(New York) – Syrian security forces are committing serious abuses in their military campaign on al-Qusayr, a city of approximately 40,000 in Homs governorate near the Lebanese border. Witnesses describe heavy shelling of residential neighborhoods, snipers shooting residents on the streets, and attacks on fleeing residents. Humanitarian conditions are dire, including food and water shortages, communications blackouts, and virtually non-existent medical assistance.
Eighteen witnesses from al-Qusayr, including an international journalist who stayed there from March 8 to 15, 2012, described shelling by the security forces, attacks on fleeing residents, and sniper fire at residents. Their accounts reflect similar tactics used by government forces in Idlib and Homs previously documented by Human Rights Watch, suggesting a coordinated policy of abuse.
“Following their bloody siege of Homs, the Assad forces are applying their same brutal methods in al-Qusayr,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Having seen the devastation inflicted on Homs, the Russian government should stop arms sales to the Syrian government or risk becoming further implicated in human rights violations.”
A number of al-Qusayr residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who have not been identified by their real names for fear of retribution, indicated that attacks by Syrian security forces – including attacks on protesters, destruction of property, home raids, and sniper attacks – have been going on for several months, but that the army began heavy shelling of residential areas between one and three months ago. Some reports indicate that following the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) withdrawal from Baba Amr on March 1, fighters retreating from Homs moved on to al-Qusayr. An al-Qusayr resident told Human Rights Watch that the FSA has been in the town since February.
Shelling of Civilians
Since at least the end of February, witnesses, many of whom were injured in the attacks, said the army has been launching dozens of 81-mm and 121-mm shells into the town on a daily basis. The witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that food and water are scarce, communications have been cut, and medical assistance is virtually non-existent, contributing to the rising death toll as doctors are unable to treat the wounded.
Mattieu Mabin, a correspondent for France 24 who was in al-Qusayr from March 8 to 15, said that the shelling normally took place around 6 a.m, 2 p.m., and then in the evening, and that each time the army launched 20 to 25 shells. Mabin, who previously had served in the army for 12 years, said that the army was using 81-mm mortars, permanently stationed in the center of town, as well as 120-mm moving artillery units around the city. This account was corroborated by several al-Qusayr residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Mabin described two attacks on March 13 that resulted in casualties among small groups of residents who had been working in a 10-acre field. One man died on the spot and another later in a field hospital, and at least six other people, including a 12-year-old boy, were wounded.
Mabin believed that the attacks were targeted, rather than random. He said the civilians could not have been mistaken for members of the armed opposition – specifically FSA fighters – given that they had no weapons, and women and children were present.
Two witnesses who escaped to a neighboring country described to Human Rights Watch artillery attacks while al-Qusayr residents gathered for a protest after Friday prayer on February 24. Both of them had been injured in the attack. “Ahmed,” injured by shrapnel in his eye, described the attack:
It was a peaceful protest with about 200 participants, after the Friday prayer. There were no security or army present, but 30 minutes into the protest we heard the sound of rockets and then an explosion. The rockets hit a building near the protest, and people started running in all directions while the shelling continued. Three people died and five were injured, including me.
“Bassim” corroborated this account, saying he was injured when a mortar shell hit a wall people were hiding behind.
Another witness, “Karim,” said that he counted seven mortars launched into his neighborhood on February 24:
After the sixth mortar, I went down to check on my brother’s family living next to our house. When I opened the door, I saw two of our Christian neighbors hit by shrapnel. One of them was hit in his leg and the other one was hit in his hand and thigh. I yelled for my uncle to get the car to take them to the field hospital. I put the first neighbor in the car and I was trying to get the second one when another shell hit the building next to us on the other side of the street. The shrapnel injured both of my legs. A doctor later told me that in one of my legs two nerves were damaged, but he didn’t seem optimistic that I would be able to walk again. I was later told that one of my Christian neighbors died and I don’t know what happened to the second one.
“Daoud,” who lives in a southern neighborhood of al-Qusayr, described to Human Rights Watch an attack on March 18 that killed two people, including a child, and wounded his two daughters:
My daughters – one is 4, one is 3 – were playing in the street outside the house with the neighbor’s boy. My friend was also visiting. He was sitting outside with us. I went into the house to put a pot on for coffee when I heard the sound of a mortar passing and then an explosion. A mortar landed in the street where they were playing. My friend who was in the street with them, he was 28, died instantly. I found him 3 meters away from where he was sitting when I went into the house. A piece of shrapnel hit his head and decapitated him.
The son of my neighbor who was with them also died. He was 7. He was lying by a wall 2 meters away from the house.… My two girls were still alive. I saw my 4-year-old’s arm was moving in an unnatural way. I started yelling “help…help.” I put them in a taxi and took them to the field hospital. In the field hospital there were a lot of wounded people. They put a cast on the leg of my 3 year old and said that the nerves in my 4 year old’s arm had been severed… For the past three months, every day I hear more than 50 missiles launched.
Mabin said that the army could not reasonably target the FSA in al-Qusayr because the fighters were always moving in small groups and did not have identifiable positions in the town. However, the army seemed to be launching attacks into residential neighborhoods or targeting groups of civilians every time the FSA tried to move around the city, which, his FSA contacts told him, seemed to be “an effective way” to limit their movements. He said that about 200 FSA fighters were in the part of town where he stayed and that they were armed mostly with Kalashnikovs, and a few rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns.
