Ten Years On Since the Homs Clock Tower Massacre
The city of Homs lies in centre-west of Syria, bordering Lebanon to the west and its governorate extending eastwards up until the Iraqi borders. Its sister, the city of Hama, borders Homs to the north, which is only 40 kilometres away from it whilst the capital Damascus borders it from the south, which is approximately 160 kilometres away from it. Homs ranks third in importance and population after Damascus and Aleppo, but is the largest in land mass of all Syrian governorates. Further, Homs is a crucial industrial centre for oil refinery, phosphates, electricity generation, sugar and textiles amongst other products.
Prelude to the massacre:
The city of Homs was of the first cities in the country that engaged in the peaceful movement that demanded reform and then change as a response to the tyranny and corruption it had been subjected to like the rest of the country; in addition to the extensive injustice and marginalisation that was characteristic of the way in which the Assad regime dealt with the city. Matters were exacerbated by the sectarian rule over the city, and the arrest of many hundreds of the city’s youth who disappeared in prisons before realising their dreams.
The young activist Fadi describes the situation in detail to the Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC): “At the beginning, the demonstrations were an expression of our anger, sorrow and silenced grief that weighed heavy on our hearts for the past 40 years. Of course, I did not live through all the old details, but my family, friends and acquaintances had all told me that the situation in Syria was different from other cities. When one of us participated (in a demonstration), we would be carrying our heart in our hands, unsure whether or not we will be returning home that night.”
In addition to the authoritarian practices of the governor of Homs, Iyad Ghazal, prior to the demonstrations that began engulfing the city, he had erected a project to remove the traditional historical markets and replacing them with what he dubbed as “Homs Dream Project”, which the residents referred to as “Homs’ nightmare”. The project would deprive the city’s traders from their own shops, products and resources, and was directly supported by Bashar al-Assad. Despite the many petitions, letters and delegations regarding the damaged livelihoods of old-time traders, they received no response and no response regarding the governor’s intention of proceeding with the project.
The human rights activist Najati describes the motives of the city residents to participate in the demonstrations: “The reasons for the start of the Syrian revolution are a long accumulation of social oppression that our people in Homs had lived in particular. There were reasons associated with the ‘Homs’ nightmare’ project, which was a project launched by the corrupt governor that reimagined downtown Homs, in changing the city centre and reconstructing the city. It is a large project that he envisioned to be similar to that of Dubai and other modern cities, but at the expense of residents of the city and its traders. Then there was the various subjugations of Homs in it being in the centre of Syria, thus having its own specific contexts such as as the constant drought affecting its livelihood, and the constant violations against the city and its residents by imposing harsh intelligence and powers upon them, that oppressed them and persecuted them. In addition to creating an air of illusion all around the city in order to besiege and control it.”
April 17th 2011: In the lead-up to the massacre:
Homs responded quickly to the peaceful movement in Daraa, and peaceful demonstrations began spreading across its neighbourhoods as the authorities tightened their security on the city centre. The more the authorities increased their repression and fired live bullets on neighbourhoods, the more the residents of Homs insisted on demonstrating and demanding a change of governor, reforms, lifting the state of emergency and freedom.
On Sunday, April 17th 2011, demonstrations took place in various neighbourhoods in the city and its suburbs, as it was a day of celebration that marked the independence of Syria from French colonisation in 1946. The authorities dealt with demonstrations brutally, killing eight demonstrators in Bab SIbaa’ and Al-Marijeh neighbourhoods, and another four people in the Talbiseh town which is but 10 kilometres away from the city centre. The impact of the events was one of shock across the entire city and countryside. Activist Abduljabbar describes the impact by saying: “The truth is that the fall of the martyrs in Bab Sibaa’ was shocking to everyone for two reasons: the first being the very death of the young men who were martyred, and the second was that we expected one or two martyrs to fall within a week. However, when 12 martyrs fell in one day, eight of them from the same neighbourhood, the event hit everyone in Homs like a thunderbolt. Everyone was startled by the dangerous development that had taken place, and so their reaction was to do something that expressed their determination and loyalty to the martyrs.” Thus, calls were sent out that night for the participation in a funeral for the martyrs of Bab Sibaa’ the next day, at the Grand Al-Nuri Mosque.
April 18th 2011: The day of the sit-in and massacre
On the next day, April 18th, crowds of people flocked to participate in the funeral prayer and burial in ‘Al-Katheeb al-Ahmar’ cemetery. Large numbers of people moved from the city and countryside alike to attend the funeral prayers at the Grand Al-Nuri Mosque after the noon prayer. The mosque, Hisbah Street and the surrounding areas were packed with people coming to mourn. The people were heightened in their emotions of passion and anger, so much so that one of scholars in attendance addressed the people in honour of the martyrs, seeking to calm the crowds.
