Escalating Violence: Face to Face with Syria's Apocalypse

By Christoph Reuter

Part 2: 'Do You Know What They Did to Me?'

Earlier, Janbu has explained that they want to establish a justice system here, but concludes: "In the end, we can only release them or kill them." Around 100 prisoners in seven months have been released, he says.

"And killed?" we ask.

"Only a few."

"How many?"

"Very few."

"Are the prisoners beaten?"

"No. Well, just falaka" -- painful strikes against the soles of the feet with a stick.

"And electric shocks?" a Syrian who has also joined in this visit asks casually.

Janbu explodes. "No! We don't do things like that! We're not like them, we don't use torture!"

"But what is falaka, if not torture?"

He's quiet for a moment, then pulls himself together. "Do you know what they did to me? More than just falaka." Janbu was held by the air force's intelligence service for months, beaten and submitted to electric shocks, "until I couldn't control my piss anymore," he says. He owes his freedom to a captured Alawi colonel, whose release was granted in exchange for his own.

Ordered to Rape

A slim man is led into the room. He's 21 and from Hasaka in northeastern Syria. He says his name and then that he was present when the army attacked the cities of Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib last summer. He knows what happened there, and begins to tell his story.

It's impossible for a journalist to determine conclusively whether the man is telling the truth, or if he simply wants to save his own skin by offering a confession. Still, the information he gives suggests that what he describes is true. When asked, he proves to be familiar with tactical specifics of the attacks, and he can describe in detail the interior of the sugar factory in Idlib, which the army used as its torture center. Hundreds of people entered that building alive last year who have since disappeared.

No one interrupts as the man gives his statement, an hours-long account that goes into the smallest details. Ultimately, his story fits with testimony given by other witnesses.

"The colonel from the military intelligence service selected me and 14 others for the operation as a 'reward,' but it was an order," he says.

"And what did the operation turn out to be?"

"An order to rape women that they brought in. The first time it was three of them, and they'd already been drugged. The security men undressed them, and they raped them first. Then it was our turn, in two shifts, and the men from security watched. They said they would shoot us if we didn't do it."

How was he able to have sexual intercourse under such circumstances?

"The first time it was difficult, but after that it was easier." The women were young, he says, and chosen specifically because they hadn't been arrested together with other relatives who might have asked after them.

"And then?"

"They were taken away."

"Where were they taken?"

"Away."

'We Beat Them Until the End'

He says he took part in this 11 times. "At first they chose the women from the prisoners, then they took some with them from checkpoints."

"And the men?"

"Twenty of them at a time were brought into a room, and there were 150 of us with clubs. The colonel said anybody that there was a file on, he wanted to have alive. The others, we should beat until the end."

"And then?"

"Yes."

"What happened then?"

"We beat them until the end. Until they were dead."

A court will pass judgment on the man, his guards say. They cite religious law: "Man katal, yuktal," meaning, "whoever has killed will be killed." They don't understand why this should be considered any less humane than killing in combat.

Still, the matter isn't quite that simple. If it were, they would have shot this man long ago. But they too have felt the reactions the other side's violence provokes in them.

Body Parts on the Road

"We must not take killing lightly," Yassir says, then explains why a nearby village continues to tolerate a family whose three sons hired themselves out as mercenaries for the shabiha: "We hoped they would just stop."

That turned out to be a tragic mistake. One Thursday, the three brothers planned to take the minibus to Aleppo, where they would help crack down on the Friday demonstrations that continued to take place peacefully in the city. It's just one example of the madness of this war that the three mercenaries, traveling fully armed through the rebels' territory, wanted to save money by taking the bus.

An FSA sentry asked to see their identification. An argument broke out and two of the shabiha men drew pistols, but the Free Syrian Army was faster, and killed them.

The third man tried to throw a hand grenade into the minibus, which was halfway full of passengers, but a man standing next to him attempted to hold him back. The mercenary shoved the grenade down the open front of the man's shirt instead, pulled out the pin and jumped aside at the last moment, as the explosion tore apart the body of the man, an uninvolved bystander. It later took an entire bucket of sand to cover the bits of his body they didn't take away to bury.

Yet those who removed the body were in a hurry and overlooked so many pieces that another man picked up an empty Kleenex box and began to collect the rest, now scattered across the intersection: splinters of bone, viscera, a bit of brain that he carefully wiped up from the asphalt with a tissue. Someone else promised to bring the box, now full, to the cemetery. As they set off, an old man, who had also helped silently to search for the pieces, still stood there holding a piece of skull, not sure what to do with it.

Everyone else was in a hurry to leave, driving away as the sound of gunfire once again sounded somewhere in the distance, and the old man was left standing in the middle of the intersection, gazing silently after the others, a piece of skull held in his raised hand as if in greeting.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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