Eid al-Fitr used to bring joy and merriness to the people of the Syrian city of Daraya; however, since 19 August 2012, the holiday has been haunted by a painful memory which makes celebrations difficult. In 2012, beginning the second day of Eid al-Fitr, Syrian government forces surrounded and began bombarding the city. The attack, first by air and then by land, culminated in the brutal massacre of over 700 of Daraya’s people, mostly civilians, at the hands of Syrian government forces and security services.
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reached out to the massacre’s survivors to compile this report, published on the ninth anniversary of the massacre, recounting what happened in Daraya in 2012 to commemorate the victims of the mass killing.
Daraya city is located near the capital Damascus and the Mezzeh Military Airport—a Syrian Air Force military air base. However, it was not the city’s geographical location that turned the city into the icon it is today. The city gained its symbolic value at the beginning of the Syrian uprising when Daraya’s residents organized mass, peaceful protests. Daraya’s male and female activists were determined to channel their voices through nonviolent means and organized protests in 2011 like “Water and Roses”, where the activists approached government forces with bottles of water tied to roses and notes as tokens of the bonds between the Syrian people and the army. The rest of the country, and the world, watched as government forces responded with bullets and arrests.
Following the protests, in 2012, Daraya city became an epicenter for peaceful, civil, and social action after government forces retreated from its neighborhoods.
The city’s new reality did not last long.
On 20 August 2012, the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the city’s landmarks, and its people’s memories, changed forever. Government forces laid a suffocating siege on the city. They cut off power and disrupted all communication networks, then bombarded the city with artillery systems and attack helicopters.
At the time, Daraya was home to dozens of young men who joined the then-Free Syrian Army (FSA), who fought under the then-banner of all armed opposition groups. Most of these local fighters were civilians who chose to arm themselves, in addition to several soldiers who defected from the Syrian regular army.
The local fighters failed to resist the extensive shelling at the beginning of the military campaign government forces launched against the city. Therefore, they withdrew to areas surrounding Daraya on its eastern side. Twelve of these local fighters died during the government forces’ invasion of the city; however, they were only the first of the casualties.
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) provided Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) with the names of 512 casualties of the 2012 massacre. The death toll includes the 12 fighters, as well as 39 women and 52 children. There were an additional 200 victims whose bodies were too burned and mutilated to be identified.
The Mass Killings on 24 August 2012
As the Syrian government began shelling the city of Daraya on 20 August, its residents hid in their basements. Locals knew the city would soon be invaded — government forces and security services’ personnel were circling the city. After four days of bombardment, on 24 August 2012, government forces entered the city from two fronts. They entered from the north, in the direction of the Mezzeh Military Airport, and from the northeast, in the direction of the Daraa International Highway.
Government forces advanced into the city with tanks and heavy vehicles. They cordoned off neighborhoods from one another. Then, within closed-off neighborhoods, government forces raided the homes and basements where Daraya’s civilians were hiding and began carrying out extrajudicial executions, sparing neither women nor children.
STJ spoke with an eyewitness and survivor of the Daraya massacre. In this report, he asked to use the pseudonym “Abu Muhammad” because he fears for his life as he lives in Idlib province. Abu Muhammad described to STJ the extrajudicial killings government forces carried out against Daraya’s civilians and the horrific events which took place in the city in 2012. He recounted:
“On 24 August, regime forces and militias stormed the city and began to carry out extrajudicial executions against people in each of the neighborhoods they entered, showing no one mercy, not even to children, women, or the elderly. That day, I tried to reach my grandparents’ house, in the city’s eastern part, but I could not access the area because tanks and snipers were deployed across the Kournish Street— at the city’s entrance from the northeastern side. The tanks and snipers targeted everything that moved. I hurried back home. My home was located in al-Thawra Street, in the city’s center. To my dismay, half of the house was destroyed in a mortar shell attack. None of my family members were hurt. I started collecting some of our valuable belongings from beneath the rubble, wondering: Where should I hide? What should I do? How am I supposed to protect my family?”
As government forces moved through Daraya, residents were unaware of the scale of violence and the number of executions being committed across the city. They had very limited access to news because communication networks were disrupted, and they were separated from each other within their neighborhoods. Abu Muhammad said:
“I never imagined the situation would spiral that far, reaching that extent of killings and executions. . .After my house was bombed, young men from the neighborhood assigned themselves tasks. Some monitored the progress of regime forces from roof tops. Others inspected basements, searching for places to hide children, women, and the elderly. At some point, we saw regime forces advancing towards the al-Thawra street. My friend was on that street, so I ran there to alert him. We could not use phones, because the government broke the connections. I arrived on the street, informed my friend, and we decided to head back to my home together. However, we were surprised to find that government forces had sealed off the entire neighborhood. We could not go inside. So, we decided to head towards the western part of the city, in the direction of the al-Moadamyeh, which is all farmlands. While we walked in that direction, we saw dozens of young men escaping towards the same area. I told my friend that we better go back and hide in one of the buildings under construction. My friend refused to accompany me, and we parted ways. He walked towards the farms, and I returned and hid in the loft of an unfinished building.”
A Bloody Night and A Painful Morning
At sunset, on 24 August 2012, the Syrian government redeployed the forces that carried out the raids into the neighborhoods to specific points within the city. One of the posts that forces took as a station was at the building adjacent to the building Abu Muhammad hid in. Abu Muhammad described what he saw and heard during the night as he took refuge:
“At sunset, regime forces arrived in the al-Wihdah neighborhood— near the train station— which was the area where I was hiding. These forces took position in the building next to mine. I was lucky because they did not search the buildings under construction. At night, the forces set up checkpoints across the area. I managed to watch them through the holes in the wall. The checkpoints arrested anyone who went out into the street. All night, I listened as the soldiers tortured the detainees at the checkpoints. I was paralyzed by fear and dared not move the whole night.”
“In the morning, regime forces left the area to continue raids in the remaining neighborhoods. It was then that I emerged from my hiding place and headed to the adjacent building, where the regime forces had spent the previous night . . . the scene before me was extremely painful. I saw 24 dead bodies, abandoned at the building’s entrance and in the basement. The bodies displayed the marks of excessive torture.”
Abu Muhammad narrated how he barely shook himself out of the horrors of that scene, only to witness another, equally heart wrenching. He recounted:
“I pulled myself together after the shock of the horrific scene before me. I headed towards my neighborhood to check on my family. Before I arrived at the place where they were hiding, a neighbor called me and told me to come and see… We went down into a basement that was full of bodies, all of them shot in the head. I couldn’t recognize any of them because their bodies were so badly mutilated. A couple of young men and I began removing the bodies so we could bury them in the city’s cemetery. When we reached the cemetery, a worker there told us to move the bodies to the Abu Sulaiman al-Diarani Mosque because there were so many bodies that they opened a mass grave. When we reached the mosque, we saw a sight that couldn’t be believed. There were hundreds of bodies piled on top of each other inside the mosque, waiting for the bulldozer to dig mass graves. Dead bodies were photographed before they were buried. The burials were hastily carried out. There were no gravestones, and many bodies were buried unidentified because we were afraid the government forces would return.”