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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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.