A former member of the Syrian Republican Guard has told Amnesty International that he and other soldiers were ordered to open fire on unarmed protesters holding a pro-reform demonstration in Harasta, near Damascus, in April.
Speaking by phone from the country where he is now taking refuge, the 21-year-old said he was among 250 soldiers sent to quell a protest at Harasta on Saturday, 23 April.
Their officers told them they were to confront a “violent gang” but what they found were around 2,000 unarmed protesters, including children and women. Many of the men were bare-chested to show that they carried no weapons. Many of the protesters were carrying roses.
“I was shocked when I saw the security services and the army actually shooting at unarmed protesters who were chanting “Silmieh, Silmieh” (Peaceful, Peaceful) and “Nafdiki Ya Dera’a” (Our lives in return for you, Dera’a). When I heard those slogans, I just could not shoot at them, especially as I am from Dera’a and they were risking their lives for my city.”
The soldiers were armed with Kalashnikov rifles and had been given metal identity cards usually used only in war time and ordered to change into black “Combat Terrorism Unit” uniforms.
The protesters were in a street or alley leading to the town’s main roundabout. Security forces had sealed off one end of it and were already shooting at protesters when Walid al-Qash’ami’s unit arrived.
While standing in line with other soldiers, Walid al-Qash’ami witnessed the killing of three children and a young man and woman.
“One of the children was shot in the head by an officer who was standing right in front of me. I heard the officer say that he shot the kid because he was annoyed with his constant crying.”
Walid al-Qash’ami and five other soldiers refused to shoot at the protesters. They threw down their weapons and ran for their lives towards the protesters.
“As soon as we approached the protesters, the men stepped in between us and the other soldiers while the women closed in on us and took us to nearby houses.”
The defecting soldiers were then helped to escape from Harrasta.
“I could not return to Dera’a as it was under siege. So I moved from town to town dressed as a woman wearing a Niqab.”
While on the run, Walid al-Qash’ami received phone calls from a relative who is a colonel in the security forces who urged him to hand himself in.
The colonel’s wife also called him, he says, and said the authorities would pay him a large sum of money if he gave himself up but he refused to do so or withdraw his allegations. “I did not do this for money or fame, I did it for the truth,” he told Amnesty International.
He decided to get out of Syria when his relative in the security forces told his family that a Military Court in Damascus had sentenced him to death in his absence.
“Before I left I recorded my testimony on You Tube, to be broadcasted in case I was caught or killed.”
He managed to leave Syria and is now taking refuge with other Syrians who fled from Dera’a, the southern Syrian town that has been one of the centres of protest.
Military service is compulsory in Syria. Desertion incurs severe penalties up to life imprisonment or death.
Walid ‘Abd al-Karim al-Qash’ami is the second Syrian soldier to have told Amnesty International that he deserted the ranks and fled when ordered to shoot at unarmed protesters.