Is there a scorched earth policy in Syria?
By Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher
on the Turkish-Syrian border
The road south from the southern Turkish town of Hatay rises
steeply through verdant agricultural land. At the small border village of
Guvecci I get out of the car and immediately see dozens of men sitting on the
edge of the road or otherwise milling about the stone houses, waiting.
Syrians all, few wished to give their full names and some
would not specify the names of their villages. They had sneaked across the
border so as to be able to pick up food to take it back to their families
camped out in tents and under trees on the other side.
It is impossible to verify the exact number. But many agree
that a figure of some 10,000 within a couple of kilometres of the border is
Many of the villagers had left a week ago, following
killings in the town of Jisr al-Shughur over the weekend of 3-5 June.
Ahmed, 22, from a village a few kilometres from Jisr
al-Shughur, said he and his family had stayed on at their village longer than
most to look after their homes, until yesterday when they headed up to the border.
A young man in a pink sweater said 400 people from the
village of Shughur Kasmiyah had spent one week in the hills.
Shabiha – regime-backed militiamen – had poisoned the water,
he said. Several people in the area, another young man added, had died as a
The alleged poisoning of the water was agreed upon by all
the Syrians I spoke to in Guvecci, all of whom said they didn’t drink it.
How did locals know the water was poisoned? Before I arrived
in Turkey, a UK-based man from Jisr al-Shughur told me that a few members of
the Syrian security forces who were unhappy with the events had let locals know
that drinking the water could be lethal.
Mobile phone lines in the Jisr al-Shughur area had been cut
for days, the pink-clad man told me.
One tall young man said he was from the village of
al-Sarmaniyah, some 10km south of Jisr al-Shughur, where the army entered on 10
June with “hundreds” of men in tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
“They shelled and machine-gunned the village,” he told me.
“They shot my friend Rafit Deeb and when I or anyone else
went to try to save him, they shot at us. We could see he was alive, losing his
breath. Five hours later the army left, but by then Rafit was dead. He was 22.
“Not only did they shell houses and shoot people but they
also burnt crops and seeds and they machine-gunned the cows. Tanks drove
through the orchards, destroying hundreds of olive and almond trees.”
“They are worse than the Zionists,” he said, making a
comparison with what he saw to be the nature of the abuses committed by the
Ward Khalifeh, 21, also came from al-Sarmaniyah but had been
working in Lebanon.
“About five days ago I called home but there was no answer.
I travelled to the village and found it completely empty.”
“No one camped by the border knows what happened to the nine
other members of his family.”
A group of about 15 people around me, from the towns and
villages of Bdama, al-Za’eyniyah, Bataybat, al-Kafir, Sheykh Sendayan and
al-Kastun – all in the area around Jisr al-Shughur, said the same had happened
where they were from.
One person said that only a few elderly people had stayed
“They are ghost towns now. Only soldiers may be there,” Ward
As we speak, there’s a commotion as a delivery of bread arrives.
Some of the men and boys walk off with plastic bags of Arabic bread.
A few haggard elderly men invite me to break bread with
them. I respectfully decline and walk up onto the roof of one of the houses and
look out towards Syria.
Some hundred metres away, beyond the young olive trees and
the border fence, are a few dozen tents and some vehicles. In the woods rising
up again, and in the woods yet beyond the peak, are said to be thousands of
displaced Syrians living exposed to the elements, sleeping on the ground under
trees, some under makeshift awnings.
It’s overcast, blustery and at times raining lightly. The
sun sears my skin. No wonder these people are hardy.
I write these notes at night in my hotel room. For several
hours now there has been heavy rain and thunder.
Listen to the latest audio interview with Neil Sammonds on
the situation on the border: