An armed group in the Eastern Ghouta city of Douma, just outside Damascus, placed detained Syrian soldiers and civilians in metal cages scattered throughout the city for several hours on Sunday, in a stunt aimed at deterring future government airstrikes on the besieged area.
A video posted by the Shaam News Network, a well-known rebel news outlet, shows a series of trucks with cages fixed to the back, carrying four to eight men and women each, driving through the rebel stronghold of Douma in Eastern Ghouta.
“Rebels in Ghouta have distributed 100 cages, with each cage containing approximated seven people and the plan is afoot to produce 1,000 cages to distribute in Eastern Ghouta … 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,” states the accompanying text.
Most of the detainees are reportedly from President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority, many are women and children and several are officers and soldiers in the Syrian army.
Jaish al-Islam, the strongest armed group in Eastern Ghouta, said it deployed the cages throughout the area in the hopes of deterring future indiscriminate attacks, but residents told Syria Deeply that the cages were removed from public places after about two hours.
The city of Douma was rocked by deadly air strikes over the 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,” said Brice de le Vingne, director of Syria operations for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a statement released Monday.
“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. 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,” he said.
The city of Douma, and the area of Eastern Ghouta as a whole, have been targeted and besieged by government forces for almost three years. In one day in August of this year, government airstrikes killed 112 people and injured at least 200 others, who witnesses say were overwhelmingly civilian.
While noting the horrors regularly inflicted on citizens of besieged areas like Eastern Ghouta, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch Nadim Houry said: “Nothing can justify caging people and intentionally putting them in harm’s way, even if the purpose is to stop indiscriminate government attacks.”
The plan to deter future airstrikes, however, has apparently failed, as Syrian government forces reportedly fired at least six missiles into the area on Tuesday alone.
“The move was disastrous for the city,” 27-year-old Osama, an engineer and civilian activist in Douma, told Syria Deeply via Skype. “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 Nusra Front 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. All of those with whom Syria Deeply spoke, however, agreed that the women and children should be immediately released “because Jaish al-Islam shouldn’t act like the regime.”
“I absolutely refuse that people are used in such a way,” said Samar, a university student at the faculty of literature in Damascus. “First of all because it contradicts the principles of our revolution. 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, told Syria Deeply that “the captives live between the people of Douma, eating the same food, but displaying them in cages is a big mistake. Everyone in Douma is against it.”
While Majed noted that the amount of suffering the people of Douma have endured since Syria’s peaceful revolution turned violent has been unimaginable, caging civilians is simply unacceptable.
Majed put the blame on Jaish al-Islam, who according to him “hold a monopoly on authority.”
“If decision-making was shared with the other brigades and civilian authorities, it would not have come to this,” he said.
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 said, although he told Syria Deeply he refused to join the crowds around the cages, saying the women and children bore too much resemblance to his own wife and kids.
Abu Mohammad, an activist from Douma, is of a similar mind. “At least let them have a taste of what we’re going through every day,” he said. So is Eyad, a photographer in the city. “I’ve been out picking up body parts of women and kids after regime air strikes … they [the Syrian government and its supporters] must feel the pain we in Douma feel on a daily basis,” he said.
All of the sources with whom Syria Deeply spoke to, however, confirmed that 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,” one young activist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Deeply.
Top image: A Syrian tank fires in Harasta, next to the city of Douma, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Syrian troops have been fighting rebels in the frontline district, which lies on the northeastern edge of Damascus and only few kilometers from the presidential palace, since 2013. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)