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How a Ballistic Missile Wiped Out Two Families in Rural Aleppo

HREITAN, ALEPPO PROVINCE – Air strikes and ballistic missile attacks from Scuds and other large rockets are now daily events in Syria. The victims and damage are tallied in spreadsheets, and only a small portion of the details make the news, because this kind of carnage is no longer new. It’s expected.

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

On March 29, a small town called Hreitan, just north of Aleppo, was subject to an especially violent military campaign.

It had been a quiet morning. It was newly spring in Hreitan, pleasant and sunny. Residents went to midday prayer and then joined their families for lunch. Then a MiG jet broke the peace, dropping a bomb on the<a href=”” target=”_blank”> western part of town</a>, circling back minutes later to <a href=”” target=”_blank”>complete the sortie with two more</a>.

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The first strike, on a beekeeper’s farm, unleashed a swarm of bees that attacked residents who were trying to rescue their neighbors. People fled the scene, which limited casualties when the plane came back for its second run, according to an area resident. Two people died in the attacks.

Less than 15 minutes later, just after 2 p.m., a large missile, possibly a Scud, flattened two buildings and damaged dozens around it. (Videos of the strike and its chaotic aftermath are <a href=”” target=”_blank”>collected here</a>.)

“It felt like an earthquake, but to be honest I’ve never experienced an earthquake,” said Abu Mohammed Masri, a resident who was a few hundred meters away.

Fate spared him and his children. His home was severely damaged in the explosion, but he happened to be having lunch at his brother’s house a few blocks away.

His cousin, who was his next door neighbor, wasn’t as lucky.

Mohammed Shukri Masri, 52, died, along with his wife and two teenage daughters. Two of his sisters, refugees from the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood in Aleppo, were also killed. In all, 11 members from the extended family, aged seven months to 52 years, died in the attack. Many more were wounded. Masri’s four sons survived, but now face the prospect of a life without their family.

As with the majority of long-range shelling deployed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, there was no ground incursion that followed. Most military analysts have questioned this use of force, especially when it wasn’t intended to soften targets for infantry deployments. Human Rights Watch documented the use of <a href=”” target=”_blank”>air strikes and described them as war crimes</a> in a recent report.

A common explanation for the military rationale for such attacks, which was repeated by Abu Mohammed, is that the Assad regime is trying to “inflict maximum pain on civilians who are the popular incubator for the revolution.”

But that plan won’t succeed, he said, adding that “even if he [Assad] tears us to pieces, we won’t turn back.”

The Masri family didn’t appear to pose a threat to the Syrian government. Neighbors said there were no weapons or fighters living on the street.

“We have revolutionaries from Hreitan,” Abu Mohammed said, referring to the armed opposition groups. “They usually sit at a checkpoint around seven kilometers to the north and are fighting in Aleppo seven kilometers to the south.”

Mohammed Shukri was known here as a retired bureaucrat, an only son who shied away from danger. “I never saw him at a protest; he didn’t care about politics and only wanted to enjoy his family,” Abu Mohammed said.

The vast devastation of Scud attacks has been repeatedly raised by opposition leaders, most recently by Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the National Coalition, who called on NATO to extend the range of <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Patriot batteries in Turkey to cover northern Syria</a> and was immediately rebuffed.

Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman <a href=”” target=”_blank”>said providing such cover would</a> “instantly become a powerful symbol of U.S. solidarity with Syrians, bolstering moderates in the opposition and giving them the space they need to organize inside the country.”

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As Abu Mohammed examines the damage to his house – completed just two years ago and at a cost of more than $80,000, a fortune that he scraped together over decades of working as a merchant in Aleppo – he surprisingly rejected the idea of help from the United States and the West. That help might have saved his cousin and his home, which now has to be torn down due to structural damage.

“Everyone has interests in Syria. If the West really wanted to topple Assad they could have done it years ago,” Abu Mohammed said. “We have to remove him on our own, and we know the price.”

It will never be known if Mohammed Shukri was prepared to pay the ultimate price. He never bought a burial plot for himself and his family, a common practice among Syrians, and was interred in graves that his cousin owned at the edge of the town.

Hreitan’s small graveyard was recently expanded and renamed the Martyrs’ Cemetery, sharing the name of dozens of cemeteries that have blossomed across the country. There were too many open holes to count, awaiting the next victims of Syria’s war.

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