Syria's Wounded Refugees: Tales of Massacre and Honorable Soldiers

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Mustafa Ozer / AFP / Getty Images

A Syrian woman waits beside her wounded husband at a hospital in the southeastern Turkish city of Hatay, close to the Syrian border, on June 8, 2011. The man claims to have been injured by police gunfire during an anti-government protest in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur where there are fears of a backlash after officials said 120 policemen had been killed there.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn't make threats lightly. And as they confronted the uprising in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, government security forces were blunt, according to the medical staff in area's small hospitals and the local Red Crescent outpost there. Saving a wounded protester's life could cost them their own. As a result, private medical clinics closed and doctors in the northern Syrian town's public hospital fled. Of 200 Red Crescent volunteers, only five defied the threats to continue working, including "Abu Taha," a 29- year-old volunteer ambulance driver whose bravery earned him a bullet in the back.

He was shot on the morning of June 5, hours before rights workers say several hundred of the soldiers deployed in the town defected, protecting protesters from other soldiers intent on carrying out their shoot-to-kill orders. Some 120 security personnel were killed that day, although the regime in Damascus denies there was a mutiny and says the deaths were at the hands of "armed gangs" and "terrorists" wearing stolen military uniforms.

The gaps between the two versions are being filled by some of the many Syrian refugees from besieged northern towns including Jisr al-Shughour who have streamed across the nearby Turkish border in recent days and are being housed in several camps. Although Turkish authorities have severely restricted media access to the refugees, accounts are nonetheless trickling in, especially from wounded Syrians like Abu Taha being treated in several hospitals in the southern Turkish city of Antakya. Those who spoke to TIME asked not to be identified by their real names for fear of reprisals against family still in Syria and of angering the Turkish government.

Abu Taha remembers helicopters roaring overhead last Sunday as he scrambled to save the "hundreds" of wounded he saw mowed down in Jisr al-Shughour's public garden. He says up to 10,000 people were gathered in the space, after burying a young man, Basil al-Masry, who was killed by security forces the day before. "The garden was packed, we were shoulder to shoulder. Then the bullets started raining down on people from all of the government buildings around the garden," Abu Taha told TIME from his hospital bed in Antakya. "They were shooting from helicopters, using machine guns with 14.5 caliber bullets. Do you know what a bullet like that does to a human body?" Abu Taha does. A day earlier, he says he saw a man with his skull split open by such a bullet in front of the Post Office building adjacent to the garden.

On that Sunday, the killing was indiscriminate and widespread, according to information independently obtained from more than half a dozen Syrians who have recently fled from Jisr al-Shughour into Turkey. The townsfolk scurried along two side streets leading away from the garden, as security forces in the buildings shot into the crowd from above. "I was bending down to pick up a man who'd been shot," Abu Taha says. "The bullet came through my chest. I collapsed on top of him." His colleagues, who were also in Red Crescent uniforms, administered first aid. That's all he remembers. He didn't see any wounded soldiers, only civilians, and doesn't remember travelling to Turkey.

"Samir," 28, says there were signs that something was brewing in Jisr al-Shughour days before Sunday's carnage. He was one of the first to be shot in the garden, he says, and also has no idea how he came to be in a Turkish hospital in this city. His body was riddled with bullet holes; one scraped past the left side of his neck, the other pierced the left side of his chest, above his heart, the third shattered his right forearm, which is now encased in plaster. The father of one and almost too tall for his hospital bed, Samir has severe internal bleeding, and speaks softly with great difficulty, in halting breathless bursts.

He said that there were unfamiliar vehicles without license plates driving around his town, sometimes shooting indiscriminately at buildings and bystanders. The young men of Jisr al-Shughour had set up several unarmed checkpoints around their town to prevent the entry of strangers. But strangers entered, including a bearded man in military uniform who did not speak Arabic and was nabbed by Samir and a group of young men. (Syrian soldiers are not permitted to wear beards.) "I don't know Iranian, I don't have experience with Iranians, but the man didn't speak Arabic," says Samir. "Not a word."

He denies government claims that the mourners gathered in the garden were armed. "If we had weapons, believe me, I would have been the first to use one, but we don't," Samir said. "And besides, what is a hunting rifle going to do against a machine gun, against a tank?" His father, who like almost all of the town's 50,000 residents, has now fled, either to Turkey or in the hills around Jisr al-Shughour, told his son that "honorable soldiers" started defending the people that Sunday, and that many of them were killed. Many of the townsfolk already knew that there had been isolated military defections elsewhere in the country, because some 20 days earlier, the body of a young conscript was returned to his parents in Jisr al-Shughour. He'd been in the shot in the back of the head, Samir said, presumably for failing to shoot at protesters. "We went to bury him, to honor him, the security forces prevented us." His voice fails as he tears up at the memory. "They didn't let us bury him in an honorable way."

Samir's mother, wife and one-and-a-half year old daughter made it safely into Turkey on the weekend, taking illegal routes and avoiding main roads which many refugees say are patrolled by the military and armed thugs known as shabbiha. Abu Taha's immediate family is too afraid to take the trek, he said, and like many others is hiding out in the hills between Jisr al-Shughour and the Turkish border. "They're very, very scared," he said. He pauses for a moment, saying his nine-month-old son is out there in the hills, forced to live in the open. "You know, my father — God rest his soul — used to tell us, 'whoever speaks about politics will be made to disappear from the face of the Earth'," he says wistfully. His father was of a generation that witnessed an earlier atrocity in Jisr al-Shughour in the 1980s, committed by current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's late father, Hafez. At the time, the town was a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood, and today remains a conservative Sunni Muslim bastion. Nobody knows how many people were killed back then, although now many refugees independently interviewed speak of a mass grave at the sugar refinery that they all knew about, but were too scared to reveal. "What is happening in Syria now has been a part of the Syrian regime for a long time; the torture, the removing of fingernails, the scalding of skin, it happened but it was hidden," Abu Taha says. "We all knew about it, but now, thank God, now everyone can see the true face of this regime."