Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, northern Syria, are coming under fire from all sides as the battle for control of the city enters its final stage, Amnesty International said following an in-depth investigation on the ground. The warring parties must prioritize protecting them from hostilities and creating safe ways for them to flee the frontline.
In a report released today, the organization documents how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture the “capital” and main stronghold of the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).
Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they faced IS booby traps and snipers targeting anyone trying to flee, as well as a constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group. At the same time, survivors recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs.
In response to United States airstrikes on a Syrian army airbase in Homs, three days after a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 civilians in Idlib province, Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, said:
“US forces must strictly adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law and take all possible measures to protect the civilian population when carrying out military action, including by refraining from using internationally banned-weapons such as cluster munitions.
“Recent airstrikes by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria have killed hundreds of civilians, many of whom were women and children trapped inside their houses.
“The United Nations Security Council has been unable to protect civilians in Syria for the past six years. It has emboldened all parties to the conflict in Syria to commit appalling crimes with impunity.
“It is imperative for member states to adopt a resolution that would ensure an investigation on the ground into the chemical attack that took place in Khan Sheikhoun and that would facilitate bringing perpetrators of such crimes to justice.”
"I was beaten with cables and told to kneel before a picture of Bashar Al-Assad."
Former detainee Abu al-Najem
Six years of crisis in Syria, which began after anti-government protests erupted in March 2011, have been marred by horror and bloodshed. Parties to the conflict continued to commit human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. To date, victims have seen no justice. Syrian government forces, with the support of Russia, have attacked and bombed civilians, killing and injuring thousands; maintained lengthy sieges on civilian areas; subjected tens of thousands to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions; and systematically tortured and otherwise ill-treated detainees causing countless deaths in custody. Armed groups have indiscriminately shelled and besieged predominately civilian areas, and committed abductions, torture and summary killings.
Peaceful activist Hussam (not his real name) survived 20 months in Saydnaya, one of Syria’s most brutal prisons. Now held elsewhere, he wrote this letter in an attempt to describe the “daily hell” he experienced.
To whomever it may concern:
What I tell you is not fiction or a request for sympathy.
From our dark basements hidden from the sun, we raise our voices and search for an echo. We call you to halt the bleeding of life from the young men and women of Syria. Halt the fire that consumes their youth in the prisons and detention centres of President al-Assad.
They do not belong here. They are not born just to be a piece of paper in the hands of al-Assad and his dictatorial regime, or timber in the fire which he burns with hatred and lust for revenge – just because we dreamed of a dignified nation that safeguards our rights.
More than 4 million refugees from Syria (95%) are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt:Lebanon hosts approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country Jordan hosts about 650,000 refugees from Syria, which amounts to about 10% of the population Turkey hosts 1.9 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country worldwide Iraq where 3 million people have been internally displaced in the last 18 months hosts 249,463 refugees from Syria Egypt hosts 132,375 refugees from Syria The UN humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees is just 40% funded.
Funding shortages mean that the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just $13.50 per month or less than half a dollar a day for food assistance.
More than 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan living below the local poverty line.Conflict in Syria
Around 220,000 people have been killed and 12.8 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria
By Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Europe Director at Amnesty International. Follow Gauri on Twitter @GaurivanGulik.
A solemn moment of silence. The world over, this is the traditional response when lives are cut short by tragedy.
It has also been a common response to tragedies in Europe and off its shores which have ended the lives of thousands of refugees and migrants. Not killed by bombs in Syria, but killed while making terrifying journeys in search of safety and better lives in Europe.
But the scale and rapid succession of these tragedies calls for breaking the silence.
In the space of a week, along with people across the world, I recoiled in horror as four new tragedies added to a growing list of events that have already brought a record number of refugees and migrants to untimely deaths this year. According to UNHCR, 2,500 have already perished en route to Europe since 1 January 2015.
