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In Aleppo, A Woman’s Killing Sparks a Call for Proper Burials

Fatima, a 27-year-old autistic woman shot dead by an army sniper in Aleppo, might have been just one more anonymous victim killed in the no man’s zone that separates the rebel and regime-held sides of this city.

Written by Akil Hussein / Aleppo Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

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But instead, her killing was witnessed by fellow citizens, and the image of her lifeless body lying on the pavement was widely reported by local media. Three years into Syria’s bloody conflict, Fatima’s death made her a revolutionary icon.

On the day of Fatima’s murder in August, a Free Syrian Army fighter stood at a lookout point in the hard-hit Karam al-Jabal district, surveying a front line that has remained largely unchanged for the past year. The road separating his position from the nearby Hanano military barracks is strictly a zone for combatants. Civilians are barred from passing through.

But on this day, there was a curious sight — a woman exiting from the barracks, seemingly on her own, pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair.

Normally, the fighter would have shot anyone coming from the enemy side without hesitation, but he realized they were civilians. He recalled that he and his comrade watched in horror as the two were released from the army outpost and walked into their own death trap.

He said regime snipers waited for them to walk into plain view, and then shot them in cold blood.

“It was as if they were playing some kind of a sick game,” he said.

No Burial for the Dead

Ten days passed until Fatima’s family saw the photo of her dead body on one of the local news stations. There would be no way to reach her to retrieve her body and give her a proper burial. That made her death emblematic of many killed in the corridor between regime and rebel-held Aleppo: residents say their corpses are left to decompose in plain sight, that it has become common to hear about grieving relatives killed while trying to reach the dead bodies of their loved ones.

“My sister was a delicate 27-year-old with autism. She would always escape from the house and we would go looking for her and bring her home again,” Fatima’s brother said.

“That last time, we searched for two weeks without any lead on her whereabouts. Then, we saw the image of her dead body lying in the street in Halab Today [HT],” an opposition satellite and Internet station based in Gaziantep. “We inquired with HT’s staff and they told us when and where the photo was taken.”

Over 100,000 people have died in Syria since the revolt broke out in March 2011. For many Syrians, the funeral, burial rites and mourning period are as significant as the deaths themselves. But now, in cities like Aleppo, a lucky few are able to give dead family members a proper funeral.

A New Martyr

It is unclear how and where Fatima was arrested by the military. The elderly man, also shot, remains unidentified. Theories surrounding her death were limited to speculation. The families of civilians killed by regime snipers, like Fatima’s, are usually left without a body to bury.

The government allows the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to operate nationwide, but activists say it has consistently turned down its requests, and those of other humanitarian organizations, to evacuate the bodies.

In April 2012, they were granted permission to retrieve the dead, and they evacuated more than 50 bodies from the road of the northern roundabout. Activists say bodies had been left there for weeks or even months.

Activists said that today, in Aleppo’s Saif al-Dawla district, along the heavily trafficked northern roundabout (now forbidden to civilians), roughly a dozen bodies are strewn across the road. Other bodies remain in their cars, killed by snipers while driving.

The city’s residents say they hope for a quick end to the war, so that they might honor the dead with proper burials. For now, they said, they would like for humanitarian organizations to be given permission to collect and bury the bodies.

This article was translated by Zain Frayha.

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