Queiq River Massacre

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Aleppo river massacre.jpg
On the morning of January 29, 2013, another massacre was revealed in Syria's largest city of Aleppo (Halab). Opposition reports, photos, and videos came in of a minimum of 65-80 dead men and boys, with a later accepted death toll of 110 [1], bound with plastic ties, executed by gunshots to the head, and dumped in Queiq river, now called "Martyr's River."

A very few victims were as young as (a reported) 11 and 14/15 years old, [2] and a few were middle-aged or older men, but most were men of working and/or fighting/resisting age (14 and up, by Islamist reckoning anyway). They appear, by clothing, almost exclusively civilian.

Bodies continued to drift by through February and into March. On June 4, 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report: "Syria: A Stream of Bodies in Aleppo’s River." This blamed government forces for a reported 230 victims (as tallied by activists, with HRW confirming 147), found between January 29 and March 14, after which the river level was too low to move bodies. [3]

Self-described relatives, speaking to the media, said their executed kin (mostly cousins) had been residents of rebel-held areas who still had to cross over to government-held areas, mostly for work. Arrested as suspected "FSA" (Free Syrian Army) fighters, they were all, or virtually all, completely innocent of any fighting. It's said they were killed, by the paranoid regime, and dumped from a government-held area, presumably, "the park." The remains of those who were not rebel fighters were dredged by rebel fighters out of a short section of the river 3-4 km south of there, next to the rebel-held district of Bustan Al-Qasr, and photographed for propaganda purposes. It was a powerful scene, aptly described by the Guardian's Martin Chulov, in a March 10 report following an investigation, as "one of the defining images of the Syrian civil war." [1]

The government, in contrast. claims the dead were loyalists or non-rebels taken captive and executed by rebel forces right there in Bustan Al-Qasr, and presumably just dumped right there. It was allegedly Jabhat Al-Nusra that killed the victims, based on an alleged confession of a Nusra Front member and identifications by the real family members (achieved in unknown ways, since rebels controlled the bodies).

Until this front page is better filled in, please see the start of an investigation on the discussion page, notably on the second mass killing discovery on March 10. Since Jan. 29, bodies had turned up in the river on a near-daily basis, in ones and twos. But the very day Mr. Chulov's impressive article full of activist testimony appeared, at least 34, maybe 50 more bodies surfaced, this time some of them with what sounds like sliced throats. [4] Surely this is the regime's revenge against those who spoke up so truthfully?

The following is a partial skeleton outline for the content, and will be filled in as possible.

Clues For Government Guilt

This comes down to the relatives and witnesses, self-described, who provide the back-stories by which the victims were prisoners of government forces. What they say is quite clear; the government is responsible, and people should join the Free Syrian Army.

Human Rights Watch, in their June report, heard that the bodies were found "by a bridge in the opposition-controlled area just south of the dividing line." They acknowledge "it is theoretically possible that the bodies were dumped in the river on the opposition-side of the dividing line," but unlikely, because, as locals said, "the area north of the bridge was not accessible because it was within range of government snipers." [3]

There are also more direct clues: Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International, penned an article run by CNN, on her visit on March 3, after two more bodies were pulled from the river. What she saw there is thus not part of the main Jan. 29 massacre, or the large March 10 one, but presumably by the same people. Hers is the only account yet of its kind with pro-government slogans scrawled on the victim's face. "On the face of one, something had been written with a blue marker. I had to look closely because the writing was pale and partially erased by the water and mud" Being able to read Arabic, she was able to make out enough to guess “al-Assad, Surya, u bas” ([President] al-Assad, Syria and that’s it), a common refrain. [5] But this not proof by a long shot. Both blue markers and well-known pro-government slogans are easily within the grasp of any rebels setting out to implicate the regime.

Physical Considerations: Body Mobility

Queiq River Map.png
The key aspect of the physical story is that the bodies ending up in the rebel river didn't start there, but upstream, in a stretch still controlled by Syria's government. Martin Chulov for the Guardian spoke to two self-described prisoners, one each claiming to be held at the military intelligence and air force intelligence headquarters (shown on the map at right, from the Guardian's map). They said most other prisoners held there, civilians suspected of challenging the regime, were killed. The prevailing speculation of those informing Chulov is that the bodies were then dumped into the river at the city park marked here in green. One of the prisoners says he was there in the park when other prisoners were gunned down while he and a few others were miraculously spared. [1] The site is given on Wikimapia as The Public Park الحديقة العامة , "The central park of Aleppo." It looks like a pretty grand affair, 600 meters long, now a killing field, they say.

