In Douma last Friday, 10km southeast of central Damascus, Syrian warplanes carried out at least 12 airstrikes on apartment buildings, a vegetable market and the Violations Documentation Center, an independent, non-profit organization investigating human rights abuses in Syria since 2011.
A regime warplane fired two guided missiles into the VDC’s building. The first hit it head on, sending glass and rubble in every direction as smoke billowed. Shortly thereafter, the second crashed into the nearby street.
“What happened this past Friday was not new,” VDC office manager Thaer Hijazi tells Syria Direct’s Mahran al-Maqdad. “We’ve seen bombings like this take place countless times before in Douma; just another wave of indiscriminate bombings, striking military and civilian targets alike.”
The activists are not only targeted from the sky, Hijazi says.
The Violations Documentation Center in Douma. Photo courtesy of VDC-Syria.
“Either we’re deliberately—or inadvertently—targeted by the regime, or we’re persecuted by the rebel groups that we’re investigating.”
Q: Your office has dealt with repeated bombings and targeted kidnappings. How are you able to safely conduct such sensitive work given the ever-present dangers of war?
Not only do we document human rights violations, but we do it in the trenches of the war. That means that intense waves of bombing can be a daily reality in East Ghouta. That means that our employees can face arrest or even fall victim to the very crimes that we document. That even means that the relatives of our employees can be kidnapped, tortured, bombed or shot.
Sitting here, in our office, it’s easy to think that you’re safe, but even that isn’t true. Just look at this past Friday, or the number of other incidents of bombing and shelling that have hit our office.
The real danger, however, comes in the field work. Either we’re deliberately—or inadvertently—targeted by the regime, or we’re persecuted by the rebel groups that we’re investigating. Remember that our founder, Razan Zaitoneh, along with three of our colleagues, were kidnapped at the end of 2013.
Q: Have you ever been threatened or intimidated because of the nature of your work?
Yes. The threats and security challenges that we face are non-stop, and, honestly, they ebb and flow given the reporting that we’re doing on any given day.
While the kidnapping incident in 2013 was certainly the worst example, we face an array of difficulties due to our work. Armed rebel groups will periodically arrest our employees for short periods of time while we are conducting investigations.
Q: East Ghouta, specifically Douma, is a rebel-held area, controlled by Jaish al-Islam. How do you report on violations local rebel groups when these same groups are the ones that run the streets in your neighborhood?
Our work is not limited to regime violations. We document all violations fairly and equally, regardless of origin. When there is a reported violation, we are on the scene.
Aftermath of July 22 attack on the VDC. Photo courtesy of VDC-Syria.
Q: How do you plan to use the information that you document regarding human rights violations?
We take such care in accurately documenting these crimes, so that criminal courts will be able to hold the perpetrators accountable when Syria transitions out of war. We document the massacres, the airstrikes and the incidents of terrorism, so that when the time for transitional justice comes, we will be ready.
This is what keeps us going.
Q: How will your office continue work given the damage it sustained this past Friday?
What happened this past Friday was not new. We’ve seen bombings like this take place countless times before in Douma; just another wave of indiscriminate bombings, striking military and civilian targets alike. Mortar shells also fell near our office, but, again, fortunately the damage to our office were only material and nobody was injured.
The airstrikes totally destroyed our offices. In theory, we should move to another location, but, in reality, there’s no such thing as a safe place in Ghouta. It’s unimaginable what we face over here—the dozens of airstrikes, mortars and artillery fire—all on a daily basis. So, what else is there to do other than to rebuild?
We won’t be able to get back to work until we are able to complete the repairs. However, the bombings are so bad in east Ghouta right now that there is nothing that we can do. We’ll just have to wait for the fighting to subside.
Q: What is the situation on the ground in Douma?
The regime has significantly escalated its campaign on Douma and its surrounding suburbs. On a daily basis, regime forces—backed by heavy air support—have attempted to capture Douma. Their advances primarily come from the north and the west, supported by heavy advance fire on residential areas, which has killed many civilians.
For nearly 20 days, these regime assaults have been non-stop, ramping up around Eid [holiday marking the end of Ramadan]. For the past three days, regime forces have hit several markets, killing at least nine civilians, most of whom were women. On Friday, the regime killed at least six civilians and injured an additional 80 people, after they launched 12 airstrikes across the city.