(New York) – The Syrian government is indiscriminately attacking the al-Waer neighborhood in Homs, the last neighborhood of the city still in the hands of rebels, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.
Government shelling on the area has intensified since the breakdown of talks between the warring parties in early October 2014. Since October 2013, the government has restricted the ability of al-Waer residents to leave the area and has limited, and at times completely blocked, deliveries of humanitarian assistance to the estimated 70,000-100,000 civilians still there. Most recently, on December 16, 2014, an attack left a reported 36 dead including at least 33 civilians.
“While attention has moved on from Homs, tens of thousands of civilians are suffering and others dying in al-Waer,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The Syrian government should not be allowed to use its unlawful siege tactics at such a high price for the civilian population.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed six residents of al-Waer, five of them currently in the neighborhood. Residents said that government attacks on the neighborhood intensified starting October 4, after negotiations broke down. The interviewees described the persistent shelling of residential areas, which they said had had no apparent military targets in the vicinity, from nearby government held territory.
On October 1, two bombs exploded outside an elementary school in Akrama, a predominately Alawite neighborhood in Homs, killing dozens, mostly children, media reports said. Akrama, identified by numerous rebel groups as a loyalist, pro-government neighborhood, has been subject to repeated car bombings. The army and pro-government forces have intensified their attacks on al-Waer since then.
The Violations Documentation Center, a local monitoring group, has identified 91 civilians and one combatant killed in al-Waer since October 2014. According to a member of the al-Waer Media Center, which is collecting information on fatalities in the neighborhood, the number of civilians killed in government attacks is much higher, with at least 150 civilians killed in al-Waer in October alone.
The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, visited Homs on November 10, and met with representatives from al-Waer.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call to the UN Security Council to take further action, since the Syrian government and rebel groups have not complied with Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, demanding that the parties to the conflict cease indiscriminate attacks and unlawful restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Security Council action could include referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and imposing an arms embargo on groups, including the government, committing systematic and widespread human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments allied with the Syrian government – including Russia and Iran, which media reports indicate played a key role in negotiating a local cease fire on May 2 for Old Homs – should use their influence with the Syrian government to cease the unlawful attacks and restrictions on al-Waer.
Al-Waer, a densely populated neighborhood on the outskirts of Homs, became the last rebel-controlled area in the city when rebels in Old Homs withdrew in May following a UN-brokered agreement there. Since 2011, the neighborhood had served as a refuge for many Homs families fleeing the fighting in other parts of Homs and more recently had received families and fighters that left Old Homs after the local deal there. Negotiations between the government and armed groups in al-Waer have been ongoing but broke down in early October 2014.
The government and pro-government militias have used improvised weapons including airdropped barrel bombs in the December 16 strikes and crudely manufactured rockets containing cylinders of explosives as warheads, called istuwanat in Arabic.
Describing the terror induced by these rockets, one resident, Maha (all names have been changed to protect witnesses), a Syrian from Homs who lived in al-Waer from June 2012 until July 2014, said: “Once a cylinder full of explosive is fired, if you see it you have 30 seconds to run away. It has a distinct, terrible sound... They can destroy a complete building.”
A video published on YouTube shows the remnants of one such improvised rocket that stuck al-Waer. Like factory-produced unguided artillery rockets, these weapons cannot be accurately or predictably targeted and are prone to being indiscriminate when used in populated areas. The improvised nature of these rockets degrades the performance and reliability of the weapons and exacerbates the potential of indiscriminate impact.
In describing the December 16 attacks, a member of the Media Center told Human Rights Watch that the neighborhood was shelled from around 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., during which the 36 people were killed in an estimated 18 aerial attacks using aircraft and helicopters. He said that barrel bombs were used in the neighborhood for the first time along with mortars, shilka – a four-barrel antiaircraft cannon mounted on an armored vehicle – and sniper fire targeting most areas of the neighborhood including main thoroughfares such as Fardous Street. In addition to those killed, many civilians were wounded.
Talal, a 27-year-old former school teacher who is running a field hospital in al-Waer, told Human Rights Watch that one of the first aerial attacks on December 16 hit a school that was in session, in the late morning, as children were getting ready to leave. He said the situation in al-Waer was calm before the strikes began.
Several videos published on YouTube showed the aftermath of the attack, including a completely destroyed building, the wounded, and some of those killed, including children. An image was also published of a mass grave where the dead were purportedly buried.
In addition to striking al-Waer indiscriminately, witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that government forces have been regularly restricting their access to food, oil and diesel for heating, and life saving assistance and have limited the ability of many residents to flee the neighborhood, with only students and government employees allowed out. In some cases, those attempting to leave have been harassed, beaten, arbitrarily detained, and disappeared. Since October 2013 only two humanitarian aid deliveries were brought into al-Waer, once on June 28 and again on November 11, 2014.
