‘Oh my God, they are shooting!’
A special corespondent for The Times shares his dramatic account of a peaceful funeral that spiralled into bloodshed and terror
The funeral possession had been joined by thousands of Syrians, filling the street in central Damascus.
Women, some clutching the hands of their children, followed the three green box coffins, sending their martyrs to heaven with high-pitched, ululating cries.
Protectively encircled by rings of men, spurred by the exuberant crush of thousands clapping in unison, they unfurled Syria’s revolutionary flag.
The flashes of green, white and black silk were nine metres across, covering the women as they held it to the sky. The first gun shot, which was a Syrian army officer’s signal to his troops, went almost unheard among the songs and chants.
Seconds later, though, the air was filled with deafening and relentless gunfire and the terrified screams of the crowds.
« They are shooting. Oh my God, they are shooting! » screamed a woman, grabbing her five-year-old daughter.
Live rounds hissed overhead or smacked into shop walls. The stampede of as many as 15,000 people turned into a merciless dash for selfpreservation.
As they ran down alleyways, the echo caused by the tall apartment blocks made it impossible to identify the direction of the gunfire. Syrian security forces and the Shabiha, much-feared regime paramilitaries, blocked the exits of the streets.
Snipers fired from roof tops all across the neighbourhood of Mezze.
Raja, 23, a university student, dived into the open doorway of a four-storey apartment block. Her lungs burning, looking wildly up the street, she screamed for her 17-year-old sister, Noor.
Grabbing Noor’s hand, they ran up the stairs, and found the open front-door of an apartment whose owner, an elderly woman, was sheltering fleeing protesters.
A crush of men filled the hallway to protect the entrance, while a dozen women sheltered inside.
In the kitchen, a young girl nursed the graze on her cheek, caused by a fall on to concrete in the escape, and mothers cradled the crying toddlers.
Two teenage girls hugged each other tightly, sobbing uncontrollably. A skinny girl with wide eyes sat on a chair in the corner, trying to drink from a glass but spilling her drink as her hands shook from shock and fear.
They had not expected this funeral march to become violent.
« We had an agreement with the security forces that we would not say anything against President Bashar al-Assad, and that they would not shoot, » said Raja.
The funeral had been for three men shot dead by security forces at an anti-government protest the day before.
It was the first time that security forces have opened fire on crowds in this central, and upmarket, district of Damascus, an ugly milestone in the authorities’ repression of the 11-month long protest against the Assad regime.
Dozens were wounded and, at least, one man killed. Four others were reported to have been killed across Syria on what was a relatively quiet day of protest and repression.
But the scale of the events in Damascus, just a few miles from where Assad was at that moment telling a Chinese envoy of a conspiracy to split the country, caught everyone by surprise.
The procession had rapidly swollen to become one of the largest anti-government protests to take place in the capital so far, and for more than an hour it had been peaceful.
Outside the mosque, thousands had maintained a reverent silence as an imam blessed the bodies in the coffins.
Then, waving olive branches and singing as snow fell thickly, the crowds that had come from restive districts across Damascus surged forward with enormous energy.
As if in a carnival, men had danced among the protesters. « Mezze, Mezze, come and join us! » they shouted to the families watching from balconies. « There is no need for fear. We will be a million martyrs in the heavens. »
But the theatrical production of the Syrian revolutionary flag had triggered the security forces’ crackdown, and, from that moment, all those present would be pursued relentlessly.
As news of the violence was broadcast on the Al Jazeera television station, mobile telephone signals were blocked by the thousands of people calling, desperate for news of family and friends.
On the street outside the apartment, the gunfire had become more methodical: short bursts that sounded as if they were targeted, aimed at smaller groups of men still trying to escape.
« They have killed someone, a young man from Mezze, » said Raja, whose friend had just seen the man hit from the window of a nearby apartment. « They have arrested hundreds of people. They have blocked the roads. Any man they find is being taken away. »
Suddenly, the apartment was plunged into darkness as the city’s power cut out. Moments later, hearing footsteps on the stairwell, the women fell into terrified silence.
« The Shabiha are in the building, » whispered Noor. Hosting a foreign journalist is a major crime in Syria.
They found me a place to hide; covered in children’s cuddy toys in a spot behind a baby’s cot.
« Stay there, don’t say a word, » said Noor.
Clutching AK-47s, men in khaki military uniform and heavy boots patrolled the stairwell in search of protesters. As the footsteps faded, Raja’s friend called to warn that the security forces had begun raiding houses in the neighbouring street.
It was time to leave. A family member drove his car through the narrow street to the doorway, letting the girls and me jump in before quickly driving through a maze of back roads to avoid the checkpoints.
Not far away, his discussions with Assad complete, Zhai Jun, China’s vice-foreign minister, issued a statement urging all parties to stop the violence that has killed more than 5,400 people since March last year.
He was sent from Beijing after anger that China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution criticizing the Assad regime.
He backed a regime plan for a referendum on a constitution next weekend, supposed to introduce democracy to a country that has been ruled by the same family for 40 years, and said he was hopeful that Syrian authorities would restore stability to the country soon.
On the main road that runs through Mezze, armed soldiers filled five parked coaches. Watching and waiting, should there be any further unrest.