Islamic State fighters burst into Qaryatayn at night late last month, launching a surprise attack on a town deep within regime territory.
Over the next few days, the Islamic State (IS) established its control over the central Homs province town of roughly 14,000. And over the course of the following month, its members went door to door, seizing dozens of men from their homes for summary executions.
But as phone and internet lines remained cut off, any news of the killings was confined to within Qaryatayn, as neighbors informed one another of deaths and arrests.
Family members outside the town remained in the dark.
Reports of the killings—now being dubbed a “massacre” by local residents and news outlets—first emerged after Syrian regime forces retook the town on Saturday.
At first, local news pages counted around 60 dead. By Monday, the victim count had risen to an estimated 100 people, with dozens of the bodies still unidentified, pro-opposition citizen journalist page Badia 24 reported.
Among the dead are boys as young as 16, the page reported. Others were recent returnees from a remote displacement camp in Syria’s southeastern desert, who thought life had returned to enough of a semblance of normalcy to start over. Many were government employees, two former residents whose relatives were killed told Syria Direct.
At least two of the victims were among the last 30 remaining Christian residents of the formerly mixed-religion town, Jamil Diarbakerli, director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human rights told Syria Direct on Monday. “The others were able to leave Qaryatayn [on Sunday] after the Syrian regime regained control of the city,” Diarbakerli said.
Downtown Qaryatayn on Monday. Photo courtesy of Umm Hamza.
Qaryatayn was once home to roughly 14,000 Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in Damascus. When the town first fell to the Islamic State in 2015, thousands of its residents fled for safety.
Syria Direct speaks with Umm Hamza, 26, a mother of two from Qaryatayn who says her husband was one of those killed by IS in recent weeks. Over the course of nearly one month, she witnessed IS enter the town and arrest her husband from their home. She later found his body dumped on the street. His name is on a list of victims posted on Qaryatayn Media Center, a news page run by former residents.
“They took him because he was a government employee,” she tells Syria Direct from Damascus, where she fled with her two sons after regime forces retook Qaryatayn. “They told me: ‘Shut up, woman.’ Then they took him away.”
Q: Can you describe what happened when the Islamic State entered Qaryatayn late last month?
Daesh arrived on Friday evening, September 29. We were inside and didn’t hear anything but heavy gunfire and clashes—we thought it might be at the checkpoint outside of town.
[Ed.: Throughout the interview, Umm Hamza refers to the Islamic State as “Daesh,” the group’s Arabic acronym.]
An hour after the clashes broke out, we still didn’t know what was happening outside. I called my uncle on the phone.
He said "they" [IS] had entered, that we couldn’t talk about it on the phone. I was totally paralyzed and I had no idea what to do.
At 8pm, we started hearing the sounds of people shouting “Takbeer!” A little while after that, I called my uncle’s house again, and he told me that “they” had returned—and that I shouldn’t go outside.
After that, communications cut off, and we didn’t know what had happened. My husband went out and said, “Get up, let’s go to your uncle’s house.”
When we went out, they told us: “Go back to your house, it’s forbidden to walk around.” They took my husband’s ID card and broke it.
We stayed in the house without leaving for three days, not knowing anything.
[Daesh] took our neighbors’ son who was on their bad side and they had come to settle scores. When [Daesh] took him, the neighbors came and told us about it, and about how Daesh was detaining other people and looting businesses.
The raids came at night and day. Every day after that first week, we’d get news [from neighbors and relatives] that there was a person who was bound and killed in the square, and they’d tell us that so-and-so had been killed and then they tossed his body.
We didn’t know what we could do. Everyone felt like their turn was coming.
We ran out of food and water. I started going to the neighbors so I could get water from their well to drink, and ate stale bread with spinach.
Q: The Islamic State arrested your husband as well. Can you describe what happened?
My husband and I were asleep on the night of Monday, October 15. [Daesh members] knocked on the door at about 3am.
They took [my husband] because he said that he was a government employee, which meant that he was on the regime’s side—or at least that’s what they said to him. I started pleading with them. The children were crying.
I was six months pregnant, so they said to my husband: “What’s this? Regime soldiers got your wife knocked up?” To me, they said: “Shut up, woman.” They took him away.
Afterwards I spoke with our neighbor. I told him to ask around about [my husband], but he replied: “I’m afraid they’ll murder me.”
Two days after they arrested my husband, [Daesh] came and raided the house again. They turned the house upside down and broke everything—even my ID card. They took the TV and threatened that if I didn’t give them my gold they were going to kill me and my family. I took my off bracelet and even my wedding ring and handed them over.
On Friday, in the morning, I heard a voice at the door. I found our neighbor saying “come and see,” and I found my husband outside. They had thrown his body in the road.
I started crying and swearing. The neighbor came and told me to stop, that [Daesh] would kill me, too. My neighbors took me home and buried my husband in the field near our house.
I’m here crying, I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what to do. My children cry. I’ve lived dark days, every minute and every second of them.
Q: How did you find out that Qaryatayn had been retaken by the regime?
On Saturday, I heard [someone knocking on] my door. My neighbor was there, saying that the [regime] army had arrived and liberated us, that the army had arrived to Qaryatayn.
But we didn’t feel the taste of liberation. When the army arrived, groups of gunmen also arrived and killed whoever had been giving information to Daesh. This is what was told to me by my uncles who were in the Qabilah neighborhood.
When Daesh came they killed those who were with the regime, and when the regime came they killed those who were with Daesh. In the end, anyone, no matter which side they were standing on, was killed.
Monday, before I left the city, 110 people were buried in the al-Shimaliya and al-Qabiliya cemeteries. But people still haven’t checked in the fields or the farms [for dead bodies]. There are lots of people who are missing and nobody knows anything about them, even now. There are people who’ve been found in wells whose remains can’t be identified. Believe me, you have to identify the body by their clothes since their bodies have swollen [from the water]. It’s terrible.
All of Qaryatayn is crying.