The rumbling funeral procession set off, breaking through the Al-Hamidiya Street which is commercial in its beginning, and where a significant number of the Christian community live towards the upper side of the street. The solidarity between everyone was a brilliant sight, including the distribution of water and spraying of it on the crowds. As the start of the funeral procession reached the cemetery and completed the burials, the end of the procession was still continuing in Al-Hamidiya Street. Human rights activist Najati describes the profound atmosphere at the time: “The gathering for the funeral was a weeping crowd, accompanied by chants, Quranic recitation and prayers. I can attest to the widespread solidarity shown by the people from the Hamidiya neighbourhood who shared the grief of the families if the martyrs and the anguish of those gathered in the crowd.” The provocation started during the funeral procession in the cemetery, as bullets were fired towards the cemetery and crowd from the roof of a private hospital known to be owned by a sectarian. Al-Sheikh Fares narrates what he saw: “Whilst we were in the cemetery during the funeral and burial, bullets began being fired at us from the rooftops of a hospital owned by one of the sectarian doctors. The harm began in Karam Shamsham neighbourhood which is close to the cemetery, and unfortunately from there the escalation began.”
After the burial of the victims, the funeral procession headed for a sit-in in the city centre. Some of those in the crowd – and it has been said that they were infiltrators – attempted to head the procession to the sectarian Al-Zahraa neighbourhood that is close to the cemetery, however the vast majority of the crowd refused and prevented them from heading towards the neighbourhood considering that their problem was with the oppressive regime and not with others within the nation. The crowds were chanting for a united Syria, and for overthrowing the governor. Al-Sheikh Fares, who was an active participant in the event says: “The demonstrators were chanting phrases that had no sectarian or racist implications. In fact, at the beginning in Homs there was no demand yet for the downfall of the regime, the chants instead were ‘The people want the downfall of the governor’. They were chanting to bring down the one who had repressed and tightened his grip on them, no one discussed the issue of bringing down the regime at the beginning. The chants were peaceful: to bring down the governor and in solidarity with Daraa.” Crowds began moving towards the Clock Tower Square from all over the city, people were calling each other and urging each other to attend. People came from the neighbouring towns of Deir Ba’alba, Baba Amro, Teir Ma’alah, Talbiseh, Talkalakh and Al-Rastan; men and women, old and young were all in attendance. On the participation of women, school-teacher Um Mahmoud narrates what happened to her: “Upon learning that my son is partaking in the sit-in I called him on his mobile and asked him ‘are there any women?’, but he did not answer me. I switched on the television, watched the live broadcast on Al-Jazeera channel and saw that there were women in attendance. I immediately got ready, ordered a taxi and set off. As I was on the way, I informed the taxi driver that I was going to the Clock Tower Square.”
When the prayer time came in, the people prayed collectively and called upon God to save them from tyranny. They sang patriotic and passionate songs, and filled the streets with chants for freedom, dignity, reform, the downfall of the governor and the overthrowing of the state of emergency. Several tents were set up in the square, of them was one for the religious scholars and one for the ‘National Unity’; soon enough loudspeakers were also set up, and the speakers were calling for freedom and dignity. Human rights activist, Najati, narrates the situation at the time: “The image of prayer, that was subsequently spread widely, was one of the events but was not the entire scene of the sit-in. There were pictures of the chanting and the singing, pictures of the speeches that were given and of food distribution. There were mixed feelings when the prayer time came in, which is a normal thing to happen amongst those congregated in the square, as the people did not want to leave the square when the prayer time sounded and so they prayed in the square itself. However, why did the media not show any of the other images, such as of the dances, singing, speeches, and the various calls that took place, but focused on the prayer?”
Among the scholars present were those who attempted to calm the turmoil among the demonstrators, some of which informed the crowd that they were in contact with the authorities who had requested from them to break up the sit-in. However, the demonstrators were determined to continue the sit-in until their demands were met.
The sit-in was distinguished by the cooperation and harmony amongst all the people coming from different backgrounds. They kept the place clean, and some of them stood on the outskirts of the streets leading to the square, keeping a watch and ensuring that no one with a weapon or intending trouble enters the space. People donated water and food to the demonstrators, and the sit-in was like a wedding for everyone – separating between the city’s past and future in breaking the wall of fear and tyranny. It is for this reason, the regime’s response was devastating in destroying the city and displacing a significant number of its residents. Al-Sheikh Fares speaks of his experience on this matter, saying: “The regime was keen to divert the path of sit-in, to the extent that there were shabiha (thugs) dressed in Pakistani and Kandarhi clothes in order to give the sit-in a seemingly terror-inclined characterisation. This was how the order was intended, but the youth in the sit-in were able to arrest them in the moment and found pictures on the phones with them that proved that they were shabiha.”
