Eyewitness report from Syria – from near the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab (as)

5 Aug

By

Qasim Assady

The Holy Proximity of Sayyidah Zainab (sa)

The report:

In this report I’ll state what’s been seen and been publicly known in the Sayyida Zainab area.

This area has the shi’at Muslim holy shrine of Lady Zainab 15 KM southern east of Damascus.

The area has multi-ethnic and multi-doctrinal communities. In the outskirts there is a majority of people who are originally displaced from Occupied Syrian Golan and lived in the outskirts of the area. The region which is very close and surrounding the Shrine and which has hotels is inhabited by about 60% shi’at, mainly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. They have their educational institution and Islamic seminaries. All various people practice their religious activities very freely. The shi’at religious and educational institutions and seminaries (which are mainly run by non-Syrian) are open to many students from all-over the world and also sponsor local and overseas students. All their funds come from abroad via charities, educational centers and grand clerics.
Other poor shi’at people who are Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees are living as a minority in the outskirt with the majority Golani Sunni people, (in regions called Hijjirah, Ghurbah, Thiyabiyyah, Speanah, Bibbilah, etc.), as they are very cheap for renting or for purchasing. Most of these areas include mostly poor people with low level of education.

During about one year there were small daily demonstrations against the Syrian authorities in those areas but not in the side of the holy shrine in which there is no demonstration has been shown even from the Sunni people side. The Sunni people in living in the side of the Holy shrine understands that any political change that may take place in favour of the Sunni Islamic revolution means there will be no religious tourism and no shi’at pilgrims at all, and hence their business will collapse, as other Shiite people thing that any political change mean that they will be slaughtered at all or at least they will be prevented from their religious rights and won’t let to practice their religious activities. So those Sunnis kept quite in their many mosques surrounding the Lady Zainab area until the present moment (3rd of Aug. 2012).

However the case was different in the neighborhood areas. People there sometimes feel jealous of the people near the Shrine who have more business opportunities with tourists. The opposition groups of Sunni people severely criticize the minorities in Syria especially the Shi’at (more than the Sunnis) of not supporting the opposition claims and activities and by that they accuse them of supporting the Syrian regime. So some extremist people especially Sunni “Wahabis” and “Salafis” utilized this kind of political criticism in favour of agitating sectarian hatred.

Therefore new stage of conflict began, starting from April 1012. Individuals from the opposition groups began to assassinate some shi’at scholars who lead or teach in the shi’at institutions from one time to another especially those who live among them in the hot spots. However Shi’at community tried to remain steadfast and overseas students were striving to finish the academic year among few violent cases but many rumours until the end of the year which was made one month in advance and finish by the end of June.

On Monday 17th of July 2012, the story has been reached the climax.

In the morning, strangers with arms (pistols, guns, swords, axes) were noticed by people in those areas accompanied by some local people from the opposition groups who also appeared to be armed publicly for the 1st time and were roaming the streets.
At 12 o’clock, loudspeakers in Sunni mosques and in the streets were heard calling for “Islamic jihad” and ordering the shi’at people to leave their places at once or they will all be killed. After few minutes there were other calls ordering all Sunni people who are not supporting the opposition to leave their places at once or they will meet the same destiny of Shi’at.

People were terrified and confused. They rushed in all directions taking nothing with them. I noticed troops of civilian people riding, running and walking on feet towards vacant farms and other troops towards Damascus about 15 Km away. I phoned a friend of mine to help, but to his shock he couldn’t recognize me and from his voice he seemed to be shivering. Most of the shi’at and some non-allied Sunnis sought refuge in Sayyidah zainab region behind the Shrine. This part of the region seems to be fortified with big buildings, hotels and very narrow streets, so it can somehow easily to be safeguarded.

On Tuesday 17the of Jul.2012, there was an attack on the criminal security police station in the main street of Sayyida Zainab. Shooting lasted for two hours at least and then the attackers withdrew after the presence of a police detachment. In the evening, heavy shooting sounds and bombs were heard. Armed men who claimed to be from the free opposition army declared that their areas (Hijjira, Mashtal, thiyabiyya, etc.) are under their control and they are now ready to enter the Sayyida Zainab area where majority of civilian shi’at people are living from different countries. Majority of the people I am living with in this area were civilian and politically independent while there were no army, no militias but only local police stations.

At midnight, there was a fierce battle between the armed opposition and the residents in the Sayyida Zainab who have immediately formed a semi local militia to defend their region. Several attempts to enter the area but they succeeded to attack an Iranian shi’at mosque at northern extreme of the region and also attacked Imam Khamanai reprehensive office by missiles and bombs. On the other side 2-3 km south of the region, armed young men attacked Imam Khomeini charity hospital, evacuated the hospital, and robbed all its contents. Two of the staff (who were mostly shi’at) never showed up again the next days. Next day, from the roof of our building, I was monitoring the Helicopters come and bomb the hospital after it has been taken as fortress for their free army activities in Thyabiya area.

It seemed that there were two extremes who may clearly know each other, the original Syrian shi’at residents close to the holy shrine and the opposite Sunni people on the other side of the area. What we have seen was a real battle between the youth of the two neighboring regions. The battle was considerably marked with a sectarian nature. There were many killed, injured and kidnapped people from the two sides, in addition to breaking into some houses and killing its people. Still there was no interference by the army.

