Inter-rebel battles are not new to northwest Syria, but the mass executions of an estimated 160 members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last week stunned even war-weary residents and battle-hardened fighters.
The executions occurred amid heavy infighting in Idlib and Hama provinces between Liwa al-Aqsa—believed to have close ties to the Islamic State—and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a faction that includes former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.
Most of those killed were members of FSA brigade Jaish a-Nasr who were captured during the fighting, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.
After the last Liwa al-Aqsa fighters withdrew on Wednesday for Islamic State-held Raqqa province, family members began to arrive at what was the group's military base near the south Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun. There, Civil Defense personnel began digging up and identifying bodies.
The Civil Defense has recovered 90 bodies so far, a Civil Defense spokesman told Syria Direct on Thursday.
Civil Defense list of 21 slain prisoners, February 22. Photo courtesy of The Syrian Revolution Network.
Mazen is the brother of a young journalist who worked with Jaish al-Nasr and was captured, and executed, by Liwa al-Aqsa. He was at the base on Thursday and describes to Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier and Alaa Nassar what he saw.
“There are no signs of torture on his body, but his skull is fractured because he was shot directly in the head,” said Mazen.
The husband of Umm Mohammed, a Jaish a-Nasr fighter, did not meet a merciful end.
Her brother-in-law, who went to the base to search for his brother’s body, would not let Umm Mohammed see it. “His body was disfigured and bore torture marks,” she said on Thursday.
“I’m burning with anguish because I never got the chance to say goodbye.”
Umm Mohammed, 37, the wife of a Free Syrian Army fighter who was executed last week. On Wednesday, her brother-in-law retrieved her husband’s body from the Civil Defense in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province. Umm Mohammed, originally from Hama city, now lives in al-Hobeit, a town west of Khan Sheikhoun.
Q: Tell us about your husband, Abu Mohammed.
He was 42 years old. He was a corporal in the Syrian Arab Army. He defected and joined the Free Syrian Army because he believed in the revolution. He had witnessed the regime’s crimes against his people. He opposed the shooting of civilians who were peacefully protesting, who were only calling for freedom.
Abu Mohammed advocated for the revolution from the beginning. He was absolutely against the shooting of unarmed civilians who demonstrated in Hama.
He was compassionate with his children, loyal to his country and true to the revolution.
Q: When was the last time you saw Abu Mohammed?
The last time I saw him was on February 8, his day off. He hadn’t taken a day off in three months.
The last time I saw him, he told me that we’ll be victorious, that there is still hope for the revolution’s success, despite all of the foreign intervention. He told me to be patient while he was gone, and to tolerate our wretched living situation.
He said that victory is near, and that our lives will return to normal, once Bashar al-Assad leaves.
He asked me, “don’t you want your children to live in freedom and dignity?”
Then he left.
Q: How did you find out about his execution?
I’ve been scanning Facebook since February 14, reading about the executions of FSA soldiers that Liwa al-Aqsa was conducting, and looking for any news on my husband. I tried contacting my husband on WhatsApp, but he didn’t respond.
My brother-in-law told me that my husband, who was stationed in Taybat al-Imam, was taken captive, along with other soldiers and the leader of his brigade.
I couldn’t believe it because I hadn’t seen my husband’s name among the list of martyrs. I told myself that they were just rumors—there was no truth to them.
I didn’t even believe my brother-in-law. I told him Abu Mohammed hadn’t died. I still had hope that I would see him, that he was only a captive and he hadn’t been killed.
But I was distressed, my nerves were frayed.
From the beginning of the revolution, I knew that his death was a possibility. But I didn’t expect him to die in this horrific way.
Q: How did you and your children react to news of his death? How did you say farewell?
My kids have been crying for 10 days, asking where their father was. My 17-year-old son broke down, crying, and vowed to take revenge on Liwa al-Aqsa. My brother-in-law tried to go the base in Khan Sheikhoun, which is 12km away, to find my husband. But it was still under the control of Liwa al-Aqsa; no one else could enter.
After Liwa al-Aqsa left, the Civil Defense entered the military base. On Wednesdsay, my brother-in-law went to al-Khazanat base and found my husband’s body in a trench. He told me that he had been tortured, along with other FSA members.
My brother-in-law added that the prisoners were executed in different ways. Some were stabbed to death while others were shot in the head or heart.
He didn’t let my children or me see Abu Mohammed’s body, because it was disfigured and bore torture marks.
I’m burning with anguish because I never got the chance to say goodbye.
Q: What do you want to say about Liwa al-Aqsa’s departure to Raqqa, especially after their fighters committed this crime?
They have betrayed our religion and our people. They’re distorting Islam; they don’t abide by it.