In addition to shelling, witnesses described attacks by snipers positioned on the roofs of the municipal building and other buildings. Human Rights Watch interviewed six people who described sniper attacks from February and March, including one child who was wounded by sniper fire.
“Shireen,” told Human Rights Watch that at the end of February her 12-year-old daughter “Tamara” was shot in the leg by a sniper. Tamara, who spoke to Human Rights Watch while she was in the hospital awaiting surgery, could no longer move or feel her leg below where the bullet entered. Doctors told Shireen that the bullet damaged the nerves in Tamara’s leg. Shireen said:
I live in a northern neighborhood in al-Qusayr called Qobliyeit. It’s the neighborhood where there is the National Hospital. I was running away from our neighborhood because there is a lot of shelling. We decided to go to my brother-in-law’s house but we had to pass by the municipal building where the snipers are. To avoid them we had to cross behind the mosque so that they wouldn’t see us. I was crossing with my five girls and my nephew. I was waiting for them to cross first.
They were passing behind the mosque to the other side of the street, but my daughter, Tamara who was carrying her 7-month-old cousin made a mistake when crossing and took the wrong corner, passing in front of the mosque giving the sniper on the municipal building a clear view of her. The next thing I heard was a gunshot and Tamara was yelling. Men in the neighboring buildings ran toward her. They were revolutionaries (thuwar). Some were wearing military uniforms others were in civilian clothes. Some of them carried her and put her in a car while others were shooting at the municipal building to protect her and the others rescuing her.
Tamara told Human Rights Watch:
I lost my way and suddenly found myself in front of the municipal building…I panicked when I saw it and my cousins at the other side and my sisters started whispering, “Walk quickly, walk quickly”… Suddenly, I heard a gunshot and felt something very hot in my leg. After a few seconds I felt weak and sat down on the street and put my cousin on the ground while I was screaming, “I was shot come and take me” … When I fell on the ground I saw a pile of sandbags and a gun pointing toward me from a small hole on top of the municipal building…I didn’t see the sniper but I saw the gun.
Another witness, “Farid,” described being hit by the sniper when he went to al-Qusayr on March 3 to visit his family:
I work in Lebanon, but go to al-Qusayr every weekend to visit my family. I crossed the border legally, and went on a motorcycle into the town. As I was passing by the municipality, I was hit by bullets in my shoulder and chest. I soon lost control of the motorcycle, and fell on the ground. A car stopped by, and immediately took me to a field hospital, but they couldn’t do anything. The FSA soldiers transferred me back to Lebanon.
“Hanan,” who left al-Qusayr in the end of February, said she witnessed at least three episodes involving four civilians, including three children, in which residents were targeted by snipers. A boy who “seemed younger than 12,” she said, was hit in the neck as he was approaching a bakery.
Mabin said that snipers presented the greatest danger inside the town. He said he attended a funeral of 45-year-old man killed by a sniper.
“Yousra,” told Human Rights Watch from a hospital in a neighboring country how she and her family members came under attack while fleeing al-Qusayr on March 14:
The car that was taking us from al-Qusayr was a small pick-up truck with an open back. The uncovered part was covered with a dark piece of cloth so we couldn’t see what was happening outside… We felt the truck arrive at a checkpoint and we stopped, the security forces saw us and then they let us pass. This was the Zira`at checkpoint. There was a second checkpoint about 15 minutes away in Jussie.
They started shooting at us from the second checkpoint but the driver kept going so we could get away. My daughter “Nour” and our relative were both shot. The bullet hit the back of my daughter’s head. I took a piece of cloth and pressed on the wound so the bleeding would stop. The doctor here said she is stable now.
Another one of Nour’s family members who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that the bullet that entered Nour’s head first past through her relative’s head. He said that the relative, also a child, did not survive. Nour’s head was very visibly swollen and her head heavily bandaged when Human Rights Watch saw her in the hospital on March 19.
Lack of Medical Care
A nurse from al-Qusayr told Human Rights Watch that the hospital in Qusayr where she used to work closed six months ago and was taken over by the military. Other witnesses corroborated this testimony.
Mabin said that he was shocked to see the field hospital where the victims of the March 13 shelling were brought for treatment. He said:
I have never seen such a dire situation in terms of medical assistance in any other conflict I’ve covered – not in Libya, not in Afghanistan. The “hospital” was just a tent under a tree, about 6 square meters, with one doctor and a medical student. They had nothing – no morphine, no alcohol for disinfecting the wounds, let alone proper equipment; they were running out of bandages. Before leaving, I gave the doctor 10 doses of morphine that I normally carry to war zone assignments, and he accepted it as the most precious gift. But it would probably only last him for a few days. At that point, they could no longer arrange the transfer of the wounded to Lebanon, and knew they were likely to die.
On March 21, the United Nations Security Council unanimously requested that the Syrian government immediately “end the use of heavy weapons in population centers” and “ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting.” The Council also asked the Syrian government to “intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons” and “ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists.”
Human Rights Watch called on Russia and China to make clear that if President Bashar al-Assad does not immediately heed this call, they will support further Security Council measures. Human Rights Watch has urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government, targeted sanctions against Syrian leaders implicated in human rights violations, and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.
“With each passing day of international inaction, the situation in Syria gets worse,” Whitson said. “Each day Russia and China delay Security Council actions, Syrians are being killed.”