How the Syrian government's use of snipers against its own citizens gives the lie to its talk of fighting terrorism.
- By Zaher SahloulZaher Sahloul is a practicing critical care specialist in Chicago and president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He has been on several medical missions to Syria and refugee camps in the past three years.
In the last day of my medical mission to Aleppo in October 2013, I was asked to examine a toddler who had arrived at our hospital after being shot in the head by a sniper one hour earlier. His name was Hamza Ramadan, and he was just three years old. His heart was beating, but he exhibited no other signs of life. I was told that snipers had targeted Hamza, his mother, and his sister as they tried to sprint through the passage separating the opposition-controlled east side of Aleppo to the regime-controlled west.
That two-block street has now come to be known as "The Corridor of Death" ("Maabar Almawet" in Arabic). Snipers perched on the roofs of three regime-controlled buildings at the end of the passage have turned the place into a killing ground. Hamza’s mother and sister were killed instantly. Their bodies were rushed to the hospital, along with Hamza’s, in the back of a car owned by bystanders. (Ambulances are a luxury in Aleppo. According to the World Health Organization, more than 75 percent of Syria’s ambulances have been damaged in the conflict.)
Since the start of the first demonstrations in 2011, the Syrian regime has tried to cast the whole opposition as extremists and terrorists. This has been an effective strategy, playing into the fears of al Qaeda and jihadists that are prevalent in the United States and Europe. The more recent influx of foreign jihadists into Syria has added some legitimacy to such claims. The Western media has fallen into the regime’s trap, portraying the conflict as a fight between the government and terrorists — and sometimes implicitly justifying the regime’s crimes against its own people. The reality, as I saw it, is far more malicious: The government of President Assad is waging war not only against an armed enemy, but also against its own population.
My medical mission to Aleppo was organized by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a group dedicated to helping the victims of the war. My aim was to serve the victims of war in that ancient city and world heritage site, now the epicenter of aerial bombing and shelling. No amount of disaster management or trauma care training could have possibly prepared me for the brutal reality of the hospital I visited. At the hospital, which was code-named "M-1" for security reasons, the vast majority of our patients were local residents injured by shrapnel from barrel bomb attacks or indiscriminate shelling from fights between rebels and regime troops. But many, like Hamza, were civilians targeted in the most direct and ruthless way possible: by snipers.
The use of snipers gives the lie to government propaganda. Snipers know exactly whom they’re shooting. When snipers look through their telescopic sights at someone’s head or chest, they know if the target is a child or a fighter. According to the Aleppo Civilian Medical Council, snipers in the "Corridor of Death" gun down five to 20 civilians every day. Most of the victims die instantly. Those who survive are likely to suffer lifelong disabilities: amputations, loss of an eye, or spinal cord injury and paralysis are just a few on a long list of possibilities. The Oxford Research Group reports that 11,420 children (aged 17 and under) were recorded killed in the Syrian conflict by end of August 2013, from an overall total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed. One in four of those child deaths were caused by small arms fire, including children targeted and summarily executed by snipers. Hamza was one of those unlucky children.
For many citizens of Aleppo, venturing to the other side of the city is not optional. Some have to take the risk on their daily commutes to and from work. Others have to venture to the farmer’s market on the eastern side to buy food and fuel. Still others make the perilous journey to visit their families stuck on the opposite side of the crossing.
Snipers play an important role in the modern battlefield, especially now that new technology, such as infrared vision and long-range guns, have made the task of remote killing much easier. During the Bosnian war, Serbian snipers, who favored the tall buildings overlooking the infamous Vrbanja Bridge, gunned down civilians trying to flee the city. In one infamous instance in May 1993, they shot and killed a young couple, now known as Sarajevo’s "Romeo and Juliet" (he was a Serb, she was a Muslim). Their bodies lay entwined for five days. The international media covered such incidents widely. But unlike their counterparts in Sarajevo, Syria’s snipers are acting with relatively little media attention. Aleppo is not as accessible to journalists as Sarajevo, and Syrian sniper victims attract little notice. Thus, Assad’s snipers operate with complete impunity, targeting women and children, and killing just to spread fear, hatred, and vengeance.
