On the afternoon of August 25th, I was chatting to my friend Kareem, an activist residing in the Basateen Daraya area in a traditional Arabic house (single floor) with no basement or shelter.
I could almost hear his screams as he wrote: “A shell just fell! On our neighbors house! Ya Allah… Ya Allah”. Kareem went offline and I waited for three days to be able to speak to him again to get his testimony, amongst many testimonies, about the massacre which broke our hearts in the city of peace, Daraya.
Daraya was a star before the revolution and a star during. What the young men and women of the city had built took an immense effort and resulted in an exemplary model for the future of Syria, the one we dream of. The activism in the city never seized to amaze us for a minute. It was in Daraya where the peaceful protestors first carried roses and water to the soldiers of the Syrian army, who in return were devoted to killing them. Only in Daraya were Eid presents dispensed to the children of martyrs and the shabiha alike. In Daraya, the signs calling for coexistence continued to be held high even when the entire city fell into despair after every new massacre.
Kareem said: “as the shelling continued to intensify around us, I fled with others to a basement that belonged to relatives. The free Syrian army was fanned out heavily in the area we took shelter in, while the regime’s army was only 200 meters away from us. The day ended with intense fighting and violent shelling.
I knew then that the regime’s army had bombarded the area I was in, including our house, and that they were on their way to us. During that night regime snipers had been stationed everywhere, shooting anything that moved. Fleeing was impossible even if we had wanted to. Daraya was receiving one crazy shell after another, and I felt them explode in my heart, one after the other.
”Only in Dayara did women activists maintain a powerful, unique, ever glowing presence. In Dayara, signs were held up demanding justice not vengeance, fair trials not revenge. There, the most beautiful of Syrians were planning for after the fall, for beyond the revolution.
Kareem continued: “the next day many families fled the area as the sounds of violent shelling returned. The situation continued like that until the afternoon. Those who could packed up and left the area, some of them were hit in front of the building we were in during the process, until I was left completely alone amidst the shelling and snipers.
At that moment I decided to leave; I was dead either way, or so I thought. I got into my car amidst smoke and rubble and headed to Daraya’s city center where the area was relatively safe.
During my short trip, I saw three members of the free Syrian army in one of the neighborhoods trying to hide, and six others standing in a spot close to the city center. Shortly after, a shell hit the spot where all six were standing. A friend told me he had rushed to their aid, but that same shell had killed all of them.
The shelling was getting closer and closer to where I was, until it was about two buildings away. Pieces of shrapnel were flying and sparking like hot coal. I was entertaining myself by waiting for them to cool to collect them.
”Dayara the peaceful civilian rose, from before the revolution had fought against the infiltration of the regime’s men, long before it became a reality. Once this happened, it was one of the few places where those men couldn’t stop the city’s activism and peaceful civilian approach. Dayara’s cactus fields were carved out by the regime weeks ago, carving out with it the memories and hearts of its children.
Kareem: “When it was midday, a friend of mine who’s a member of the free Syrian army came to me. He was crying, he had let go of his weapon. He told me he couldn’t do it anymore. The shelling was unimaginable. Most of his friends were martyrs of the shelling, it was impossible to resist any longer.
I spent the night at a friend’s place in the same area. During the night the free Syrian army withdrew from the city and issued a statement declaring the same. The regime’s forces were surrounding the entire city, very few had entered the center.
The next morning, the regime’s forces had occupied one street in Daraya and spread their snipers there. I decided then to flee the city with a friend’s family as the finale seemed very eminent.
At 7:15am, a family we had agreed to flee with arrived. Their faces painted a colorless yellow. I asked one of them: is everything alright, what happened? He told me he had seen someone killed at the Terbeh area, another in his car, another on the floor. He said that anyone who approached that area was heavily shot at by the regime’s forces. He showed me the two bullets that had hit his car, one aimed at the back door, another near the fuel tank.
At that point we decided that it was more difficult to leave than to stay. The regime’s snipers were not allowing anyone to leave, shooting at anything that moved.
”When we were receiving the information at our media office about the victims of the shelling and the bodies that were scattered on the streets, we were stunned, in disbelief. If Ghiath Matar, Daraya’s son who had given roses to the regime’s army had been murdered in cold blood, perhaps the city that had stood as an icon and an example of the revolution was also about to be slaughtered.
“We went back from where we came”. Said Kareem. “After a while, a friend came by and told me that four people were publicly executed in the Terbeh area. Another came and said that the regime’s army was snatching men out of shelters and executing them on the stairs. He said to warn everyone to get out of the shelters.
Then, another friend arrived letting us know that Abu Sulieman mosque had just witnessed a massacre. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe any of it. Until the hour passed and the regime’s forces arrived at the next neighborhood, took five people out of the building’s shelter and executed them, then headed toward the nearby square and put on a pro-regime demonstration. The Syrian state television arrived and shot its footage. Then the demonstration’s sound was gone, and the intense sound of gunshot returned.
A friend came and told us that the Namoora family, the brother the wife the children, were executed. And that’s how we spent the next day, receiving news of executions spreading from one neighborhood to the next, not knowing when our turn would come.
At 7:00am the next day, a friend arrived and told me that we were to go to Abu Sulieman mosque. On the way the situation was tragic; entire houses leveled to the ground, cars run over by tanks with the drivers still inside, dismembered. 300 meters away from the mosque, the smell of death was everywhere. The mosque was filled with people, with bodies. We counted 123 dead bodies. There was a 12 year old girl. A 3 year old child. Three infants. All shot dead in the head. Infants don’t have skulls, just a soft outer shell of skin, disintegrated by the bullet, leaving the face unrecognizable.
At night the regime’s forces returned to our neighborhood, began destroying stores and stealing their contents. At that point we were still receiving news about 20 dead bodies here, 30 there…..
”24 hours after the massacre, still broken and stunned, I spoke with a young woman from Daraya. The woman said: “all that we had built during a year and seven months, they destroyed in a few short hours.
”More than 500 martyrs and unimaginably devastating destruction. No time to weep, as massacres move like evil spirits, from one city to the next. The woman speaks again and says: “we will not give into death, we will rise again. Hello, this is Syria.”