On Wednesday 18th of Jul. 2012, helicopters came and opened fire to all the areas under the opposition group. By this most of Sunni mosques were calling for Jihad and shouting (Allahu Akber) continuously while the attack is going on. The armed groups were shooting against the Helicopters using missiles and other arms but were not successful. Buildings, doors and windows were trembling because of the fierce battle which almost stopped afternoon.
Late afternoon, a big number of armed stranger people arrived at the Iraqi street and Iraqi square (only 500 meters away of the shrine) which was the northern gate to the region behind the shrine where most of shi’at refugees in addition to the refugees from Homs and other places are resorting to. The Iraqi square lies in the Iraqi street where the majority of its residents are Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis refugees from Iraq, and Iraqi business men. They ordered all Iraqis to travel right away after they’ve killed few of them during the past days. There were no enough transportation means to evacuate thousands of families. In the evening, big battles between the armed attackers and the shi’at youth of the region and many attempts to break into the region which is less than 1 km2. There were many appeals to the security police and army forces by the residents but there was no response. Some people were killed and injured from the two sides.

Thursday 19th of Jul. 2012 a helicopter launched a missile over a funeral in the cemetery in Hijjirah area 3 km away of the Sayyida zainab region. A spokesman from the opposition sated that about 100 people were killed and injured, some of whom were unknown. Several helicopters also came and opened fire to buildings where the armed rebels were fortifying themselves. Many civilians escaped from the area to the nearby region of Sayyidah Zainab and the people open their houses for them though they don’t know them, but mostly they were families. More than 3000 families are now living in this place for free under safeguarding by people from the same region and orphan families are being provided by food as well and other poor by money. On the contrary of what had been claimed, I have not noticed any Iraqi militias nor Lebanese among the people on the Shi’at side.

Thursday afternoon, the opposition groups were calling via loud speakers in their mosques to kill all Shiites and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and all the ways to Damascus and elsewhere were blocked by them. They were able seize some Shiites on their way to Damascus as captives. They killed some of them, which agitated the case on the other side.

In the evening, fierce battles between the armed groups and the armed shi’at youth in the Sayyida Zainab region. In the morning dead bodies were found in the streets. There was confusion among the population in the region of Sayyida Zeinab, and cubby and unrivaled panic. Fear and anxiety is clear to everyone, including myself and family.

In the early morning, gathering of a large number of armed men in the Hijjirah region in preparation for a retaliatory attack on Sayyida Zainab region in response to the events of yesterday when many fell of dead and injured in their areas due to the helicopters bombing.
So there was fear of mass killings in the Sayyida Zainab, especially when the rebels declare their will to the destroy the region, and the people on the other side being armed by guns declare their willingness to defend their region to death. Still there were no governmental elements but Helicopters flights from time to time.

Friday, 20th of Jul. 2012, it was a new turning point against the rebels. Troops of army forces covered by helicopters arrived at the areas. There were huge bombing and shelling, when we rushed to a humble shelter in our building. We didn’t know what was going on during the day. No shops were open, no care were in the street and nobody was seen in our street, which is about 400 meters away of the shrine. All or most of my neighbours escaped away without notice. There is no food, no drinking water and no transportation means outside. After noon, my Iraqi friend Mr. Shaker, an Arabic teacher in the institutes here, and his family insisted to leave the country whatever the case. I was able to help him to carry their luggage on my moving armchair for 1200 meters walking under heavy shooting over our heads from everywhere to the Iraqi bus station near the Iraqi square. I said by-by to him half way and returned quickly to my family.

Saturday 21st of Jul.2012. Shelling and bombing were everywhere. I succeeded to book for my family by bus for a high price. At 12 o’clock as there were no transportation means. The streets are empty except of some armed young men who were blocking the ways to the region from strangers. I also sacrificed with the rest of movable armchairs to carry the heavy luggage of my family for a distance of more than 1200 meters and succeeded to evacuate them through it was very risky adventure.
In the evening I heard that governmental army troops went towards thyabiya and some other areas and succeeded to enter them. The night of that evening was the worst ever. Many armed men managed to escape from the battle field and came in our block to lurk on the roofs of vacant buildings and started snipping and opening fire against the checking point on the southern gate of sayyidah Zainab region and snipers occupied suitable places above the roofs . A fierce battle took a place at that night dark night when there was no electricity, no clinics, no pharmacies, etc… Windows were broken and glasses was found to be spread every where the next morning. Thanks to Allah that I was able to evacuate my family in time.

Sunday 22nd of Jul. 2012, it was very calm in the morning and then the situation exploded after noon. Army troops accompanied by helicopters began to attack the hot areas again in midst of the lack of life necessities even in the region around the shrine where thousands of displaced and refugee families were staying. The hospitals in the area has been occupied first by the armed rebels, robbed and then bombed by the government forces as the rebels fortified themselves in. The mosques which were taken as fortresses for the armed rebels were also bombed and damaged.
This situation lasted for the following 2 days.

On Tuesday 24th, The situation has got better as few people began to go searching for food, water and other necessities. I was able to find a friend who has a taxi to give me a lift to Damascus to look for booking tickets in case of emergency. The way to Damascus is empty and very terrifying in case that armed men may block the way to find out that I am Shiite and my companion as well and seize us. But we were able to pass and come back again. At that time, It seemed to me the fighting people were either dead or having rest to fight in the evening. In the evening we heard fighting but farther than before. Next day is the same but charity members, Red Crescent team and rescuers began to work and save people in trouble.

The next days until now are much better but not stable as few cases may happen sometimes. From one time to rebels may seize an opportunity to attack a checking point or police station. However some shops began to open and we can see few taxies in the streets. I went to Damascus on Wednesday 1st of Aug. 2012 to receive relieves to poor and displaced people and the way was safe. People and families in the hot areas began to return to their house. Some people found their houses damaged. Also Some Shiites went back to check their places to find out either robbed and burned by the rebels or damaged by the shelling. Also some Afhani Shiites and Syrians who I know brought back dead as snipers were watching them to visit their places and kill them. Now no troops in the areas but there are security police occupying the heads of the streets.

Qasim Assady
Friday, August 03, 2012

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