The Queiq river goes underground at the park's south end (or rather, the city is built up over it), and then its canal emerges at Bustan Al-Qasr's north end, making two right-angle turns and continuing along banks the rebels controlled. To get from the park to to the approximate recovery zone marked here requires a journey of about three kilometers. Therefore, one of the key things to really consider is body mobility, which will have three components; body buoyancy, the water level and thus force of the current, and the presence or lack of any barriers that would interrupt movement.

Body Buoyancy

(see also talk page, Floating Bodies?) The victims are usually described as "floating" downstream to where they were found; this might be accurate, but it doesn't mean floating freely on the surface at the river's speed. Based on available information, freshly killed bodies dumped in the water should always sink to the bottom, as soon as their lungs fill with water. The human body, and especially muscle, is heavier than water; people with little body fat are especially likely to just drop, and these are mostly fit young men. At first, they would drag along the bottom, probably in fits and starts as sub-currents pushed up or down as well as forward. Or, depending on the power of the current, some of them might not want to budge at all. But even then, looser clothing might catch the current and help pull them along.

In short, they would probably move, unseen beneath the surface. We have no exact range of reasonable speeds, but they could hardly move even as fast as this sluggish river.

Eventually, decaying bodies will start bloating as gasses build up in the belly, and will start floating higher in the water. This tends to happen three days after death and onward, and quicker in water, perhaps as little as two days. The victims here are discolored (water-bleached) but otherwise seem freshly killed, still oozing a healthy color of blood. Only a couple of the 50 or so visible in videos appear even slightly bloated, and those could just be heavier men to begin with. Therefore, they would be slow-moving bottom scooters to the end. They must have first been spotted by someone right next to the river looking down into the water.

The flip side to this relative freshness is that bodies could not have been in the water more than this 2-3 days they'd been dead. This is a double-whammy for the opposition’s narrative, meaning the bodies would move only slowly, and for a relatively short span of time. To get to the collection point would require traveling at least one kilometer per day, maybe 1.5 or more. That seems quite a bit faster than they would have moved, especially considering the low water level. But that's a non-expert assessment.

Water Level

Aleppo river massacre 3.jpg
The other main factor in body mobility is the power of the current pushing the sunken corpses along the bottom. In general, high level means high pressure and greater speed, and as seen mid-day on January 29, the Quieq river was not that. Looking at the images, the water level in that stretch at that time was quite low, not even filling the small central channel and leaving the broader concrete basin exposed. The water seems to be moving, but slowly and with little energy, not enough to drag those 110 bodies more than, say, 5-10 meters an hour. It's really hard to put a speed to it, but it can hardly be fast.

Water level and power can change, clearly, with rainfall, and also seems to be adjusted by barriers along the river, which are “controlled from a government held area,” according to activist Louay al-Halabi. [4] This both seems reasonable and is supported by satellite imagery of water spilling over barriers, further north. Therefore, a change of water level within a matter of minutes is possible, and the collected rebel explanations require such rapid shifts. Al-Halabi said “that bodies have been turning up in Quieq when the water level … is on the high side. [4] This is when they would move the most along that 3-4 km crawl, but it’s low waters that make them more visible and easier to recover. As Chulov noted for the Guardian, the bodies drifted while waters were flowing strongly in the last week of January … waters which, on 29 January, had receded leaving the sodden remains exposed … Corpses were still arriving 10 days after … washed downstream by currents flushed by winter rains." [1]

In fact, the wet mud along the exposed concrete suggests the water level had been slightly higher somewhat recently. How recently isn't easy to pin down; this is January, not July, so mud will dry slowly. It may have been this low for days, or only hours; the current-streaked mud is still quite wet, and puddled with water in spots. There is however one area to the north that is fairly dry (see inset image above) . This might suggest waters almost covering the basin is what preceded what we see.

With the help of government controlled gates, levels were raised and lowered repeatedly, to let bodies flush to, and then settle out by, Bustan Al-Qasr. This is the only logical implication of the opposition’s claims. There are at least two possible reasons for this; One fighter, "Abu Seif," said "the regime threw them into the river so that they would arrive in an area under our control, so the people would think we killed them." [6]. That has a certain logic to it, because it really does look a bit like that, upon review. Although the plan failed, if so; the world believes the rebels. This flow control might also make sense as a means to terrorize the opposition neighborhood, rather than to frame them. Some of those invovled speak of messages being sent; "Abu Lufti" told Martin Chulov "This is a message from the army; every time the FSA will step forward, we will kill more civilians." That too failed, the rebel said: "Now the families of each victim are going to join the FSA." [1] One victim recovered March 3 had an Assad loyalist slogan written on his face, readable by the prominent Human Rights expert (Donatella Rovera) who happened through right then, reporting the threat on CNN. [5]

