BEIRUT – Row upon row of bloodied bodies wrapped in colorful blankets laid out on a mosque floor in a Damascus suburb – long narrow graves tightly packed with dozens of victims. Nestled among them, two babies were wrapped in a single blood-soaked blanket, a yellow pacifier dangling beside them from a palm frond.
Evidence mounted on Sunday of a new massacre in Syria’s deepening civil war, with activists reporting a killing spree by government forces after they seized the suburb of Daraya from rebel control three days ago. Reports of the death toll ranged from more than 300 to as many as 600.
Video footage posted by activists showed lineups of corpses, many of them men with gunshot wounds to their heads. During mass burials on Sunday, bodies were sprayed with water from hoses – a substitute for the ritual washing prescribed by Islam in the face of so many dead.
The gruesome images appeared to expose the lengths to which the regime of authoritarian President Bashar Assad was willing to go to put down the rebellion that first broke out in March last year.
In an ominous commentary, Assad was quoted by his official media as saying his regime would carry on fighting “whatever the price.”
“It is clear that was collective punishment,” Khaled Al-Shami, an activist from Damascus, said of the killings in Daraya. “I am certain that the coming days will reveal more massacres, but by then others will have taken place and people will forget about Daraya.”
The video footage and death toll were impossible to independently verify because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict. However, activists and residents have reported excessive use of force by the regime, with indiscriminate bombing from the air and ground.
“Daraya, a city of dignity, has paid a heavy price for demanding freedom,” the Local Coordination Committees activist group said in a statement, adding that the Assad regime targeted residents with executions and revenge killings “regardless of whether they were men, women or children.”
With a population of about 200,000, Daraya is part of “Rural Damascus,” or Reef Damascus, a province that includes the capital’s suburbs and farmland. It has been a stronghold of support for the rebels fighting the government since the start of the uprising, posing a particularly grave threat to Assad’s seat of power.
Troops backed by tanks stormed the town on Thursday after a siege that lasted several days during which no one was allowed to enter or leave, activists and residents said. The rebels were no match for Assad’s tanks and helicopter gunships.
Most of the killings, according to activists, took place Friday and Saturday. But the extent of the carnage only began to be revealed Sunday.