Dispersing the sit-in
The sit-in continued until the later hours of the night, as various messages came from some of those in attendance who had contact with regime officials. They started advising the people to go back to their homes reassuring them that their demands were under consideration, however the passion of the youth made them insist on staying and chanting for freedom and dignity until their demands were met. By this time, the square was empty of women and the elderly, but still remained full with demonstrators. After midnight, the demonstrators began seeing sparks resembling fireworks in the distance from the eastern side, and soon after began hearing the sound of shooting drawing closer to them. The demonstrators were startled to see people run from the direction of the old clock towards the new square, meanwhile the shooting intensified and everyone began running in all directions seeking cover, waking each other up, helping each other and jumping over each other. Many left their belongings behind as they took off, some even running barefoot. The firing was intense, and the crowds were running with their backs bent, fearing they would be hit by the bullets. At any chance given, people were hiding behind corners and in the side-roads in order to not be hit by the bullets which were like rain torrents falling over the people, witnessing those falling or being injured instantly by the shots. Human rights activist Najati narrates his experience during these moments: “The shooting and explosions started from the eastern side, and the youth began running. In truth, they did not expect this degree of pressure, rather they were expecting some intimidation but the heavy bullets caused deep panic and terror amongst them. The truth is that all the men got up and I got up with them, I ran towards Abdulhamid Al-Droubi street until I fell down from the intensity of my running, then got up and continued to the corner to the street, there I saw young men carrying a wounded man heading towards the park near my house.”
Al-Shaikh Fares says: “Then – the offensive forces – collected the belongings of the people who were sitting in the square and burnt them all, they began dancing around them and firing live bullets. We saw this with our own eyes. They were shooting bullets and chanting in support of Assad, and they had also written messages on the walls saying: ‘Assad or we burn the country.’ The message they intended to send was clear through their actions.”
Human rights activist, Najati, continues his description of the events on the next morning, April 19th: “Several hours passed into the morning, at around 6.30am I managed to climb into a spot that overlooked the square – in order to find out how things turned out. The scene was a mixture of blood, broken glass and tree branches, whilst municipality workers undertook a thorough cleansing operation of the square. People in all corners of the square were watching dazed, as though they were drunk without being drunk.”
The demonstrators dispersed upon the shooting, however most of them did not return home but rather sought refuge in the narrow streets and alleyways after hearing about the arrests of the some of the figureheads and scholars from the sit-in; particularly those who were negotiating with the regime’s security and military officers, who were then betrayed by them – violating any agreement henceforth to solve matters peacefully.
There have been various accounts on the number of demonstrators, as witnesses have also differed over the number of the victims and those injured. According to testimonies of witnesses, the number of demonstrators ranged between 100,000 and 250,000, whilst the number of victims ranges from a few dozen to a few hundred. Activist Abdulsalam, who had partaken in the events, told us that the number of those killed by regime forces was not a large number because he believed the authorities did not want to kill many people. According to him, if the regime wanted they would have easily killed 5000 demonstrators due to the heavy presence in the sit-down. He states that the bullets were fired either between the legs or in the air. The Syrian Human Rights Committee were unable to determine an approximate number for both victims and demonstrators through their investigations and interviews with witnesses, due to the sheer magnitude of the sit-in.
Legal description and those responsible for the massacre:
As per the legal description, the Clock Tower Massacre falls under genocidal crimes carried out by the regime of Bashar Assad, because they targeted a large group of peaceful demonstrators with live bullets with the intent to kill. Therefore, the Syrian Human Rights Committee calls for the inclusion of the massacre committed by the Bashar Assad regime among the crimes committed against humanity, war crimes and genocide. As well as holding the perpetrators accountable in accordance to Syrian law and the relevant international laws and conventions.
Amongst the most prominent officials mentioned as responsible for the massacre:
- As’ad Dawoud Sayel, Deputy head of the Air Force Intelligence branch in the central region for 2011, and supervisor of the so called National Defence militia, in Homs.
- Major General Ali Yunus, Head of the Security Committee in the Governorate of Homs at the time.
- Lieutenant Colonel Haider Haider, Head of Bab Sibaa’ Police department, responsible for the massacre that took place the day before the Clock Tower Massacre, in Bab Sibaa’ and Al-Marijeh neighbourhoods.
The Syrian Human Rights Committee