Under international humanitarian law, all parties to an armed conflict are obligated to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need. Starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited. All sides also need to take all feasible steps to evacuate the civilian population from the vicinity of military objects.
“As attacks on al-Waer intensify and restrictions tighten, what was once a refuge for residents, particularly Sunnis fleeing violence in other parts of Homs, has become a prison,” Houry said. “The people of al-Waer need more than the words of a UN resolution, they need to see the UN put it into action.”
The Al-Waer Occupation
Al-Waer consists of two areas – new Waer, with nine districts, called “Islands,” and old Waer, which includes Waer al-Qudat and the area around the Homs al-Kabeer Hospital. With the exception of the 9th Island, all Islands are under rebel control. According to the residents, rebel fighters in al-Waer are from at least 30 factions, including the Free Syrian Army, al-Ansar, Atba’ al-Rasul, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Manara Battalion, Ahrar al-Sham, Ibn al-Malek Brigade, al-Hoda Battalion, Jabhat al-Asliya wa al-Tanmiya’, and al-Hur Brigade.
Despite the concentration of rebel fighters on active fronts and in the 7th Island, the residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that government attacks stretched across al-Waer, into areas with no rebel fighters or other military targets in the vicinity. The areas attacked included those with high concentrations of civilians.
Ghassan, a 21-year-old former student from Khalidya living in al-Waer since 2012, told Human Rights Watch that the government is targeting al-Waer from all directions: from the orchards to the north, from the forest to the south, from the bakery checkpoint just behind Homs al-Kabeer Hospital to the east, and from Mazraa and the 9th Island to the west, which is under government control. A member of the Media Center in al-Waer confirmed the multi-directional assault, including daily shelling with istuwanat that appear to be launched from the military academy grounds to the northeast.
In addition to shelling attacks, residents also told Human Rights Watch that government or pro-government snipers, including those positioned in the Homs al-Kabeer Hospital area and the al-Gardenia Tower in the Old Homs neighborhood, have also targeted civilians including women and children.
All six residents told Human Rights Watch that rebel fighters in al-Waer are concentrated in the 7th Island, where the most intense clashes have taken place between government and rebel forces. They said there are also active fronts in the orchards to the north, the forest to the south, and near the Homs al-Kabeer Hospital to the east, with rebel fighters present. Residents said that rebel groups also had offices across al-Waer and that fighters did not sleep on the active fronts, but rather in other parts of the neighborhood.
Residents said that Islands 1 through 6 are populated by civilians. According to the residents, areas in these Islands without any rebel offices or presence are also subjected to daily artillery attacks. In addition to strikes on these areas, the 4th and 6th Islands have also been subject to aerial attacks.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the shelling of al-Waer began in October 2013, when rebel fighters entered al-Waer from Bab Amr. At the same time, the government began to restrict movement in and out of the neighborhood.
Ghassan said that, after negotiations between the government and rebel groups broke down on Eid al-Adha, October 4, 2014, “the government’s bombing of al-Waer increased, including in Islands 5, 6, and 8... After Eid al-Adha, there were three days of daily intensive shelling.” He told Human Rights Watch that his father was injured by shrapnel after a mortar strike around this time: “The mortar was fired from the 9th Island, or Mazraa [where the government forces are]. Luckily it was a superficial injury on his face, and we did not have to take him to the hospital.” Several videos published on YouTube purport to show the aftermath of a strike on an apartment building in al-Waer on October 4 after morning prayers, allegedly from a warplane.
Talal, a 27-year-old former school teacher from al-Waer, also told Human Rights Watch that during Eid al-Adha, just after the morning prayer, civilians going to the cemetery in Island 1 were also struck by surface-to-surface rockets.
Sleiman, a paramedic, told Human Rights Watch that a rocket hit an apartment tower in the 4th Island in early November. Sleiman, who went to the scene of the attack to evacuate wounded, said 11 people were killed, mostly women and children, but also some fighters. The impact threw one child, Soha, 8, out of the building.
Shelling in al-Waer ceased during a temporary ceasefire between government and rebel forces that began on November 11, but resumed days later, albeit with less intensity.
On December 16, however, the member of the Media Center in al-Waer who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the intensity of the shelling on the neighborhood increased drastically. These attacks resulted in 36 fatalities, including at least 33 civilians. He said the fighters killed on December 16 were working as first responders to evacuate the wounded.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government forces have been regularly restricting their access to life-saving assistance and have limited the ability of many residents to flee the neighborhood.