Whatever the reason, to use the river's controls to dump bodies at the rebel doorstep is a rather bold and self-demonizing thing for the government to do and then flatly deny to the appalled outside world. But it is possible - if there were was enough water pressure, and no barriers to the bodies drifting from so far north as to conform to what the rebel-supplied witnesses have said. The pressure at all relevant times is not known for sure, but something weak and rather like what we see is suggested for the relevant time span by the drying mud.

Barriers?

This is a possible deal-breaker for the rebel story, but one with no certain answer just yet. Pro-government sources and some visual evidence suggest there were some kind of barriers/screens, perhaps of barbed wire, across the central channel at some unknown interval. If these exist, they might well rule out entirely bodies drifting as far as alleged, however well the other dynamics worked. (see Talk page, river screens? until this is filled in.)

Other Clues of Rebel Guilt

Family IDs of Terrorist Victims

Syrian state TV, SANA, reported on Jan. 29, citing a "media source": "The families have identified a number of the killed, stressing that Jabhat al-Nusra abducted them because of their rejection to cooperate with this terrorist group ... the competent authorities along with the families are following evidence on this new massacre..." [7] Details are still lacking, but the allegation is on record. SANA then cited a Tunisian newspaper Al-Tunisiya, in turn citing unspecified sources, whose "information confirmed that the bodies belonged to citizens from Bustan al-Qasr who had been kidnapped by terrorist groups on charge of supporting the regime." Some sources are "inhabitants" who "identified a number of the dead people and stressed that they were executed because they had rejected [sic] to cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra and demanded the departure of its members from their neighborhoods." [8]

Al-Nusra Confession

Martin Chulov mentioned how "State television broadcast a ‘confession’ from an alleged member of Jabhat al-Nusra." His interviewees in rebel territory unanimously laughed it off, and argued that by character and by definition, Jabhat Al-Nusra could not have killed civilians. [1] We still need to track down this broadcast or details on it (see talk page, Al Nusra Blame for more details.

Abu Hafs Al-Islam Connection

SANA's confirming Tunisian paper Al-Tunisiya claimed, with sources not explained, that charismatic Tunisian Jihadist and preacher and Jabhat Al-Nusra member was involved in the mass-killings. Abu Hafs al-Islam, aka Hafs Abu Islam, aka Abu Hafs al-Libi, tends to be a speaker and front man, a maniacally zealous one, urging Jihad, head-cutting, etc. Some details and a few videos of are gathered on the discussion page section. As SANA reported: "information confirmed that the bodies belonged to citizens from Bustan al-Qasr who had been kidnapped by terrorist groups on charge of supporting the regime. ... The inhabitants identified a number of the dead people and stressed that they were executed because they had rejected to cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra and demanded the departure of its members from their neighborhoods." [8]

Rebel Access

Less specific but more undeniably true than the above: The victims lived, mostly if not totally, in rebel-held Bustan Al-Qasr, and wound up dead in the rebel-controlled stretch or river there. These facts alone could look bad for the FSA and allies. One fighter, "Abu Seif," acknowledged that the bodies "would arrive in an area under our control" could make it "so the people would think we killed them." [6] But the other common feature of crossing government lines into "un-liberated areas," and perhaps through checkpoints where they could be arrested, adds a useful dynamic. Allegedly, they in fact were arrested. But really, all we know is when not at work/passing through checkpoints, the victims lived and slept under rebel authority, accessible at fighters' leisure all night. If there was any reason to go after them, no problem. As for those reasons, see below.

Early Knowledge of Death Toll

Rebel fighters were suspiciously knowledgeable about the number of bodies that drifted their way January 29. The eventual tally the opposition settled on, as passed to Chulov in February, was 110 for that particular batch (however the cut-off line was decided on - bodies continued to trickle in indefinitely). But at the end of the first day, only around 80 had been recovered. It seems fair to suppose there might be more, and the evidence suggests, would remain hidden under the surface of the water. But Capt. Abu Sada, FSA on the 29th was quoted by Al Jazeera “saying that there could be more than 100 bodies, with many still submerged in the murky river.” [9] That could be just speculation, but more sure was fighter Mamnoud Hassoun. After hearing 79 bodies had been pulled out of the river, the Telegraph heard from Hassoun, as a fact, that “there were still at least 30 bodies floating in the stagnant water.” 79 + “at least 30” = 110 pretty exactly. AFP had a third confirmation: "rebel fighter Abu Seif said 78 bodies had been retrieved from the Quweiq River and that 30 more were still in the water." [6] That's exactly 108, so not exact confirmation, but still suspiciously accurate. Regime snipers prevented full body recovery, both Hassoun and Abu Seif said, but they weren't prevented from getting an early count or from hauling them all in eventually.

