Inside Daraya, Syria: How a failed prisoner swap turned into a massacre
The first Western journalist to enter the town that felt Assad's fury hears witness accounts of Syria's bloodiest episode
The massacre town of Daraya is a place of ghosts and questions. It echoed with the roar of mortar explosions and the crackle of gunfire yesterday, its few returning citizens talking of death, assault, foreign "terrorists", and its cemetery of slaughter haunted by snipers.
The men and women to whom we could talk, two of whom had lost loved ones on Daraya's day of infamy four days ago, told a story different from the version that has been repeated around the world: theirs was a tale of hostage-taking by the Free Syria Army and desperate prisoner-exchange negotiations between the armed opponents of the regime and the Syrian army, before President Bashar al-Assad's government forces stormed into the town to seize it back from rebel control.
Officially, no word of such talks between the enemies has been mentioned. But senior Syrian officers told The Independent how they had "exhausted all possibilities of reconciliation" with those holding the town, while residents of Daraya said there had been an attempt by both sides to arrange a swap of civilians and off-duty soldiers – apparently kidnapped by rebels because of their family ties to the government army – with prisoners in the army's custody. When these talks broke down, the army advanced into Daraya, six miles from the centre of Damascus.
Being the first Western eyewitness into the town yesterday was as frustrating as it was dangerous. The bodies of men, women and children had been moved from the cemetery where many of them were found; and when we arrived in the company of Syrian troops at the Sunni Muslim graveyard – divided by the main road through Daraya – snipers opened fire at the soldiers, hitting the back of the ancient armoured vehicle in which we made our escape. Yet we could talk to civilians out of earshot of Syrian officials – in two cases in the security of their own homes – and their narrative of last Saturday's mass killing of at least 245 men, women and children suggested that the atrocities were far more widespread than supposed.
One woman, who gave her name as Leena, said she was travelling through the town in a car and saw at least 10 male bodies lying on the road near her home. "We carried on driving past, we did not dare to stop, we just saw these bodies in the street," she said, adding that Syrian troops had not yet entered Daraya.
Another man said that, although he had not seen the dead in the graveyard, he believed that most were related to the government army and included several off-duty conscripts. "One of the dead was a postman – they included him because he was a government worker," the man said. If these stories are true, then the armed men – wearing hoods, according to another woman who described how they broke into her home and how she kissed them in a fearful attempt to prevent them shooting her own family – were armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops.
The home of Amer Sheikh Rajab, a forklift truck driver, had been taken over, he said, by gunmen as a base for "Free Army" forces, the phrase the civilians used for the rebels. They had smashed the family crockery and burned carpets and beds – the family showed this destruction to us – but had also torn out the internal computer chip parts of laptops and television sets in the house. To use as working parts for bombs, perhaps?
On a road on the edge of Daraya, Khaled Yahya Zukari, a lorry driver, had been leaving the town on Saturday in a mini-bus with his 34-year-old wife Musreen and their seven-month-old daughter.
"We were on our way to [the neighbouring suburb of] Senaya when suddenly there was a lot of shooting at us," he said. "I told my wife to lie on the floor but a bullet came into the bus and passed right through our baby and hit my wife. It was the same bullet. They were both dead. The shooting came from trees, from a green area. Maybe it was the militants hiding behind the soil and trees who thought we were a military bus bringing soldiers."
Any widespread investigation of a tragedy on this scale and in these circumstances was virtually impossible yesterday. At times, in the company of armed Syrian forces, we had to run along empty streets with anti-government snipers at the intersections; many families had barricaded themselves in their homes.
Even before we set out for Daraya from the large military airbase in Damascus – which contains both Russian-made Hind attack-helicopters and T-72 tanks – a mortar round, possibly fired from Daraya itself, smashed into the runway scarcely 300 metres from us, sending a column of black smoke towering into the sky. Although Syrian troops nonchalantly continued to take their open-air showers, I began to feel some sympathy for the UN ceasefire monitors who departed Syria last week.
Perhaps the saddest account of all yesterday came from 27-year-old Hamdi Khreitem, who sat in his family home with his brother and sister, and told us of how his parents, Selim and Aisha, had set out to buy bread on Saturday. "We had already seen the pictures on the television of the massacre – the Western channels said it was the Syrian army, the state television said it was the "Free Army" – but we were short of food and Mum and Dad drove into the town. Then we got a call from their mobile and it was my Mum who just said: 'We are dead.' She was not.
"She was wounded in the chest and arm. My Dad was dead but I don't know where he was hit or who killed him. We took him from the hospital, covered up and we buried him yesterday."