Three residents told Human Rights Watch that the government began significantly restricting access points to and from the neighborhood in October 2013 after rebel fighters entered the neighborhood and fighting began in the 7th Island.
The main access road that remained opened was the bakery checkpoint, but government forces severely restricted movement even out of this checkpoint. All of the witnesses said that movement for Waer residents in and out of the neighborhood became limited to state employees and students.
Three witnesses described how even these residents were subject to harassment, physical abuse, and arbitrary detention when trying to enter or leave the neighborhood.
Talal, who used to leave and enter al-Waer daily to teach outside of the neighborhood, said he was arbitrarily detained in May 2014 when returning to al-Waer from work.
Every working day I was taking the bus. I am younger than the other employees so this made them suspicious of me, and every day they used to check my ID [to see if I was wanted]. Sometimes this process would take three hours. In May, when we were coming back to al-Waer, Abou Haidar from Military Intelligence entered the bus and asked me to go with him. He then told the bus to continue to al-Waer... I was taken to his office at the checkpoint... I got really scared. Abou Haidar took all my stuff, my wallet, and phone. My mother was calling me because she got scared when I did not come back with the others. Abou Haidar threw my phone on the floor. He handcuffed me, blindfolded me, and hit me with a stick. He put me on my knees, and kept me there for three to four hours.
Talal told Human Rights Watch that he was then taken to a Military Intelligence facility where he was insulted, stripped, beaten, and held in an overcrowded cell for two days, then taken to be interrogated. During his interrogation he was tortured, including with electricity. He was released, but he later learned that it was only after his father had paid a bribe of 1.5 million Syrian pounds (approximately $8,500 USD).
Talal also told Human Rights Watch about a man he saw detained at a checkpoint during one of his trips in and out of al-Waer. The man was stopped because he had a picture of Bashar al-Assad in his pocket with his ID, which Talal thought the man carried in an effort to reduce his chances of arrest at the checkpoint:
When the Military Intelligence member saw the picture, he started laughing and told him: “Liar, you think because you have a picture of Assad, it will protect you.” They covered his head with his shirt to blindfold him, handcuffed him, and took him. Since then he has disappeared.
Three residents also said that employees and students were physically and verbally abused at the checkpoints, including if they tried to bring in banned goods or more quantities of goods than were allowed. One resident, Sleiman, said that he was still a student when he moved to al-Waer from Bab Amr in 2012, but that he stopped going to school because of the verbal harassment he was subjected to at the checkpoints.
In addition to restrictions on residents trying to leave al-Waer, the Syrian government is heavily restricting goods that can be brought into the neighborhood. All of the residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch described restrictions on the type and amount of food they could bring into the neighborhood.
Several residents told Human Rights Watch that people with government IDs, students and government employees, were allowed to bring in small quantities of food, but that there were restrictions, which varied from time to time. One of these residents, Maha, said:
[The checkpoints] allowed [each family] to bring in one kilo of each kind of food. You have to choose it is either meat or chicken. On some days, there would be random restrictions, and they would just say ‘today no sugar’, or ‘today no tomatoes’...
She and other residents also described blanket bans on other goods, including cigarettes, chlorine, salt, and sugar. Four residents also told Human Rights Watch that there were restrictions on preserved food and dry goods since June 2014, including rice, bulgur, lentils, canned food, and milk for children. Gas and diesel are also forbidden, the residents said, raising concerns about heating oil for the winter. Talal said that other items, like diapers, were also restricted:
Three days ago one of my friends in al-Waer asked from me to help him get diapers for his baby. I asked one of my friends who is still working at a University. At the checkpoint they asked him for a family booklet, since he did not have a baby they threw out the diapers.
The residents also described intermittent electricity and water supply and restricted access to medication and medical assistance. Four residents said the only hospital accessible to al-Waer residents in the neighborhood is the Al-Waleed hospital, which is underequipped. This hospital was struck by a government attack on November 18, 2013. The Violations Documentation Center investigated the strike on the hospital and identified 12 people killed in the strike, including eight nurses, a woman, and her child.
The al-Burr hospital, which is under government control, in the Kudat neighbourhood in Old Waer, can receive patients but the injured have to pass through government checkpoints and receive authorization from the checkpoint before being sent for treatment. Sleiman, the paramedic, and Ghassan explained that some medications are allowed in via the Syrian Arab Red Crescent for chronic diseases, but medical supplies for treating wounds or operating are not allowed.
The member of the Homs Media Center who spoke to Human Rights Watch explained that after October 2013 only two humanitarian aid deliveries were brought into al-Waer, once on June 28 and again on November 11, 2014. Ghassan said that the November 11 delivery included hygiene kits and food, but no medical supplies.