On 26 August, 52 bodies were found inside the hull of a ship about 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.
by Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English branch)
- September 8, 2014, from Guadalajara, Mexico
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It had been a two and a half hour drive from Guadalajara. As we approached, the ominously named prison, CEFERESO Number 4, the Federal Centre for Social Rehabilitation, loomed large and intimidating at the bottom of one last hill.
We spent the next hour going through the most extensive series of endless security checks I’ve been through in any prison visit, anywhere. It included a stamp on our forearms which only showed up under a special light, which we had to show again on our way out to demonstrate that none of us had stayed behind and allowed a prisoner to slip out in our place. There was, in fact, far more visible security than I have experienced on any of the visits I’ve made to the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The last time Rania (not her real name) spoke to her friend Mohamed Bachir Arab, was on 1 November 2011. As a hard working doctor and committed political activist, Mohamed had been living in hiding for six months, trying to evade the ever present tentacles of the Syrian intelligence forces, who routinely detain peaceful activists like him.
The following day her worst fears were realized. A strap line on the evening news announced he had been arrested. None of his relatives knew where he had been taken.
Mohamed was a marked man. He had been a student leader at his university in the city of Aleppo, in north-west Syria. Over the years, he had organized a number of protests against government policies, which had landed him in trouble with the authorities. Between 2004 and 2005 he was detained for several months before being released.
But this time, his relatives and colleagues feared it was different. Since the crisis in Syria began in March 2011, the number of individuals who have been detained in secret by the state – or forcibly disappeared – has spiralled out of control.
“Nasser, every minute of our day is spent in pain and agony since you were detained. We have lost any joy and fear has become our companion…The children's fear over your fate is robbing them of their childhood.” Farizah Jahjah Bondek, wife of Nasser Saber Bondek.
On the evening of February 17, 2014, members of the Syrian security forces believed to be part of Military Intelligence, arrested at least four people from Sahnaya (a suburb of Damascus) including Nasser Saber Bondek. He has not been seen since.
While the official reasons for his arrest are unknown, it is believed that it could be related to his humanitarian assistance activities. His wife Farizaqh is a peaceful political activist, known for attending demonstrations. Fearing arrest, she fled Syria with their children before her husband was taken by the authorities.
By Khairunissa Dhala, Refugee Researcher at Amnesty International
When Khalil, 26, entered Lebanon having escaped the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria, he thought his life would finally improve.
But one night, he was lured into a meeting with two men. He says they raped him, stole money from his wallet and his mobile phone.
Khalil never reported the alleged rape to the police. He is a refugee, and he is also gay. He feared he would be penalized, and that no one would care about what had happened to him.
Since then, he has tried to commit suicide – a friend found him and took him to hospital.
Although Lebanon is often perceived as more tolerant than most countries in the region, like in Syria the Lebanese Penal Code considers ‘homosexual acts’ illegal. The country’s lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) community is growing in prominence but the issue is still a taboo.
As one of the nearly one million refugees from Syria in Lebanon, Khalil claims to suffer daily discrimination on the basis of his nationality. But as a gay man he faces further hardship.
Following the announcement that The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International commented:
“This is a worthy winner, and a choice that reaffirms international principles against the use of chemical weapons and other banned weapons that cause untold suffering.
“It is a timely reminder to all governments and to those fighting in armed conflicts that wars have rules that must be respected. The prohibition of chemical weapons is one example of these important rules whose aim is to spare civilians.
“The recent deal in Syria was of course a positive step to remove banned chemical weapons from the battlefield, but we can’t lose sight of the enormity of the human rights crisis in the country.
The UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic investigating the 21 August attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on Monday reported that it had found convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used on a large scale.
Amnesty International condemns the use of chemical weapons in the strongest possible terms. They are internationally banned and their use is a war crime.
Crimes under international law are being perpetrated on a daily basis in Syria. Accountability for the 21 August attacks and other violations are long overdue.
We reiterate our call for the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria to be given immediate and unfettered access to Syria to seek to uncover further evidence about who was responsible for these attacks. It should also be allowed to investigate the other crimes under international law being committed by all parties to the conflict.