One explanation for how the rebels knew just how many bodies would be recovered is, simply put, because they knew how many they had put there.

Mass Burials and Lack of Identification

(see discussion page for a little more detail.) Islamic practice requires for the dead, when possible, swift ritual treatment and burial within 24 hours, in a sacred family affair - As Martin Chulov noted, "the final act of burial is akin to closure for grieving families." [1] But usually, rebels who recover massacre dead bury the bodies in anonymous mass graves, even when their purported family members are available to bury them properly. In this case, that tendency is present, muted by some degree of apparent body adoption and burial elsewhere. Any number of these could be from real family claiming their own back from the rebel fighters, and others could be PR adoptions to help the rebel story line. We can't know for sure. Two extra days were allowed, stretching the 24 hour rule to allow more claims to be made, then the rest were buried in a commandeered playground. [1]

But reports suggest quite a few - maybe a large majority - of the river martyrs remain unclaimed, in the burial sense, and rot in the playground. Chulov reported "some families asked the rebel unit to bury them on their behalf. Such a plea is highly unusual in this war." The vague explanation offered is that those families still had members who had to cross the lines into government areas, and somehow that meant the rebels had to keep the bodies. A signed note was produced in one case to show a father's approval. [1] In the fourth video with Chulov's article, an activist at the playground said (mid-February, date uncertain): “today, three bodies were buried here” pointing. "About 75 other bodies were buried over there.” [1] About two weeks earlier, there had been 110 in the famous massacre, and at a reasonable average of three a day since, there should be around 150 bodies. With at least 78 bodies buried there, something like half remained unclaimed, and roughly half, say 70-80, were claimed. It might be that these were the majority of the famous haul of January 29, when the media was watching for grieving family members. That would suggest few if any claims laid since the cameras went away.

Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reported from Aleppo on March 12, two days after The March 10 Reminder, 34-50 bodies, began appearing. A "volunteer" (clad in defector fatigues) named Hisham Abu Sheikh said "since January, we have found 225 bodies in the river, and only "73 of them have been identified." [10] Eventually, the rate would shrink from roughly half to less than a third, leaving a suggested 152 corpses behind. Of the claimed total, at least six were said to be just identified as the media inquired on March 10. [4] One earlier victim was claimed on Feb. 10, while Chulov's crew for the Guardian was present, as Mohammed al-Drubi. [1] (It's not clear if he was exhumed for proper burial, or left in the mass grave, after his alleged sons stopped crying in front of the camera.)

Otherwise, note that this 73 is about the suggested number of claimed and properly buried bodies as of mid-February, and those in turn might have been all from the last days of January. Six weeks of virtually no reclaimed bodies is at least faintly suggested here. It's possible that this is because the alleged family members are really just anti-government activists, laying false claims to the victims and thus special knowledge of their fate. This would be to add credibility to their allegations blaming the government. If that's the case, it has worked quite well so far.

Clues From the Rebel Witnesses

forthcoming -

The March 10 Reminder

(no citations for the following rough summary, for the moment - for more detail and sources, see Talk page, March Massacre)

one of the March bodies, apparently floated face-down, suffers rigor mortis
What might be one of the biggest clues of all that rebels were controlling the flow of bodies in the river Queiq is a second mass discovery of bodies in the same part of the river. For six weeks after the famous find discussed here, bodies came in daily in ones and two and sometimes five or more. The details of all the reports will have to wait, but slowly the number of dead ticked up until the 10th of March, when at least 22 bodies were dragged from the river.

Videos showed fresh bodies, all male, aged about 12 to middle-aged. Most suffered massive trauma to the top of the head, or smaller wounds to the neck. The water level is again low, but the bodies seem fresher - little to no bleaching, no bloating, and at least one with apparent rigor mortis, suggesting death less than 24 hours before the video was shot (see inset). A further 12 bodies at least were reported the next day, and by the 12th, some reports had as many as 50 bodies recovered in the new massacre, and a grand tally of 225 river bodies since they first appeared in late January.

