Aleppo's river of death
March 11th, 2013
11:02 AM ET

Aleppo's river of death

By Donatella Rovera, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Donatella Rovera is Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser from Aleppo. The views expressed are her own.

Aleppo’s Kweik river, keeps washing up the bodies of men and boys who have been shot in the head at close range. Some have their hands tied behind their backs, some have marks suggesting torture.

Virtually every day this past week I have been getting early morning phone calls informing me of more bodies in the river – two on Sunday, four on Monday, seven on Tuesday, three on Wednesday…

All eventually float to the same spot in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, under the control of opposition forces but just a few hundred meters downstream from an area held by government troops.

It is too dangerous to try to recover the bodies at the point where they first appear – it’s too close to the government-controlled zone and right in the line of their sniper fire. Instead, local volunteers wait for the bodies to float another 300 meters or so downstream where they can be retrieved more safely.

On March 3, I arrived just as two corpses had been recovered from the river.  On the face of one, something had been written with a blue marker. I had to look closely because the writing was pale and partially erased by the water and mud – the body was floating face-down when it was found.

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On the forehead was written “al-Assad ” and on the left cheek “Surya;” the writing on the right check and the chin could not be deciphered. People thought the two illegible words might have been “u bas” – as in the pro-regime refrain: “al-Assad, Surya, u bas” ([President] al-Assad, Syria and that’s it).

This man was Ahmad Ali Salah Hamwi. The following day his 12-year-old son Hassan was found with three other bodies in the river. They, like most others, were buried as “unknown” – there is no mortuary in the area, and in any case no electricity for a mortuary fridge.

Ahmad and his son were eventually identified on March 5 by relatives who went to a small office where local volunteers keep photos of all the bodies found in the river.

Every time I visited the office I found relatives of missing people looking through the gruesome collection of photos of bodies on one of the volunteers’ laptop.  Since January 29, when 82 bodies were found, the river has delivered some 60 more corpses to the same spot. Some, but not all, have been identified.

Among those found on January 29 was a 15 year-old boy, ‘Abd al-Majid Reem Batsh, and his 38-year-old uncle Majid Nunu.

“’Abd al-Majid lived with his grandmother because his parents are working in Libya, “ one of their relatives told me. “On Sunday he went with his uncle Majid to go to register the birth of Majid’s new baby.  They never returned home and on Tuesday their bodies were found in the river. The boy had torture marks on his face and had been shot in the heart; his uncle had been shot in the head.”

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Mohammad Shaaban Mustafa, a 47-year-old railway worker, left his home in Bustan al-Qasr on the morning of February 13 and went as usual to work in the Baghdad Station area (under government control). He never returned home. His body washed up the following morning with a large gunshot wound in the head.

Many of the victims were residents of the Bustan al-Qasr district or other areas under opposition control, who disappeared when they went into government controlled areas. Several families I met said their relatives were not involved in politics – so their crime may have been simply to live in an opposition-controlled area.

But government forces are not the only ones to commit such crimes.

In the Bustan al-Qasr district I also heard about Mohammad ‘Abd al-Jalil Khaled (aka Abu al-‘Abed), a 42-year-old father of two young children who was abducted by one of the armed opposition groups operating in the area and who died in their custody 10 days later.  He was taken from his office at the beginning of October by members of the al-‘Amran/Martyr Nimr Battalion, belonging to the Afadi al-Rasoul Brigade.

The brigade initially denied holding him, but eventually allowed his parents to visit him on October 9; the visit took place in the presence of members of the brigade and therefore he could not speak freely.

The following Saturday his family learned that he was dead, and when they went to ask at the brigade they were told that Mohammad had been buried but were not told where. No explanation was provided as to the cause of his death.

After two weeks, Mohammad’s family was allowed to bury him.

Members of the brigade, armed and with an anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on a pick-up truck, brought Mohammad’s body, covered in mud, to his family at 6.30 one morning. They had to bury him immediately and were denied any of the funeral rituals such as washing the body, prayers at the mosque or a funeral procession.

To date, no one has been brought to justice in the case. When judges in one of the two legal committees that act as courts in the opposition-held areas of Aleppo summoned the brigade commander he turned up with a group of heavily armed fighters and seemingly managed to intimidate them into silence.

Another shocking case, on March 2, was the killing of Abdallah al-Yassine, a young media activist who had worked with many foreign journalists as a fixer/translator.  I found his body outside one of the small hospitals in an opposition controlled area of Aleppo. He had been shot in the back of the head at close range.

The alleged killer of Abdallah al-Yassine is said to be the leader of one of the many armed opposition groups operating in Aleppo.  He has reportedly been detained by the Jabhat al-Nusra brigade – believed to be the most powerful group among the opposition forces in the city – but further details have yet to emerge.

