A first-hand account of the horrors of Syria
(Warning: this story includes graphic and confronting material)
Rafik Heshmeh, 27, a refugee from Syria, has been in Australia for six months but the horrors of the strife and destruction he fled still haunt him.
A student, who lived in the ancient part of the city of Homs, Rafik is devastated by the loss of life and the destruction of his beloved city, home to several religious minorities.
Speaking to AMES, through an interpreter, he described how Syrian soldiers have tortured and murdered mothers and their new born babies, cut the fingers off primary school children for writing anti-government slogans on school walls; and how government security operatives summarily execute people, including the elderly, who do not cooperate with them.
Rafik says what started as a series of peaceful demonstrations by the people of Homs over government intervention in their city, has ended in a bloody and intractable conflict.
Syria has been mired in conflict since 2011 when nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government sparked violent crackdowns. The conflict escalated from largely peaceful popular protests to an armed rebellion after months of military sieges.
Emerging from the confused political situation have been several militant and extremist groups, including ISIS, who have taken control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq and are said to have killed thousands of Shia Muslims and Christians, including innocent civilians.
The al-Assad government is comprised of minority Alawite Muslims and has been criticised over the past decade for its brutal suppression of political opposition and the exclusion of religious groups from any influence.
“The issues for us started when the government came and said it wanted to knock down the ancient part of Homs. They wanted to move the people out and build new homes for the Alawites – the people who control the government,” Rafik said.
Rafik, now a client of settlement agency AMES, said that he and thousands of others took to the streets to protest carrying flowers and chanting anti-government slogans. The Syrian government’s response was to fire into the crowds, killing dozens.
Rafik became active in a group helping the families of those killed in the protests.
While on a trip to visit his fiancée in neighbouring Jordan, he was contacted by friends saying that his name was on a government death list and that he should not come back.
“Before the conflict life was normal in Homs. Sure, Bashar-al-Assad and his Alawite government controlled everything but they left us alone as long as we didn’t make any trouble,” said the former university business and management student.
“At that time you couldn’t argue with the government or you might end up dead. In Syria the government and the police can kill people without anyone being able to do anything.
“But still, we could live a sort of normal life,” he said.
Rafik says he has lost many friends and relatives in the conflict and his family have been scattered across the region and the world, seeking refuge from the violence.
He tells several harrowing and appalling stories revealing the brutality and horror of the conflict.
In one, a neighbour whose wife was pregnant decided to try to get her out of the city to a safer village. The couple was stopped by soldiers on the outskirts of the city who tied the woman to a tree as she went into labour.
“She had the baby and then the soldiers killed her and killed the baby. They took my neighbour away and we never saw him again,” Rafik said.
In another incident, soldiers arrested his aunt and killed her when she refused to tell them where her son, Rafik’s cousin, was hiding after he had taken part in a protest.
“They went to my aunt’s apartment and asked her to tell them where my cousin was. She could not have known where he was because he had been out protesting and was hiding in the alley ways of the old part of Homs,” Rafik said.
“She told them she didn’t know but they killed her anyway with a knife,” he said.
Rafik said an incident that caused widespread outrage and fuelled even more violent protests occurred when police cut off the fingers of primary school children who had daubed “we want freedom” slogans on their school walls.
“It happened in the village of Durra. The children were caught making the signs by their headmaster who called the police,” he said.
“They arrested some of the children. Some died or disappeared and some were released. They cut the fingers of the children who were set free. Other villages heard about this and joined the protests.”
Rafik said police regularly kidnapped children to extort money from their parents and walked into the homes of old people to take their money and gold.
“In one instance a senior police officer told an old lady in my neighbourhood to gather up all her gold, money and valuables in a single bag, because he couldn’t guarantee his men wouldn’t steal it. When she did, he just laughed and took the bag,” he said.
Rafik says the murderous Islamic extremist movement ISIS only emerged after the al-Assad government’s excesses in putting down any opposition to its rule.
“ISIS was created by the government’s actions. They are responsible for this group becoming so powerful,” he said.
Rafik says his trip to see his fiancée in Jordan was fateful one.
“I might be dead if I had not made that trip,” he said.
Rafik told how he had to sneak across the border at night through a secret route to avoid the Syrian police.
“It was a dangerous journey to go to see my wife but, in Syria, everything is dangerous,” he said.
Once in Jordan, he was safe but unable to work and worried about his family in Syria.
Rafik married his fiancée and they now have a child. With two uncles already in Australia, his wife was able to apply for refugee status here.
After receiving help from the Australian embassy in Amman, they arrived in Australia in June as refugees.
The conflict Rafik and his wife escaped began in April 2011 when a major sit-in protest in Homs against the regime of President al-Assad resulted in more than 60 people being killed by government security forces.
Since then the city has been under siege by the Syrian army and its security forces who claim they are targeting “armed gangs” and “terrorists” in the area.
But the opposition groups say Homs has become a “targeted city,” where authorities regularly block deliveries of medicine, food and fuel to the inhabitants of certain districts.
By June, 2011, there were daily confrontations between protesting residents and Syrian forces. As a result of these circumstances, there have been more deaths in Homs and its vicinity than other areas of Syria.
Homs was the first Syrian city where images of al-Assad and his family were routinely torn down or defaced and the first place where Syrian forces used artillery during the uprising. UN estimates say at least 1,770 people have been killed in Homs since the uprising began.
In February 2012, government forces carried out a major attack on Homs to regain control over the city which had been turned into an operation center for the Free Syrian Army, a collection of anti-government fighters and army defectors.
Ten days of operations resulted in the deaths of about 700 people in the city according to the rebels.
On 1 March 2012, the Syrian Army had gained control over the Baba Amr district while lesser clashes continued in other neighborhoods. Currently, the Syrian Army controls the entire city.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the conflict in Syria has killed tens of thousands of people and forced more than three million people to flee the country and 6.5 million have been displaced from their homes.
The agency says its work to help the Syrian refugees now marked the largest operation in its 64-year-history.
Before the conflict, Homs was a major industrial centre, and with a population of more than 650,000 people in 2004, it was the third largest city in Syria after Aleppo to the north and the capital Damascus to the south.
Its population reflects Syria’s general religious diversity, composed mostly of Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims and Christian minorities.
There are a number of historic mosques and churches in the city, and it is close to the Kruk des Chevaliers Castle, a world heritage site.
Now in Australia, Rafik says he is happy to see his family safe in Australia although his extended family is dispersed around the globe; his mother is in Lebanon, his father in Kuwait; he has two sisters still in Syria.
Thankfully, most of his wife’s family is now in Melbourne and Rafik is enjoying his new life in Australia. But the recent tragic siege situation in Sydney troubled him.
“I felt very bad when they said the man who did this was a Muslim. These things should not happen in the name of Islam,” Rafik said.
“But as the truth has come out and we see that he was just a criminal, I feel more comfortable. Even if he was a Muslim, he was not acting in the true nature of Islam,” he said.
Rafik says he now plans to get on with his life; improve his English and then complete his university education.
He says his favourite thing about Australia is its multicultural nature.
“There are lots of people from different parts of the world here and I find this very interesting. We can all learn from these people.
“I’m excited about the future and I’m grateful to be in a country the treats its people well,” he said.
AMES Senior Journalist