Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s senior adviser on crisis response and has reported from numerous conflict zones on human rights violations since 1991. She has traveled inside Syria several times over the past two months.
In village after village in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Syria, northwest of the central city of Hama, the scene was the same: burned-down houses and grieving families who described atrocities by Syrian soldiers — relatives of all ages dragged away and shot, their bodies often set on fire, making them literally part of the military’s “scorched earth” policy.
I spoke to people who are terrified of leaving their homes.
Syrian army positions dot the hills around villages in this region, and the main roads are accessible only through army checkpoints. Even in areas ostensibly under the control of the armed opposition, residents are frightened. They know that the army could repeat the kind of large-scale attack it launched in Homs and Daraa in recent months.
Everyone asks: Why has the world abandoned us?
More than a year after the Syrian uprising started, world leaders have failed to agree on an effective course of action to bring tangible relief and protection to Syrian civilians who continue to be mercilessly targeted by government forces for having dared to call for the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his repressive regime. Hundreds of nonviolent, pro-reform protesters have been fatally shot; thousands have been injured, arrested and tortured.
Amnesty International has counted more than 9,400 people killed in Syria since government forces first shot protesters in March 2011. More than 1,300 people have been killed just since a United Nations observer mission started April 14.
The observer mission, organized as part of the six-point plan of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, has a major shortcoming: the absence of a mandate to monitor and investigate human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Given the Syrian government’s refusal to provide international human rights and humanitarian organizations — including the U.N. inquiry commission set up late last year — with unfettered access to the country, the need for the United Nations to monitor and probe abuses is all the more pressing.
The deaths of 108 people in Houla last weekend from a military barrage of shells, mortars and rockets, as well as raids on residential areas, make it clear that the U.N. observer mission must investigate allegations of abuse by both sides.
U.N. observers could pass vital information to investigators, including those with the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Because there has been no international consensus yet on action, those perpetrating violence and destruction in Syria are comfortable that they can continue to behave as though they are above the law. This inaction fuels resentment among a population that feels abandoned. While the people I interviewed are frightened, they also desperately want the world to know what is happening to them.
In a village east of Ehsem — also northwest of Hama — a woman told me how soldiers shot her neighbor, a father of eight who was in his late 50s, and then set him on fire.
“The soldiers dragged him to a small, one-room, old stone house in the orchard, and then I heard shots,” she said. “After the soldiers left, thick smoke was coming from the house. I went with my relatives to put out the fire, thinking the soldiers had taken our neighbor away. The smoke was so thick that we could not see anything, but when we shined a torch we found our neighbor burning next to the barrel of diesel, which was inside the room.”
The same day, soldiers executed six other villagers, including a 72-year-old and his son. At a house under construction on the outskirts of the village where their bodies were found, I counted 16 bullet holes in the wall.
I was told about many more atrocities. In Mashamshan, a shell struck the home of the Yousef family on May 1, killing seven members and injuring several others. In Qoqfeen, a 5-year-old girl, Maryam Qaddi, was killed May 12 when a hail of bullets from army forces positioned across a valley hit her home. The attack injured her 10-year-old cousin and her 70-year-old aunt. Then there are the stories of torture told by those who have been detained. Those who escape have come away with broken bones, missing teeth, deep scars and open wounds from electric shocks and beatings. Detention and torture is the fate of anyone suspected of supporting the opposition in even the smallest way. Many victims used to be supportive of the government or were not politically active. Most are young.
Fearful of being detained or killed, most men stay away from army checkpoints. Such pervasive fear seems well-founded, judging by the increase in executions in recent months.
The world must send a clear message to Syria that these atrocities can’t go on. A monitoring mandate for the U.N. observer mission is a crucial first step to holding accountable those responsible for crimes against humanity.