The longer this conflict goes on, the more complex, polarized and intractable it becomes and, as is so often the case, it is civilians who are bearing the brunt.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Never forget the Kuwaiti incubator scam. It turned out to be pure fiction, the invention of a PR company hired by Bush, but it was enough to justify a war to the American people.

    March 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • 1gadawg

      you're truly stupid...

      March 12, 2013 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  2. Johnna

    Who the "F" cares. Let these crazy Ba$tards kill themselves. Give them all the weapons they need, line UN troops up on the borders, let no one pass. Problem solved!

    March 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Reply
    • drowlord

      I'd agree if the body count consisted of rebels and government, with activists thrown into the dogpile. But there are a lot of normal people caught in the crossfire. Families like any others just trying to live their lives. I would bet it's hard for people in that war zone not to sympathize with one side more than the other, but most of the people there would probably take peace at any cost.

      March 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
      • JohnathanA

        Define "normal people".

        March 12, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
      • Shakira

        @ JohnathanA...normal people like kids who are being executed.

        March 12, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • SentTheWave

      Disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself. Violence begets violence.

      March 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Realy?

      realy? just let them kill them selves and all the innocent people to? shameful

      March 11, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • Jane

      Yup, If i would say the same thing bout American troops dying every week in Afghanistan , you would be all over the post.

      Respect human life you idiot !

      March 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  3. saj

    imagine a world without each others killing, everyone loving one other n living in peace, where there is no war and all the money spent for war is utilized to eradicate hunger n thirst....imagine the difference it would have made for the entire world

    March 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Reply
    • BSH

      What's that? Imagine a world with no people? Yes, then there would finally be peace on earth...

      March 12, 2013 at 9:54 am | Reply
    • flossmore

      No matter what 'man' does in his short miserable lifetime, the friggin' sun will still rise and set for another several billion years! Do we really matter? The great creator simply screwed up by creating us 'all-too-human' !! The hate and the greed we all possess will eventually do us all in. It's too bad......this was not supposed to be this way.

      March 12, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  4. VIVA USA

    VIVA USA, IT IS ABOUT TIME TO GET RED OF THOS EVIL SYRIAN SHIIA, iraq shiia , HIZBOALLAH AND IRAN THOSE WHO WANTS HARM TO USA nd the free world..... we must help syrian fighters aganist hizboallah and iranians along with iraqi shiia killers as iraq now is un democratic they stole ellection from DR AYAD ALAWI and gave it on sliver platter to iran thugs.

    March 11, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • Old Enough

      "Meet the new Boss... Same as the old boss..."

      March 12, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
      • flossmore

        ............."Who" .... ?

        March 12, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  5. usa usa usa

    down with iran and hizboallah and all iraqi and syrian shiia terrorists

    March 11, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  6. I agree

    yes Iran is evil = syrian shiia = iraqi shiia= hizboallah= china= russia

    March 11, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  7. Dr. Salah Sultan

    The rebels are evil in there torture of Syrian citizens. Support for these murderous terrorists must end. Only Bashar al Assad, the freely elected leader of Syria can bring Syria back from the quagmire. USA must support Bashar.

    March 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • jCK

      The U.S. should stay out of it and let the rest of the world solve their own d'mn problems, we have enough of our own.

      March 12, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • Shakira

      Freely elected leader....in what universe are you living in?

      March 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  8. Thankful

    "As bad" as the economy may be here in the US, we must all be thankful we live here, and not born into the hellacious country of Syria, or any other awful country.

    March 11, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  9. Peace on Earth

    Civil war is the worst type of war. Your own brother could be your own enamy.

    The West can stop these killings if they wish. If the West really believes in God as the creator of mankind, please stop this war. We are all God's children.

    March 12, 2013 at 12:04 am | Reply
    • Cheetahe

      Please do not involve the west in any more civil wars.
      Try to convince the Muslim interventionists for this mayhem.
      All these religious fanatics cause death and suffering on everyone just to get a free passage to heaven.

      March 12, 2013 at 11:52 am | Reply
  10. They need more guns

    What these rebels need is tanks and helicopters too. Then they can all slaughter each other properly. It's not enought that the government has the bigger firepower. It's much more entertaining when both sides have comparable capabilities. Reallly, this is just another place where muslims of one sect kill muslims of another sect and blame it on the west and the jews. I like the way Obama's playing thise one. Keep the real soldiers out of the fight, but give the underdogs enough firepower to keep things going long enough to remove a few million more barbarians (arabs) from the gene pool.

