Syria’s River of Death
Ole Solvang on the bodies found in Aleppo’s river.
Syrian men don’t usually cry. But for Yasser, the memory of his son, Mohammed, hurt too much. Sitting in the dark inside his shop on a bustling market street in Aleppo, the 63-year-old, hunched over in his chair, kept asking me: “Why did he deserve to die that way?” Yasser’s grief over his son who was apparently executed is shared by far too many Syrians caught up in this grisly war.
A clothes seller on one of Aleppo’s market streets, Mohammed had never been involved with the armed opposition, his father told me. He had not even participated in demonstrations. Still, the fight between government and opposition forces in the city made his work more difficult—and dangerous.
Since August of last year, government and opposition forces have been at a stalemate in Aleppo, each side maintaining control over roughly half of the city and clashing along the frontline. Mohammed’s problem was that the frontline ran between the two places where he was buying and selling the clothes for his shop. So one morning in early March, Mohammed set out toward government-controlled territory, through checkpoints and the no-man’s land separating the two fighting forces, to buy merchandise. Many people cross the frontlines this way during daytime, and Mohammed had done so many times before as well. But this time he did not return. “When he was not back by 2 p.m., as he usually was, I started to get worried,” his father told me. He searched for him, unsuccessfully.
The next day, local activists found Mohammed’s body in the Queiq River, which divides Aleppo and the frontline, flowing from government-held to opposition-controlled territory. Mohammed’s hands were tied behind his back, his mouth was sealed with tape, and a gunshot to his head had completely disfigured his face, his father said.
Between late January and mid-March, the Queiq River turned up bodies like Mohammed’s on a daily basis. Locals say they have buried almost 250 bodies retrieved from the river since January 29; I confirmed 147 by counting bodies in photographs and in video footage. Some of the victims were children, one as young as 11. Some were elderly. But most were like Mohammed, between 20 and 40. Some 60 bodies have been identified, but the majority has been buried nameless. Virtually all of victims bore the same execution signs as Mohammed.
We don’t know yet the identity of the perpetrators, but somebody in the government-controlled area has been executing people on a large scale and dumping the bodies in the river to be found further downstream. The prevailing theory among those who remain in Aleppo is it is a message that they should not support the opposition.
The bodies in the Queiq River are not the only cases of extrajudicial execution in Syria’s two-year long conflict. A network of local opposition activists has registered the names of nearly 7,000 people executed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. While Human Rights Watch can’t confirm this number, research shows that executions have frequently accompanied government military operations.
For example, after government forces attacked a number of towns in Idlib in April 2012, we documented the execution of 35 people. One witness who survived told us that armed men in uniform driving a military vehicle had detained him and three neighbors. The uniformed men took the four of them to a house, lined them up against a wall and shot them, he said.
Opposition groups have also carried out executions. While we were in Aleppo, opposition fighters executed four men whom they suspected of belonging to a pro-government militia, according to videos and interviews with opposition leaders. They executed a fifth man close to where we were staying, claiming that the five men had been members of a pro-government militia. Videos apparently showing executions by opposition forces keep appearing on YouTube.
In March, Aleppo’s opposition authorities reduced the level of the water in the Queiq River so it could no longer carry bodies downstream. As a result, locals have been spared from fishing out dead bodies from the river. Nobody knows whether the executions continue, but many people are still missing and people keep disappearing.
For Yasser, the killing of his son remains a mystery. “He was friendly to everybody,” he told me. “He didn’t even smoke. Why did he deserve to die this way?”