Shame on us for letting them leave, and getting away with killing 120 people. It was our duty to hold them accountable. We should abide by the proverb, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Mazen is the brother of a Jaish al-Nasr journalist who was taken hostage 10 days ago by Liwa al-Aqsa fighters at a Jaish post in Kafr Zaita. He lives in Kafr Nabudah and retrieved his brother’s body from the Civil Defense on Thursday.
Q: Did you believe the rumors that your brother was executed by Liwa al-Aqsa?
They weren’t rumors—they were from a trustworthy source. Jaish al-Nasr announced that Liwa al-Aqsa had executed some of its members. They released a list of the names and number of people killed. Among them were journalists, like my brother, and 13 rebel leaders. One lieutenant, Mohammed Dukhan, was killed.
When we saw my brother’s name, we were astounded. This was our youngest brother. My mother, who spoiled him the most, was always worried about him. She hasn’t stopped crying since the announcement. Before we received his body, she would pace back and forth, telling us: “My son is still alive. Please, tell me that he’s still alive. Jaish al-Nasr is lying.”
She held onto hope that he was alive.
I thought that the news of my brother’s execution was true. We trust Jaish al-Nasr, as they control our town. And we’ve witnessed the extremist, outrageous acts of Liwa al-Aqsa in the Hama countryside that have no basis in Islam. As a result, we, and most families, believed that the group had truly carried out the executions.
Civil Defense members digging up bodies. Photo courtesy of The Syrian Revolution Network.
Also, we believed the news because Liwa al-Aqsa didn’t deny Jaish al-Nasr’s announcement.
But, still, we held on to a tiny bit of hope that we’d find them alive.
I’ll never be able to forget these past 10 days. I won’t forget the confusion and hysteria we experienced when the news broke that our brother was killed by Liwa al-Aqsa.
On Tuesday, before the last Liwa al-Aqsa fighters left, we tried going to the military base where my brother was killed, but fighters shot at us from the base to disperse us. Families didn’t respond strongly to the shootings, because they didn’t want Liwa al-Aqsa to execute some prisoners who hadn’t yet been killed. They still had hope that their sons were alive.
Instead, we returned home, defeated.
Even on Wednesday, once the last Liwa al-Aqsa fighters left, we couldn’t enter the site along with the Civil Defense members. They hadn’t extracted the landmines surrounding the base and were concerned about the safety of families. So we stayed outside, waiting.
Q: When did you retrieve your brother’s body? What condition was it in? Were there any signs of torture?
Today, a few hours ago. We still haven’t buried him. There are no signs of torture on his body, but his skull is fractured because he was shot directly in the head.
The Civil Defense told us that prisoners were either executed at gunpoint or stabbed to death. Some bodies bear marks of torture. Most have gunshot wounds in the head or neck.
Yesterday, the Civil Defense began exhuming the bodies. They only let a few families approach the base since they still hadn’t removed the landmines. Once they dug up a body, they took it to a secure place—free of landmines—to hand it over to families.
Today, the Civil Defense began extracting landmines. Families are still lingering around the military base to retrieve bodies. Some families have volunteered to extract the mines.
Q: How did you feel when you received your brother’s body?
In every war, there will be sacrifices. But I sacrificed my brother—my flesh and blood—whom I loved dearly. May God have mercy on his soul, and avenge those who killed him.
When I picked up his body, I felt like I had betrayed him. I couldn’t do anything to save him. I felt intense sorrow for my huge loss. But believe that my mother’s loss is greater. She lost consciousness the moment we retrieved his body.
Q: Can you tell me more about your brother? What was the last conversation you had before he was captured?
My brother loved the Free Syrian Army. He put all of his energy into documenting the violations of both the regime and Salafist Islamist factions. He had a beautiful soul. He loved life and had a fun-loving spirit. Everyone loved him, from our relatives to his fellow journalists.
His dream was that of any Syrian man. He wanted the war, the death and destruction in his country, to end.
He used to say, “How did we reach this point? If we’re experiencing this amount of despair as young people, how will things be when we grow old?”
But he was always thankful to God that he had the chance to be a journalist. He said that even if he died, he’d die a free man.
Q: What do you think about Liwa al-Aqsa’s departure?
Families were boiling with anger when Liwa al-Aqsa was present in our area, especially after they executed huge numbers of our sons and then prevented us from retrieving their bodies.
The regime hasn’t even done what Liwa al-Aqsa did to us. A Civil Defense member told us that some bodies that they recovered had been dead for a long time, before last week’s executions.
There isn’t a town in Hama countryside that hasn’t lost sons to Liwa al-Aqsa. These past few weeks, residents have been confused and terrified. Everyone is still talking about all the violations the group committed here.