    March 12, 2013 at 12:18 am | Reply
  11. Not amused

    Apart from a couple of comments calling for peace on earth, I have not read any sane comment posted here. What is wrong with you people ? Syria is a mess, no Bashar cannot be a solution anymore, no there is no "good guys" that can be identified and supported by the west.
    This is going the route of the Lebanon war (actually it is the same guys involved) , and it is just too dangerous and complicated for any outsider to come in and solve the issue.
    The only thing left is, with the support of arab nations, to go in and do like in Iraq. Impose order and hope that some kind of democracy can be fostered and brought in over time.

    March 12, 2013 at 12:44 am | Reply
    • Cheetahe

      The US people are sick and tired of fighting thankless wars. No more sacrificing of our youth for someone else s ideals.
      We have our own problems to take care of and do not expect us to solve issues not of our own making.
      I am sorry for the death of all the innocents but when a civil war erupts the guilty parties also include all of the countries who support both sides of this civil war with arms and money.

      March 12, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  12. rheydrich42

    Syria's government needs the full support of the US and Israel. If the rebels do succeed in overthrowing the govt, it will become just another haven for terrorists, i.e. Egypt, Yemen, Libya,, Somalia.

    March 12, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
  13. Old Enough

    "Meet the new boss Same as the old boss"
    Pete Townsend got it right

    March 12, 2013 at 10:12 am | Reply
  14. skgm111

    First of all, Kweik river area is under the control of the terrorists which consist of (Al-Qaida Jabha front and the Islamic brother’s militia) so it clear who is killing those innocents and throwing their bodies in the river.
    Second, shame on the countries (US, Israel, England, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who support the terrorists and supply them with weapons, money and training. They have budget cuts in their countries but they provide the terrorists with millions of dollars. Shame on them.
    But Syrian Army with God help will destroy those terrorists and send them to hell to see their 70 virgins.

    March 12, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
  15. j. von hettlingen

    Too many cooks spoil the broth. There are so many rebel groups fighting in Syria. Most have in mind to topple Assad. Some foreigners are there just for the sake of fighting, as if they get bored after years in Iraq or perhaps Afghanistan. That's why outsiders are hesitant to interfere, as they don't know, what happens in the post-Assad Syria.

    March 12, 2013 at 10:58 am | Reply
  16. PBUH

    The problem is. Winston Churchill said," Rabies in dog is less dangerous than Islam in man."

    March 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  17. Ferhat Balkan

    The whole world is watching the tragedy unfolding in Syria. A tragedy that has been going on for years now. Where women, children and elderly are being massacred by the thousands and no one is doing anything to help the Syrian people in their struggle to stop a blood thirsty regime. What is going on there right now and what has been going on is proof that we, in our failure to act, have lost touch with humanity. Everyone rushed in to help during the conflict in Libya. What's different about Syria? Oil? No profit in it? Is this what we've become?

    March 12, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  18. Milagros

    Only a huge reduction in the male population can help moderate the violence. The hatred instilled in these people from the earliest age makes it impossible to hope for a negotiated peace. Absent the hatred and killing, these creatures would find themselves entirely without purpose.

    March 13, 2013 at 7:16 am | Reply
  19. will power

    has anyone noticed how many wars have been fought over religion down through the centuries?
    i heard it said one time that religion is man made, while spirituality is God made!!
    here's an idea:Ban all religions from the planet and they're will be a lot less war.then mankind as a whole
    would become more spiritual and less warlike.As well we should create a new world police force administered by the UN with every nation on the planet contributing "manpower" and logistical support which would then mean we all would have an equal stake an say what happens in all countries

    March 14, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  20. causticlogic

    "But government forces are not the only ones to commit such crimes."
    Now, why did the rebels collecting the bodies never tell us about these cases? Kudos, Donatella and AI, for more than just laundering "activists say" claims.

    "All eventually float to the same spot in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, under the control of opposition forces but just a few hundred meters downstream from an area held by government troops."
    4 km from the described dump point. And the first batch, 80-110, the 50 you can see-not bloated, non-floaters. Dragged along the bottom by almost no current, 4 km, underground, around to 90-degree bends, to just where the rebels find them. No ... they were dumped right there. All of them. Guess who by?

    Yeah, people said otherwise. People say things in rebel territory. Like Shabiha killed the Alawite captives at Aqrab...

    March 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  21. greets

    There are twenty eight million people in syria and the rebels represent only a tiny fraction of the total syrian population, less then one percent. There is no civil war in syria. They are a remnant of a failed nato propaganda and insurgent attack on syria, cancelled by russia and china vetos in the un. The armed rebels are still considered terrorists under current us law i think.

    March 22, 2013 at 5:20 am | Reply

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