DOUMA — This past week the civil war in Syria took a grim new turn. An armed group in Syrian city of Douma, just outside Damascus, placed detained Syrian soldiers and civilians in metal cages and paraded them throughout the city for several hours Sunday as part of a stunt to deter future government airstrikes on the besieged area.
A video posted by the Shaam News Network, a well-known rebel media outlet, shows a series of trucks with cages in the back carrying four to eight men and women each and driving through the rebel stronghold in eastern Ghouta.
"Rebels in Ghouta have so far distributed 100 cages, with each cage being able to contain approximated seven people and the plan is to produce 1,000 cages to parade in different parts of Douma city, particularly in public places and markets that have been attacked in the past by the regime and the Russian air force," the accompanying text reads.
Most of the detainees were reportedly from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority — officers and soldiers in the Syrian army but also women and children.
Jaish al-Islam, the strongest armed group in the area, said it deployed the cages in the hopes of deterring future indiscriminate attacks, but residents says the cages were removed from public places after about two hours.
The city of Douma was rocked by deadly airstrikes last weekend, all of which targeted open market places, killing upwards of 70 people and injuring more than 550.
"This massive bombing on a crowded market and the repeated destruction of the few available medical facilities breaches everything that the rules of war stand for," Brice de le Vingne, director of Syria operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), says in a statement.
"In two of the besieged neighborhoods in east Ghouta, there are makeshift hospitals that have been particularly frequently bombed — we are now, for the fourth time this year, financing and providing logistical support to reinstate both facilities," he says. "With sniper-fire preventing people escaping from the besieged areas, we can only imagine with dread what would happen if the slow-death approach of putting people under siege turns into a fast-aerial-massacre approach."
The city of Douma, and the area of eastern Ghouta as a whole, have been targeted by government forces for almost three years. In a single August day, government airstrikes killed 112 people and injured at least 200 others, and witnesses say the victims were overwhelmingly civilian.
"Nothing can justify caging people and intentionally putting them in harm's way, even if the purpose is to stop indiscriminate government attacks," says deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch Nadim Houry.
All for nothing
In the end, the plan to deter future airstrikes failed, as government forces reportedly fired at least six missiles into the area on Tuesday alone.
"The move was disastrous for the city," says 27-year-old Osama, an engineer and civilian activist in Douma. "The bombing didn't stop. It only became worse. The regime doesn't care about the lives of its supporters. They'll just continue shelling us."
Human Rights Watch fears that the civilians seen in the cages are some of the same citizens abducted by Jaish al-Islam and the al-Nusra Front — the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda — during a period of particularly heavy fighting in the same area back in December 2013.
The Syrian crisis, which began as a peaceful uprising against the government in 2011, has led to more than 250,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. At least half of Syria's pre-war population of 22.4 million has either been internally displaced or fled the country.
Opinions in eastern Ghouta vary drastically in regards to Jaish al-Islam's new tactic. But all of those with whom Syria Deeply spoke agreed that the women and children should be immediately released "because Jaish al-Islam shouldn't act like the regime."
Samar, a university student in Damascus, says he would never support treating people that way. "First of all because it contradicts the principles of our revolution," he says. "Second, because our kind prophet ordered us to treat captives well, especially women, and it is unacceptable for the Islam army to represent the opinions of people of Douma with such behavior."
Majed, a doctor who lives in Douma, says that "everyone in Douma is against" caging captives. While he says the people of Douma have endured untold suffering since Syria's peaceful revolution turned violent, this approach is unacceptable. He says that Jaish al-Islam unfortunately "hold a monopoly on authority."
Jaish al-Islam fighters near Damascus — Photo: Thepigthatisawsome/YouTube screeshot
"If decision-making was shared with the other brigades and civilian authorities, it would not have come to this," he says.
Sixty-year-old Abu Yassin is of a different opinion. "It's acceptable for [Syrian army] officers to experience the fear that the people of Douma do," he says, nevertheless adding that he refused to join the crowds around the cages, as the women and children reminded him too much of his own wife and kids.
Abu Mohammad, an activist from Douma, has a similar sentiment. "At least let them have a taste of what we're going through every day," he says.
Eyad, a photographer in the city, agrees. "I've been out picking up body parts of women and kids after regime air strikes," he says. "They [the Syrian government and its supporters] must feel the pain we in Douma feel on a daily basis."
Syria Deeply's sources say the cages were paraded around the city for two hours before residents of the city convinced Jaish al-Islam militants to return the captives to their standard holdings.
"These are not our morals," says one young activist, who asked to remain anonymous.