Aleppo massacre's lone survivor recounts horror

Lone survivor of the latest mass killing in Syria's civil war tells of being lined up with another 10 men and shot in the chest, foot and head during a brutal execution by regime aligned-forces.
Mahmoud, a 21-year-old Palestinian resident of Syria, rests in a field hospital after being treated for three gunshot wounds. “As soon as my head was hit, I thought, I’m dead,” he said.
Mahmoud, a 21-year-old Palestinian resident of Syria, rests in a field hospital after being treated for three gunshot wounds. “As soon as my head was hit, I thought, I’m dead,” he said.

ANADAN, Syria // The guards pulled the young man from his cell before dawn, bound his hands, blindfolded him and drove him to a patch of waste ground in Aleppo.

They sat him in a row with 10 other captives, then cocked their guns and opened fire.

"They sprayed us," recalled Mahmoud, 21, lone survivor of the latest mass killing in Syria's civil war. "The first bullet hit my chest, then one hit my foot, then my head. As soon as my head was hit, I thought, 'I'm dead'.'

Reports of such killings have surfaced frequently during the 17 months of deadly violence that activists seeking to topple Bashar Al Assad say has killed more than 19,000 people.

But details are usually scarce - no more than activist reports or amateur videos of bloodied bodies or mass graves posted on YouTube.

Mahmoud related his grisly ordeal hours after it happened. Struggling to speak, he lay in a bed in a makeshift rebel-run field hospital set up in a wedding hall in this town 20 kilometres north of Aleppo.

Bandages covered his foot, head and chest. Plastic vines and coloured lights adorned the walls of the darkened building, and two red velvet chairs once used by brides and grooms sat on a small stage.

Mahmoud gave only his first name to protect his family, who still live in the area.

His story of the summary execution of 10 men, at least some of whom had only loose links to the armed rebels seeking to topple the regime, tallies with activist claims of the increasingly brutal tactics regime forces are using to try to crush the rebellion that has spread to Syria's largest city.

In the past two weeks, rebels have been pushing into Aleppo's neighbourhoods, clashing with security forces and torching police stations in an effort to "liberate" the city.

Syrian media has said the army is gearing up for a "decisive battle", while anti-regime activists have reported swelling numbers of troops and tanks on the city's edges.

It was amid these tensions that Mahmoud, a Palestinian resident of Aleppo, had his fateful brush with Syrian security.

On Thursday, he and a friend went to collect their wages from the thread factory where they work and heard clashes nearby. Soon after, eight men in civilian clothes stopped them and asked for their IDs and mobile phones.

On Mahmoud's phone they found videos of anti-government demonstrations and messages he had sent to rebels from the Free Syrian Army, asking God to protect them and make them victorious.

The men threw Mahmoud and his friend in the boot of a car and drove them to a rubbish dump, where they were blindfolded, bound and beaten with sticks and rocks before being taken to a security office.

Mahmoud was locked in a crowded cell with about a dozen other men. Each day, some were taken out and new ones brought in.

"We were there for four days and they only gave us water to drink once. They never fed us," he said. "They never asked us anything. Every day it was beating, beating, beating."

Before dawn on Monday, guards pulled Mahmoud and 10 others from their cells and told them they were going to see a judge. They were bound at the wrists, blindfolded and driven to Aleppo's Khaldiyah neighbourhood, where they were lined up on rocky soil.

"They sat us all down next to each other: 'You here, you here, you here'," said Mahmoud. "Then each one cocked his weapon and the shooting started."

Mahmoud was shot three times. Bullets pierced his chest and foot and one grazed his skull. Minutes later, silence returned, and he realised he was still alive.

"I breathed. I said the shahada," he said. "I tried to get up, then started screaming because blood was coming out of me."

He scraped his face on a rock to remove the blindfold and crawled to where some nearby residents found him.

Among them was a 22-year-old electrician who had heard the gunfire and worried that people were being killed; he had discovered six bodies in the same spot a day earlier.

He showed videos of the victims on his mobile phone, their bodies piled on top of each other, covered in blood, some with large bruises that appeared to be from beatings. He said all had been shot dead.

The killings shocked residents of Khaldiyah, a working-class neighbourhood on Aleppo's north-west side where there had been little violence until now.

While many residents support the rebels, they have not established a foothold in the area, and the relative quiet has drawn thousands of people fleeing violence in other neighbourhoods or villages.

As Mahmoud spoke, a white pickup pulled up outside the field hospital with the bodies of nine of the men killed on Monday. The body of the tenth victim had been taken away by his family.

All still had their hands bound and two still wore blindfolds. Two had bullet wounds to their heads, and others had blood on their faces and chests or coming out of their ears. None wore shoes.

Those killings convinced one Khaldiyah resident who helped to collect the bodies that the neighbourhood needs arms.

"We want the Free Army to come to our neighbourhood to protect us," he said. "If they can't come, then they need to give us weapons so we can defend ourselves."

The field hospital's doctor, Mohammed Ajaj, is no longer shocked when the dead and wounded pass through town on their way for burial or treatment across the northern border in Turkey. "We've got used to it," he said.

An 18-year-old activist who helped collect the bodies said none of them had IDs. "We really know nothing about them," he said, adding that he would stop in neighbouring villages to see if anyone recognises them before delivering them to a morgue further north.

"If nobody claims them, we'll take their photos and put them on our Facebook page so their families can find out that they're dead," he said.

Published: August 8, 2012 04:00 AM

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