ANADAN, Syria – The guards pulled him from his cell before dawn on Monday, bound his hands, blindfolded him and drove him to an empty lot in the Syrian city of Aleppo. They sat him in a row with 10 other captives, he said, then cocked their guns and opened fire.
“They sprayed us,” recalled 21-year-old Mahmoud, the lone survivor of the latest mass killing of Syria’s civil war. “The first bullet hit my chest, then one hit my foot, then my head. As soon as my head got hit, I thought, ‘I’m dead.’ ”
Reports of such killings have surfaced frequently during the 17 months of deadly violence that activists seeking to topple President Bashar Assad say has killed more than 19,000 people. Details are usually scarce – no more than activist reports or amateur videos of bloodied bodies or mass graves posted on YouTube.
Mahmoud related his grisly ordeal to the Associated Press hours after it happened. Struggling to speak, he lay in a bed in a makeshift rebel-run field hospital set up in a wedding hall in this town 13 miles north of Aleppo. Bandages covered his foot, head and chest.
Mahmoud gave only his first name to protect family living in the area.
While his story could not be independently confirmed, Mahmoud’s wounds matched his story, and residents who found him and his dead colleagues corroborated certain details.
Together, they painted a picture of the summary slaying of 10 men, at least some of whom had only loose links to the armed rebels seeking to topple the regime. That story jibes with activist claims of the increasingly brutal tactics regime forces are using to try to crush the rebellion that has spread to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
During the last two weeks, rebels have been pushing into Aleppo’s neighborhoods, clashing with security forces and torching police stations in a push to “liberate” the city. Syrian media have said the army is gearing up for a “decisive battle,” while anti-regime activists have reported swelling numbers of troops and tanks on the city’s edges.
It was amid these tensions that Mahmoud, a Palestinian resident of Aleppo, had his fateful brush with Syrian security. On Thursday, Mahmoud said, he and a friend went to collect their paychecks from the factory where they work and heard clashes nearby. Soon eight men in civilian clothes stopped them and asked for their IDs and cell phones.
On Mahmoud’s phone they found videos of anti-government demonstrations and messages to rebels from the Free Syrian Army, asking God to protect them and make them victorious. The men threw Mahmoud and his friend in the trunk of a car and drove them to a dump, where they were blindfolded, bound and beaten with sticks and large rocks before being taken to a security office.
“We were there for four days and they only gave us water to drink once. They never fed us,” he said. “They never asked us anything. Every day it was beating, beating, beating.”
Before dawn on Monday, guards pulled Mahmoud and 10 others from their cells and told they were going to see a judge. They were bound at the wrists, blindfolded and driven to Aleppo’s Khaldiyeh neighborhood, where they were lined up on a patch of rocky soil.
“They sat us all down next to each other, ‘You here, you here, you here,”’ Mahmoud said. “Then each one cocked his weapon and the shooting started.”
Mahmoud was shot three times. Minutes later, silence returned, and he realized he was still alive.
“I breathed. I said the shehada,” he said, referring to the Muslim declaration of faith meant to put him right with God. “I tried to get up, then started screaming because blood was coming out of me.”
He scraped his face on a rock to remove the blindfold and crawled to where some nearby residents found him.
Among them was a 22-year-old electrician who said he heard the gunfire early Monday and worried that people were being killed because he had discovered six bodies in the same spot a day earlier. The field hospital’s doctor, Mohammed Ajaj, said he is no longer shocked when the dead and wounded pass through town on their way to burial or for treatment in Turkey.
“We’ve gotten used to it,” he said.
An 18-year-old activist who helped collect the bodies said none had IDs.
“We really know nothing about them,” he said, adding that he would stop in neighboring villages to see if anyone recognized them before delivering them to a morgue.
“If nobody claims them, we’ll take their photos and put them on our Facebook page so their families can find out that they’re dead,” he said.