What makes this dramatic spike and reminder of the murky massacre especially interesting is its timing relative to another dramatic reminder. The same day, March 10, the UK Guardian released a fairly detailed report on the Queiq River massacre: "Syria: the story behind one of the most shocking images of the war," which has of course been widely cited on this page.[1] The reporting underlying this was by Martin Chulov, who spent a week amongst the rebels of Aleppo, interviewing fighters and fighter-supporters alike to find out what happened in January. The video-heavy final report was scathing in its implication of government forces for abducting and murdering 110 men and boys, plus more since. Impassioned interviewees praised Jabhat Al-Nusra and urged Jihad, promising whole families were now ready to join "the FSA." The rebels there worked closely with Chulov, and would probably get a heads-up that the article was finally ready and would be up March 10, to remind the world of the horrors they faced.

And that same day, someone made sure to emphasize this message, intentionally or not, with a new batch of bottom-dragging bodies arriving in the martyr's stretch of the river. There are at least three main logical possibilities here:

  1. The government or its militias had no idea about the article, but coincidentally chose that day to majorly remind the rebels they were dead meat
  2. Having learned of the upcoming story, and that opposition people had told the world about the abuse, the loyalists punished them by killing more people (perhaps relatives of the already bereaved whistleblowers), and sending them downstream in time to say 'speaking up = more death, so don't.'
  3. Knowing the article was coming up, and figuring a reminder written in blood might make it more poignant, presumably Al-Nusra rebels knocked off a few dozen more of their hostages. Then they dumped them in the river the night before, as the kind of special promotional stunt they found themselves, with giddiness, capable of pulling off.

Possible Motives for a Rebel Crime

Crossing the Lines

The crossing of lines control into government-held territory is framed as the act that cost the Queiq River victims their lives. Even if it's not true in the sense that the government killed them, it could still be true - perhaps it was the rebels who didn't like their people crossing the lines, and arrested them after crossing back home one day.

There are religious decrees on record, perhaps followed, that any Syrians who "are working with the authority," civilian or not, must be fought (killed). [11] If this is taken as crossing lines to work in a government area, we have a possible motive, as well as means and opportunity, to suspect mass murder by the district's "liberators." And along with them, the FSA occupation gives a reason the victim's families would not speak up to rebel authorities, or to Western journalists working with them.

One woman who approached when Al Jazeera's crew was filming on March 10, looking for her missing 18-year-old son, explained to the rebels "I contacted the government security (unclear) and the rebel groups. No one knows where he is. ... he's not crazy or mentally handicapped to cross into regime territory." [10] She could be referring to an order from the new authorities not to cross, which her son was smart enough to grasp. Maybe he didn't violate that, but maybe he did. Yousef Abu Mazen of the Syrian Center for Human Rights, says "We caught a witness who explained how supporters of the state come to rebel-held districts, and lure people to their territory." [10] The method of this luring isn't specified, but paid work is what most crossed over for, at existing jobs they were perhaps expected to quit.

FSA Recruitment Drives?

forthcoming

References

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Syria: the story behind one of the most shocking images of the war Martin Chulov, the Guardian, March 10, 2013
  2. Aleppo executions: 79 bodies pulled from Syria river Ruth Sherlock, the Telegraph, 6:54PM GMT 29 Jan 2013
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Syria: A Stream of Bodies in Aleppo’s River." Human Rights Watch, June 4, 2013. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/04/syria-stream-bodies-aleppos-river
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Twenty bodies turn up in Aleppo's "river of martyrs" Reuters, with reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman, March 10, 2013
  5. 5.0 5.1 Aleppo's River of Death Donatella Rovera, CNN Global Public Square, March 11, 2013
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Massacre plunges Syria deeper into 'horror' spiral AFP, Jan. 30, 2013
  7. Media Source.. Jabhat al-Nusra Terrorists Perpetrate Mass Execution in Aleppo SANA, January 29, 2013
  8. 8.0 8.1 Tunisian Terrorist Participated in Massacre in Aleppo, Tunisian Newspapers Says SANA, Jan. 31, 2013
  9. Adversaries in Syria Trade Blame for Scores of Killings in Aleppo By Hania Mourtada and Alan Cowell, New York Times, Published: January 29, 2013
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bodies dumped in Syria's 'river of death' Report from Zeina Khodr, Aleppo, Al-Jazeera English, March 12, 2013
  11. Fatwa by Al Jazeera's Top Cleric: Pro-Gov't Syrian Civilians Are Legitimate Targets Video from Al Jazeera, Subtitled and posted Jan. 2