Our source for this post is Sami al-Rifaie who, by his own account, is an activist and citizen journalist in Qusayr where he says he has witnessed Syrian government helicopters dropping large barrel bombs with TNT and scrap metal on the town’s residential areas. Sami al-Rifaie is not his real name and his account, which can be read further below, cannot be independently verified.
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Sami in Qusayr, August 31, 2012
It has been horrible here. For the last three weeks, helicopters have been randomly dropping large explosive oil barrels on residential areas of the city.
No, these are not normal bombs. They are manufactured by Syrian government forces, 250- and 500-kilogram oil barrels filled with TNT and metal scraps.
I have uploaded a video report (see below) about one such bomb being dropped. I was very close to where the bomb fell. It was about 200 meters away. I could hear it. I could even feel the air vibrating next to me when it dropped. A fellow activist, [name redacted], went with me. He is the best cameraman we have here. He shot the video. He used a medium-sized camera, not a mobile phone. I uploaded the video [to YouTube] the day after the bomb dropped.
Sami’s video report
Many times I have bought bread from a bakery just around the corner from the bombing site. It is the only private bakery in my town that is still running. There is also the public bakery but it stops operating at times – actually it’s now hardly ever open – plus, most of the security forces are concentrated around that bakery. So, many civilians have been shot dead while trying to get bread from that bakery, including Christians who are concentrated in that area.
More than 25 houses were completely destroyed and many more were partly destroyed and, of course, cannot be used anymore. Many more where destroyed in the villages around my city.
On average, three to four barrel bombs are dropped per day, usually in the morning or the afternoon. The helicopters drop the barrels randomly, in different areas, because even the fighters of the Free Syrian Army are dispersed all around the city. They live with us. My brother, who is a defector from the army, lives with my family. He is now with the Free Syrian Army, and whenever we go out, he comes with us.
The regime’s lower-ranking soldiers thought Qusayr was mostly controlled by Free Syrian Army members. I’ve talked to the soldiers who defected and they told me that the officers at the checkpoints told them that only FSA soldiers, criminals, extremists and fighters from the Taliban were roaming Qusayr. This is what they kept telling them. They do not even allow soldiers to take leave to visit their families, so that they won’t know what is going on in the country. They did not even know that there were civilians here but now they do.
“[Government soldiers] know that they are shooting innocent people, but maybe they are afraid to disobey orders for fear of being killed by their commanding officers or the security spies spread among them,” – Sami al-Rifaie in Qusayr
Many soldiers are now also aware that they are actually shooting civilians in Qusayr. They know that they are shooting innocent people, but maybe they are afraid to disobey orders for fear of being killed by their commanding officers or the security spies spread among them. However, it’s been more one and a half years since the revolution started, so we can no longer give these soldiers any more excuses for not defecting. Even those who are not killing us are actually providing a cover for or protecting those who kill us, so they are in a way just like them. Despite this, the FSA still welcomes any soldier or officer who defects because “better late than never,” right?
Video of a bomb explosion in nearby Homs (about 22 seconds into the clip)
From student to activist
Before the revolution, I was pursuing a masters degree in linguistics at Al-Baath University in Homs. I grew up here in Qusayr. It has a population of about 60,000, not including the many villages and towns around. It’s a farm community. We grow fruit, have apple orchards, peaches, grains. It’s a mostly agricultural area.
The city is about 30 kilometers from downtown Homs. I went to Homs for my university studies six years ago. Last year, I got into a scholarship program sponsored by the government to pursue studies abroad and I was waiting for my papers to come through. I was planning to travel to the United Kingdom or the U.S.
Then I thought – enough is enough; I should do something that has purpose. So I stopped going to university and instead became an activists and citizen journalist. Even though I’m a wanted man for taking part in demonstrations, I cannot quit what I am doing now.
Reporting the news from Qusayr
I have been working with some of my friends here in Qusayr as a volunteer and the English-language spokesperson for a Syrian information network. We work in a small flat we call the media center. Recently I have been working with other committees like the Local Coordination Committees and the Syria Revolution General Commission.
“For the first time in my life, I felt free; I felt so overjoyed; it was like I had won a hundred million dollars,” – Sami al-Rifaie in Qusayr
There are about seven permanent volunteers: [name redacted] is the manager; [name redacted] is responsible , among other things, for working with his contacts to smuggle foreign journalists in and out of the town; [name redacted] is our video editor; [name redacted] is one of the photographers; [name redacted] is another photographer; [name redacted] who used to just upload videos to YouTube but now he videotapes military operations and sometimes even takes part in real battles fighting alongside FSA soldiers. I help out with my knowledge of English, writing daily English-language reports about the situation in Qusayr, talking to English-language TV channels and helping journalists set up interviews with FSA members and ordinary citizens.
How the revolution started
Let me tell you how it all began. Last year, we attended demonstrations during the first week of Syria’s protests. Everything was okay back then, even though some people did get detained. During the second and third weeks everything was also still all right. For the first time in my life, I felt free; I felt so overjoyed; it was like I had won a hundred million dollars.
Yet from the very start, I foresaw the risks of taking part in the revolution but I felt that it was the right thing to do. We could not stand the regime’s oppression and corruption any more. I can still remember that I almost cried out of joy at the first demonstration I took part in. I looked at people around me and they all wore that happy expression on their faces and even without them saying anything, I knew that they felt exactly the same way I did.
Sami speaks about the recent bombings and the uprising in Qusayr (4:51):
Then the security forces came in armored cars and started firing warning shots. One or two people got killed then, ordinary citizens.
During the fourth week we continued the protests and one man got killed. One boy got shot by security forces. We saw it happen because we were at that demonstration. The young men at the protest were very angry with the security forces who were shooting and some of the demonstrators thought about picketing the local security services branch and throwing stones at the security forces, but the older people advised against it calling instead for restraint.
Then more people got killed.
After a month or two, people started thinking about getting arms. But we kept our local revolution peaceful. During demonstrations, we would call out loud “peaceful, peaceful, peaceful!”
By the end of the year, security forces routinely started killing civilians. Along with the killings came the military crackdowns in the city, five or so raids. They arrested many people; many young men are in detention to this day.
This is what pushed people to carry on. They saw many of their friends and family members taken off to prison and many would turn up dead, with their bodies mutilated; others would turn up alive but tortured and humiliated. Then came the raids when the army came with tanks and armored vehicles; they burnt the houses of the activists and others who took part in demonstrations. People felt it was high time to defend themselves, to defend our women, to defend our children. We could no longer stand this.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.