest city at the time due to the polarization of those who stood against the brutal Assad regime and those who continued to support it.
The bodies of the victims had floated downstream from the government-held section of the river into the rebel-held section in Bustan al-Qasr district of Southeast Aleppo and were only discovered when the river’s water level, which was highest in winter, began receding towards the end of January. As the bodies continued to appear in the opposition-controlled area. a grate was lowered from a bridge into the river in February to help catch them.
By mid-March 2013, approximately 120 additional bodies were dragged from the river; an average of several bodies per day. At the end of March, Aleppo’s opposition authorities decided to spare the locals from the task of fishing new bodies out of the river daily by reducing the water level to the point it could no longer carry them downstream. In spite of the local’s best efforts to identify each victim, many of the bodies were too badly decomposed or not recognizable to the families who came searching for missing loved ones and were buried in anonymous graves.
The Queiq River has been referred to by locals ever since as “The River of Martyrs” and no one has ever been held accountable for the murders of the men and boys who were found there.