Syria: Family of 11 clung together in death

Bel Trew, The Times Bel Trew

The entire Bakrieh family in Douma were found in a heap on the bathroom floor. After a gas bomb tore through their building, the parents had tried to scrub the chemicals off their children’s skin. But the toxic cloud overwhelmed the family of 11 before they could protect them.

Abdullah Abu Homam, a local volunteer, said that all of them had damp clothes and foam on their mouths. Three of the children were toddlers in nappies. One of the women was still cradling her child by the sink.

“When I entered the flat they were all in the bathroom, their clothes were still wet so we believe they tried to rinse themselves in vain. Eventually they must have realised it was over so they drew closer together and died,” Abu Homam said.

At 7pm on Saturday a metre-long gas bomb had punched through the roof of their four-storey block of flats in the last rebel-controlled enclave near Damascus. Video footage showed that it had landed on a bed in a top-floor room.

As many as 70 people died, the majority women and children, and 500 were injured, according to the Syrian American Medical Society. The worst hit were families who had hidden in basement shelters to escape airstrikes.

If confirmed, Saturday’s gas attack would be the deadliest in Syria since warplanes dropped nerve gas on the rebel town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing 89 people a year ago.

Just hours after Saturday’s killings, the Syrian government confirmed that rebels had agreed to withdraw from Douma and allow full regime control of the area. Yesterday, 20 buses carrying fighters, their relatives and civilians left the area for rebel-held districts in the north. There was speculation that Saturday’s attack was a ploy to speed up the withdrawal deal. As many as 50,000 residents are expected to leave.

Everyone in the Bakriehs’ building and a nearby block of flats was killed, according to Abu Homam. He described following a trail of foam up the stairwell to the bodies of a woman hugging her two daughters.

“It seemed that they tried to reach the top of the building after running from the basement because I saw the foam trail all over the stairs to the fourth floor,” he said.

The gas was so strong that one man whose sister died in the building said he passed out hours after the attack when he found her body. “I tried to hug her but the smell of the gas was so intense I couldn’t. I fell to the ground, could not move and blacked out,” he said.

More than 1,745 people, including 400 children, have been killed since the onslaught against the rebel stronghold started in February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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‘They beat us like animals’: Egypt’s children detained, tortured

AhramRights groups report on the rise of Egyptian police brutality against children after 13 minors were arrested in Cairo on Tuesday; Ahram Online speaks with the victims

In an impoverished district of Alexandria, Sherifa Abdel-Meneem described finding bruises and gashes all over her 13-year-old son’s body, Abdel-Rahman, who was picked up by Egyptian security forces at a protest on 27 January and detained for over two weeks.”He won’t tell me where the marks come from or what the security forces did to him, he’s too scared… when he went missing no words can describe how I felt, I wasn’t sure I’d see my son ever again,” said Abdel-Meneem.

The latest spat of arrests during a political context occurred on Tuesday, when the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights reported a further 13 children were taken during a police raid on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. One of boys picked up by the police, Walid Ahmed Abdel Sayed, was12 years old.

Since the start of 2013, rights groups have been reporting an increase in police brutality towards children.

“It is definitely a way of frightening people…the number of children taken by security forces and the manner in which they are detained is unprecedented in my experience,” says Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

She explains that roughly around a third of the recent political prisoners are underage, normally from an impoverished background.

This is certainly true of Abdel-Rahman who is the breadwinner of his family, despite being 13 years old. He, his mother and his five siblings squeeze into a flat no larger than an average-sized living room in Alexandria. According to Abdel-Meneem, his two week disappearance had financial consequences as well as emotional ones.

Abdel-Rahman was detained with 14-year-old bone cancer patient Mahmoud Adel whose story hit international headlines after the judge initially refused to allow him chemotherapy.

Both boys, who say they were bystanders to the Alexandrian demonstration, were only released after significant pressure from rights groups like the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

Police brutality against children

For Abdel-Meneem, not knowing the location of her son, Abdel-Rahman, was one of the most traumatising aspects of her son’s disappearance. Typically, no effort is made by Egyptian security forces to contact the children’s parents when the arrest occurs.

She spoke of trawling police stations for days and eventually attempting to take food to her son at the Alexandrian Security Directorate, where she was initially refused entry.

The children themselves are threatened with violence if they try to make contact with anyone.

Abdel-Rahman, who appears visibly distressed and had to be coaxed by his family members to relate his story, recalled hearing friends shouting his name as they ran behind the Central Security Forces (CSF) truck that transported the boy and other inmates to an unknown location.

“The officer said if we try to call out to our friends and family they would beat us… so we stayed quiet.”

There was a seven-year-old boy in one of the cells where he was kept together with adults, Abdel-Rahman added. “The boy’s parents didn’t know that he was missing.”

There are dozens of children left in prison because the parents do not have relations with resources to find their missing sons and daughters, the boy asserted, while tentatively pointing to the places on his body where he was beaten by security forces.

Abdel-Rahman claimed he was not subjected to the electrocutions and sexual assault that rights groups and victims say inmates, including children, are often subjected to.

Violation of Child’s Law

The presence of children in protests and clashes and their consequent detention, although getting worse, is nothing new, explained Karim Ennarah from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. However, “since 25 January this year… the involvement of the prosecution in this abuse is a new trend.”

The role of the prosecutor appears to be much more politicised when dealing with detentions, and rights groups are noticing that they are broadly renewing detentions in violation of Egyptian legislation, said Ennarah.

“Typically the prosecutors used to stick to procedures in Egypt’s Child Law. There is special treatment for children under the age of 12 and15. For example, those under 12 years of age do not have criminal liability, and the detention of those under 15 cannot be renewed for more than a week,” he added.

“This has changed.”

Shahbender agreed, adding that both adults and children are now held even when there is no police report, which is considered illegal under Egyptian law.

According to the law, children are supposed to be kept in centres “fit for the detention of a child,” which is not happening, Shahbender described. “Egyptian juvenile detention centres are appalling…and are run like prisons.”

Systemic violence

The children recounted stories of brutal beatings.

“We got arrested because we couldn’t fight back or run away fast enough,” said 15-year-old Mahmoud El-Sayed Ragab, who was taken from the central Alexandrian square with Abdel-Rahman on 27 January.

“The police beat us and hurled insults at us like we were animals; they took us to the security directorate where men in black clothes hit me so hard I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was dead,” said Ragab.

12-year-old Ziyad Taysir Mohamed Ahmed described being kidnapped on Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil Bridge by CSF in early February and accused of vandalising the nearby Shepherd Hotel off Tahrir Square.

“They dragged me by my hair and then held me up by my neck, while punching me on the head. The police kept asking me who paid me to attack the hotel and telling me they were going to take me to different police stations and let me go, but I ended up in Torah Prison.”

Ziyad was detained for 24 hours, which his father engineer Taysir Mohamed Ahmed said was a “lucky escape” because of his ‘connections’ to secure his son’s release. “Others were not so lucky,” he lamented.

The Ministry of Interior has yet to directly tackle the issue of child abuse by the Egyptian police in a public statement. Ahram Online attempted to speak with a ministry official, but the ministry was unavailable to comment.

However, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim stated on 19 February that no violence is used by the police force against peaceful protesters.

“The authorities have discovered if they really want to break us, they have to use the most important people to us – our children,” concluded Taysir Mohamed Ahmed. “This is why they are arresting and torturing children.  Our children are our weak point. They are our future.”

Additional reporting by Diaa Adel