Daraya massacre: A ‘death’ scene stuck in memory

Covered corpses in a mass grave in the Syrian town of Daraya - August 2012 (Shaam News Network)

Covered corpses in a mass grave in the Syrian town of Daraya - August 2012 (Shaam News Network)


Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

“The massacre will never disappear from my memory,” a sentence said by two witnesses to the Daraya massacre, conveying images of fear and death stuck in the memory of thousands of the town’s residents and reflecting its profound impact on their souls and their inability to overcome it despite the passage of ten years since the massacre.

Daraya was known for the color of white roses that the people repeatedly carried during their demonstrations until the Syrian regime committed a massacre that lasted from August 20 to 25, 2012, turning the town into a memory of blood that stained the roads and homes.

The Daraya massacre took place weeks after the so-called Crisis Cell explosion on 18 July, when a blast at the headquarters of the regime’s National Security Bureau (NSB) in Damascus killed four top officials, including Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Gen Assef Shawkat, in light of a military escalation that Syria experienced at the time.

The people of Daraya experienced great fears that their city would be the subject of the Syrian regime’s revenge,” according to Huzaifa al-Sharbaji, a member of the medical team in Daraya, during the massacre at the time.

“Days before the massacre, the checkpoints stationed at the two main roundabouts in Daraya began to carry out provocative actions, which prompted a group of Daraya’s youth to storm the checkpoints, and reinforced the people’s fears of the regime’s response,” and consequently the story began.

Powerlessness prevails

The regime began its indiscriminate bombardment of the city half an hour after young men stormed Daraya’s checkpoints.

The bombing was accompanied by the influx of cars to transport the wounded, as their numbers exceeded the capacity of the field hospital that Huzaifa al-Sharbaji and his companions had prepared in advance in a school in Daraya in anticipation of this attack.

In front of the screams of women and children and dozens of wounded people lying on the ground, and in light of the weak capabilities and the inability of the staff to provide assistance to many, “helplessness was the only word that described the situation,” said al-Sharbaji, describing his feelings and the medical team’s feelings.

According to al-Sharbaji, the main question was, “If we take him (the wounded person) to the hospital, will he survive?” A question that the medical team was forced to think about before transferring critical cases of the wounded to the field hospital equipped for operations.

The paramedic explained that the capacity of the field operations hospital was not sufficient for the “huge” number of injured, which put him and the team in front of the responsibility of setting priorities even in providing treatment.

“At that time, many of the team’s youth decided to withdraw in front of the horror we were facing in the hospital,” al-Sharbaji said, adding that the only motive that made him continue his work was a pledge he made to help the families.

Before the tragedy

The barbaric bombing of the Syrian regime was only the starting point, followed by a storming of homes, and mass field executions, which resulted in the killing of about 700 people, including 522 people who are documented by name, according to the Documentation Team in Daraya.

With the intensification of the bombing that affected the school in which the field hospital was located, the medical team moved to a basement in the al-Mustafa Mosque and then also to a basement in one of the western neighborhoods after the Syrian regime forces approached the mosque, according to al-Sharbaji, who indicated that knowing the movements of the regime forces was limited to information transmitted by young people who volunteered to help the people, as a result of cutting off electricity and communications in the entire town.

With most residents losing hope of escape and growing fears of brutal reprisals, each family chose to meet in one house or basement.

While the family of journalist Kholoud Helmi managed to flee to a farm on the outskirts of Daraya, their vision of what was happening in the town was limited to what was reported by the Syrian regime’s media outlets.

“We were watching the Syrian regime’s media talking about fighting terrorism. We used to see images and footage of the houses and mosques that had been stormed, and the interviews in which Daraya residents were forced to confirm the regime’s official story, and our pain and helplessness increased,” what Helmi told Enab Baladi, which most families lived through in Daraya.

Meanwhile, al-Sharbaji and companions from the medical team were with two wounded people in the basement for hours. They were able to transport them and provide them with first aid.

While the regime forces continued to storm Daraya, reaching the western side, “the basement turned into a grave,” al-Sharbaji described the situation, forcing the owner of the house to turn off the lights in the basement and close its doors.

“The footsteps of their feet on the floor of the house above us were ringing in our ears. We were chanting verses from the Holy Quran while we heard the sounds of the pain of the wounded near us, and we only thought about the possibility of survival.”

Al-Sharbaji and the medical team were forced to repeatedly give sedatives to one of the wounded, fearing that he would raise his voice to reach the regime forces, but they could not save him.

Surviving the massacre was a rebirth

After the regime forces left the house, the owner of the house opened the basement door so that these moments would be a “rebirth” for al-Sharbaji and his friends.

“We headed towards the town center towards the Abu Suleiman Mosque to transport the martyr’s body, and entering the mosque was a real tragedy when we saw dozens of bodies thrown away, and we started hearing the story of the survivors of the massacre,” al-Sharbaji says.

“Whoever enters is missing, and whoever survives is among the newborns,” a local folk phrase that summed up al-Sharbaji’s description of the horrific scene after the massacre and his attempts to meet with his friends and the town’s survivors.

A similar scene was experienced by journalist Helmi upon her return to her home in the city center, as her memory of the massacre is centered on the horrific scenes she saw at the time.

“I could smell death in the streets and the houses; death was the only thing that controlled the city,” Helmi said.

She added, “I watched one survivor of 60 people who were all killed in one basement; his story was only part of hundreds of stories of random killings and house burnings.”

No escape from the burden of memory

“Daraya was crying blood, and nothing was seen in its streets except gloom and devastation,” that image that al-Sharbaji carried in his memory of his town after the massacre.

Al-Sharbaji’s memory is not different from Helmi’s one, which abbreviated Daraya’s image with the word “death,” she said as she recalled the smell, images, and details.

Nihilism was the feeling that overwhelmed us all at the time, as there is no purpose of doing anything.”

The same feeling justified the cessation of the demonstrations in Daraya and the suspension of publishing Enab Baladi newspaper, in which Kholoud Helmi is one of the founders, according to what she said, considering the extent of the “disaster” greater than the completion of journalistic work.

“The real problem was that I carried the burden of memory,” after the Enab Baladi team and I began working on documenting the stories of the massacre survivors through audio recordings and written reports, Helmi added.

She preserved that memory until the regime’s storming of Daraya again, two months after the massacre, forced her to get rid of the memory cards on which Helmi recorded the stories of the survivors of the massacre, but she kept them in her own memory.

According to an investigation published by the Syrian British Consortium (SBC) on 25 August, the pro-Iran elite force, the Fourth Division, participated in the military campaign.

The Syrian Republican Guard, Air Force Intelligence, and pro-regime thugs backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian militias also were involved in the assault.

The military campaign, which lasted for four continuous days, left more than 750 civilians, including entire families, massacred. Most of them were buried in mass graves on the southern side of Daraya.

Two months after the massacre, the town witnessed heavy shelling and a siege imposed by the regime forces for four years, which resulted in extensive destruction of its infrastructure, and ended with the displacement of hundreds of its people in August 2016.

The people of Daraya were allowed to return two years after their displacement, according to special security approvals, after the Syrian regime announced the removal of the rubble and the opening of the city’s roads.


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