Memories and lives destroyed by brutality in Darayya, Syria

Zaher Shehab lost his mother, brother, and five other relatives in attacks on the Damascus suburb, and could only listen to their funeral on the phone.

When seven members of my family were killed in a single attack this summer, I didn’t think that things could get any worse. My mother, brother, and five other relatives died after being hit by rocket fire on our farm in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Thousands of miles away at Bath University, where I am a student, all I could do was listen in to their funeral on the phone.

Then, last month, Darayya became the victim of the biggest atrocity that we have seen so far in Syria in 18 months of revolution. 

You might have seen the pictures – rows of bodies of men, women and children wrapped up in white, makeshift shrouds, lined in communal graves because there were too many to bury them one by one.

It began on Monday 20 August, the second day of the Islamic festival of Eid. There was a terrifying campaign of shelling, which got worse and worse. Forces loyal to the murderous President Assad surrounded all routes out of the town. After four days, on the Friday, they invaded and went on a killing spree.

They executed hundreds - tying their hands, lining them up and shooting them. Others they dragged from their homes and killed them on the threshold. Mothers were murdered in front of their daughters, sons in front of their fathers.

Any group of men or boys found together were killed immediately. I know someone who was killed because a wooden bracelet bearing the revolutionary flag was found in his house.

My 18-year-old cousin, Morhaf Shehab, worked to distribute food to those who had been left destitute. He was kind and modest, and always concerned with helping others. He decided to take some supplies to a group in a shelter taking refuge from the bombing. But Assad forces arrived while he was there, and killed him and dozens of others. When his body was returned to his family it bore signs of torture.

During the attack on the town, many were also arrested. One Sunday, two of my cousins, aged 26 and 29, were detained along with 13 others.  In some ways this is the worst fate of all. They could be being tortured right now, as you are reading these words.

For those lucky enough not to be killed or captured by the regime, life is still impossibly difficult. The government cuts off electricity and water for long periods. There is not enough food. There is a huge shortage of doctors and medicines. Being caught with first aid equipment is a crime – many medical workers have been killed. 

One evening during the siege of the town, my 70-year-old grandmother fell ill. It was too dangerous to leave the town, which is dotted with checkpoints and surrounded by snipers. In the morning, my father woke up to find that she had died in the night.

My old memories about Darayya are amazing. It was surrounded by beautiful farms, bearing all different kinds of fruit. In spring it would fill me with hope as the colourful flowers woke the town from its winter sleep.

Now, the place is unrecognisable. They have destroyed the roads and burnt the buildings. They broke into shops to steal everything that is valuable. About 250 homes were damaged. The infrastructure is ruined, and rubbish is piling up on the streets.

So far, 683 bodies have been buried from the massacre. We only know the identity of 460 of them – some were tortured so badly, or so decomposed, that no one could tell who they were. From my extended family 30 have been killed. There are 1,100 wounded, many of whom are in need of urgent medical help. Almost 3,000 families have been left in urgent need.

I have a hard time knowing how to cope with what is happening. I do not know what to do, or how to help. All I can do is tell the world about these terrible events. The state media spread lies, saying that the people of the town had killed each other and that bastard Bashar al-Assad had sent his army to protect civilians. My friends and family feel that no one knows what really went on.

Our biggest hope is that we will eventually get justice. We keep careful lists of all those killed or arrested, and the names of those who committed these terrible acts. We are waiting for the day when we will use them against Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court.

Zaher Shehab is studying for a PhD in pharmacy at the University of Bath. He is from the Syrian town of Darayya.

A young boy holds up a sign during an anti-regime demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
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Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer concedes defeat

The vote was seen as a test of how other populist, anti-establishment candidates might perform in elections across Europe next year.

 

In an unexpected early result, Austria’s far-right party has conceded defeat in the country’s presidential election. The loss of the Freedom Party’s candidate Norbet Hofer to the liberal, Green Party-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen, will be seen as a setback for the populist, Eurosceptic cause across Europe.

The official result of this bitterly fought election is unlikely to be confirmed before Monday, but the poll projections show a definitive victory for Van der Bellen. The projections had put Van der Bellen on 53.6% ahead of Hofer on 46.4%.

Hofer acknowledged his loss shortly after voting closed and congratulated his opponent. “I am infinitely sad that it didn't work out, I would have liked to watch over our Austria,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

Hofer was aiming to become the first far-right leader in the European Union. Opinion polls in the run-up to today’s vote suggested the candidates were neck and neck.

His victory would have emboldened other far-right movements across Europe, such as Marine Le’s Pen’s Front National, further eroding the European liberal consensus. It would have been a shock of a similar scale to the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race.

The election was originally won by Van der Bellen back in May, but Austria’s supreme court demanded a re-run after voting irregularities emerged during the count. Van der Bellen now looks set to increase his victory of 31,000 votes by a factor of ten.

Hofer, one of the deputy presidents in Austria’s parliament, campaigned for the presidency on an anti-immigration platform. He attacked the government over its decision to allow 90,000 refugees and migrants to enter the country last year.

He had also appeared to suggest Austria could become the next nation to follow Britain out of the EU, with a referendum on its membership of the bloc. He later ruled that out, but stated that he would oppose Turkey’s bid for membership and further centralisation.

While the post of president is largely ceremonial, the vote had heightened significance as an indication of how well other populist candidates might perform in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections across France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.