At the start of the conflict, snipers targeted civilians as part of the regime’s strategy to disrupt peaceful demonstrations, using mortal fear to discourage people from joining the nonviolent movement. The Syrian civil war began when the Syrian security forces, or mukhabarat, arrested and tortured 15 middle-schoolers in southern Syria in March 2011 in retaliation for anti-regime slogans the boys had painted on walls. When the people of Daraa took to the streets to demand the release of the young boys, the snipers were waiting for them. Government snipers stationed in a tall building nearby killed four protesters and injured dozens of others. Youtube videos documented the killings, some even capturing images of the snipers themselves. Snipers also were awaiting early demonstrators in other Syrian cities. In the first nine months of the crisis, hundreds of videos documented men, women, and children being shot during demonstrations, bleeding in rudimentary field hospitals, or dying in vain like this boy who was shot in Homs in October 2011, or this boy shot in Damascus. (Warning: Links lead to graphic videos.)
It was clear to the doctors who treated the victims that the strategy has since shifted: Snipers are no longer merely scaring the population with the threat of random bullets. They now intend to cause irreversible harm or death. Aleppine doctors have told me horrific stories depicting sadistic patterns in the snipers’ targets. The snipers have turned the killings into a sickening sport. Some of the shooters, probably bored by long hours of scouring for targets, play games, challenging themselves to hit two people with one bullet, or picking off stray cats and dogs.
David Nott, a British trauma surgeon who has previously worked in war zones in Bosnia, Libya, Chad, Sudan, and the Congo, spent five weeks at M-1, and told the London Times that snipers would chose to aim at different parts of civilians bodies each day. On the first day, they would aim for the groin; the next day, the neck; the next, the chest. "From the first patients that came in the morning, you could almost tell what you’d see for the rest of the day," Nott reported. "It was a game. We heard the snipers were winning packets of cigarettes for hitting the correct number of targets."
Nott remembers one day when two late-term pregnant women came into the hospital after being hit by snipers. The babies both died, one suffering a bullet to the brain. On another day, more than six pregnant women were caught by sniper fire. "The women were all shot through the uterus, so that must have been what [the snipers] were aiming for," Nott commented. "This was deliberate. It was hell beyond hell." Nott’s photo of the unborn baby with a bullet lodged in its head was widely-distributed. The baby and its mother were both pronounced dead at M-1.
Almost every doctor I met at the hospital told me another horrific story about a young mother who tried to make the crossing with her two children. When she hastened through the corridor, holding one child in each hand, a sniper targeted her 4-year-old son, killing him instantly. She started screaming in agony. Then a bullet hit her second son, a 3 year-old, and killed him, too. She sat down between the bodies of her sons, waiting for the sniper to shoot her… but the shot did not come. He spared her to live a life without her children, to be consumed by a gnawing emptiness — something snipers have done to countless Syrian mothers. When she finally arrived at M-1 with the dead bodies of her two sons, she was in the middle of a complete mental breakdown.
The snipers, and the regime that deploys them, have succeeded in transforming a peaceful movement for democratic revolution into a civil war, planting fear and deep psychological scars, displacing tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for safety, creating hatred among different ethnic and religious groups, fuelling sectarianism, and attracting extremism. Their bullets have not only killed my compatriots, but also my homeland. They have assassinated Syria.
The United Nations stopped counting the number of those killed in Syria after the total reached more than 100,000 victims. Syria is facing a humanitarian tragedy of unprecedented proportions. But Hamza, like the other 12,000 children who have been killed, is not a number. He was a child, full of life. Like any other child, he played, laughed, cried, and dreamed. He could have grown up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or even president — but a cold-hearted government sniper took that chance away from him. The Syrian regime’s ruthless and relentless slaughter of its own people is a despicable crime. It must be stopped.