Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Syrian Refugees Describe Army Violence
Activists rally against the Syrian regime in London, June 7. (Photo: Chris Brown/Flickr)
Syrians who fled to Turkey have spoken of security force abuses and gun battles between soldiers over orders to shoot at unarmed civilians in the north of Syria.
The refugees - who began streaming over the Turkish border last week following a crackdown by security forces in Jisr a-Shughour - were the first Syrians who could speak openly to the media since the uprisings began in the country three months ago.
Even so, many of them were afraid of talking openly and giving their real names, as they still have relatives in Syria and are fearful for them.
Thousands of residents of Jisr a-Shughour, some 20 kilometres from the border, arrived in Turkey after army troops moved in to try and take control of the town.
The authorities said 120 security personnel were killed there last week by organised armed groups, but locals said that the dead were in fact civilians and soldiers who had been shot dead for refusing orders to shoot on unarmed protesters
Jisr a-Shughour resident Moussa, who arrived in Turkey on June 11 with his wife and two children, also denied the official account of the events spread by Syrian state media.
"There were not any real demonstrations in Jisr a-Shughour before last week," he said. "It began when they came on Wednesday (June 8) to the market in town. A unit of the army and two busloads of Baath members with pictures of Bashar al-Assad arrived and tried to force people to join them in a procession supporting the president.
“When the people refused, an officer gave the order to fire but then some of the soldiers said that they refused to fire. Soldiers began to fire on soldiers and others fired back. That is how so many soldiers were killed. There were no armed groups as the government said, none of us had any arms."
Although the foreign media is prevented from entering Syria, and local reporters severely restricted, human rights groups inside the country estimate that some 1,300 civilians have been killed in the Syrian uprising. As many as 300 soldiers and policemen have also been reported killed.
The army, mainly the Fourth Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president's brother, returned in much larger force to Jisr a-Shughour on June 11. Abed, a student who arrived in Turkey on a motorbike that night after helping to tend the wounded in the town, said that "when the soldiers came again, there were members of the Shabiha (a pro-Assad civilian militia) with them, making sure that they carried out orders and shot at civilians.
“They came this time with thousands of soldiers and a convoy of 200 tanks. The tanks fired at buildings, also at mosques. They even fired on civilians who were escaping from the town."
The government's reprisals spread to other villages in the area. Mohammed, a farmer from the village of Silmaniya who also fled with his family, said that he done so before the security forces arrived.
"They came to our village on Saturday morning; we knew they were about to arrive and most of the villagers had already escaped before,” he said. “But a few families and old people were still there and we saw from the hills how they began shooting at people. They didn't just attack people, they also shot at our cows and sheep and, afterwards, they poured gasoline on our wheat fields and set them alight."
The events of the last week have spurred international effort to secure a United Nations resolution against Syria. European powers are leading attempts to agree a resolution condemning the actions of the regime, but are being opposeed by Syrian allies Russia and China.
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