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Death at any moment: Stray bullets leave countless victims in Syria

Death at any moment: Stray bullets leave countless victims in Syria

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Life Basic Rights

Friday 9 December 202205:46 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

الرصاص الطائش في سوريا يخلّف ضحايا قاتلها مجهول

As eight-year-old Mohammad al-Mesky was playing in front of his father's shop in the al-Hamidiyah Souq area near the Umayyad Mosque in the Syrian capital Damascus, he suddenly fell to the ground, still and motionless as blood flowed out of his forehead. The father rushed his son to a governmental hospital, thinking that it was just a small accident. Thinking the same thing, the doctors decided to quickly stop the bleeding and close the wound. But a small voice in his mother's mind kept saying something else, because the lower part of her son's body was paralyzed, and so she refused to take him out of the hospital without an x-ray. And here was the surprise: they found a bullet had penetrated the boy's head and settled in his skull.

The bullet was fired by an unknown individual on January 1st, 2015. That morning had witnessed the continuation of the New Year celebrations, with people saying goodbye to one year and welcoming the new one with bullets they fire into the air at random.

The law and its application

Even though Syrian law criminalized these acts decades ago, but to this day, it has failed to prevent them, especially because Syria has been living in a state of instability due to the security situation since 2011, and the ensuing wars and conflicts, all of which have led to the further spread of weapons among citizens and militias. This has caused an increase in shootings and the absence of accountability at the same time.

Even though Syrian law criminalized these acts decades ago, but to this day, it has failed to prevent them, especially because Syria has been living in a state of instability

Lawyer Rami Hani al-Khair says that the Syrian Penal Code issued in Legislative Decree No. 148 of 1949, along with its successive amendments, settled the matter of the indiscriminate use of weapons. Article 312 stipulates that "a gathering is considered armed" if one or more persons carry visible, hidden or concealed weapons. The penalty ranges from six months to two years if the weapon is a pistol, and it may range from one to three years if the act is related to weapons, ammunition, war and military equipment, or separated parts, according to Article 315. The law also punishes anyone who carries a weapon or ammunition without a license with imprisonment of 6 months at most, in accordance with Article 314 of the same law.

Al-Khair goes on to say, "Those who practice indiscriminate shooting commit several crimes, the least of which is terrorizing citizens, and this crime is intensified if it results in damage to public and private property", as is the case of Rita, a resident near the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, whose car was shot at during New Year's Eve celebrations in 2015 as well. But the law did not help in her case, because she did not know who fired the bullet or where it had come from. She also had to repair her car at her own expense.

Speaking on the law, the lawyer says, "If this phenomenon results in the death of a person, we are then facing a crime of another kind, which is the crime of involuntary manslaughter, and is punishable by up to three years in prison". Article 550 of the Penal Code stipulates that "whoever causes the death of a person due to negligence, lack of precaution, or non-compliance with laws and regulations, shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years."

Various explanations

However, if this phenomenon results in harming a person but not killing him/her, the punishment differs here. It would then be regulated by Article 551, which stipulates with regard to the unintended act that "if the fault of the offender results only in harm such as that stipulated in Articles 542 to 544, the punishment ranges from two months to one year, and any other unintentional harm is punishable by imprisonment for six months at most, or a fine not exceeding 100 Syrian pounds."

The harm mentioned in Article 542 is defined as 'causing a disruption from work that exceeds 20 days'. The penalty in this case is imprisonment from three months to three years. Article 543 on the act in question provides that if the act leads to the cutting or removal of an organ, the amputation or disability of a limb, the disruption of one of the functions of the senses, serious mutilation, disfigurement, or any other permanent disability — or what appears as a permanent disability — the offender shall be punished with temporary hard labor, for ten years at most.

Ali was standing with a group of friends in the old Damascus area at the stones of the ancient Mariamite church. While they were standing, they noticed that Ali's face had gone pale, and then he collapsed. They later realized that he had been shot in the shoulder

As for Article 544, it covers anyone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry while knowing that she is pregnant. The penalty is imprisonment for a maximum of six months or imprisonment and a fine of 25 to 100 pounds.

The punishment here could have included those who injured Khaled on the night of the New Year celebrations of 2019. The young man was standing with his friends in the Naher Aisha neighborhood in Damascus to celebrate the New Year. He felt a strange pain in his shoulder, as if someone had just hit him, so he asked his friends who had done it. Minutes later, he felt a coldness in his shoulder, and the blood began to gush out. His friends immediately took him to the hospital, and he managed to survive, because the wound left by the bullet in his shoulder was superficial. The police investigation did not find anything following the incident, which was classified as the result of "stray bullets against unknown persons".

According to figures published by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA), in early 2021, 26 people were shot by stray bullets in a number of Syrian governorates. The same thing was repeated on the New Year's Eve of 2022, when one person died and eight others were injured in Latakia Governorate.

Victims of highschool celebrations

The tragic story of little Mohammad and that of other victims, are not much different from the story of Ali al-Najdi, a handsome twenty-something young man, whose story was abuzz on social media in 2019. This came after Ali lost his life due to a stray bullet of unknown origin that had lodged in his heart after it pierced his left shoulder.

Hadi al-Najdi, Ali's cousin, tells us that it was mere coincidence that brought Ali together to hang out with Hadi and a group of his friends in the old Damascus area at the stones of the ancient Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus, where Ali resided. While they were standing, they noticed that Ali's face had gone pale, and then he collapsed. They later realized that he had been shot in the shoulder.

In a regretful, broken tone, Hadi recounts, "Thursday, July 12, 2019, is a date that I will never forget. I'll never forget how we tried to save him and take him to the hospital. It was very difficult, because on Thursday night, the Bab Sharqi area is usually crowded due to the high demand for the area and its restaurants. There is only one way out of the area, so when Ali finally arrived at the hospital, he was already dead". He adds that the most difficult part was having to inform Ali's family about what had happened. Their shock was too great, and they haven't been able to get out of it to this day.

The investigations at the time limited the possibilities to bullets fired during a ceremony in the Citadel of Damascus, or those fired during celebrations of highschool test results, originating from the Dwel'a area. Hadi explains that the police inspected the place, and interrogated the people who were with Ali at the time, and in the end, the case was closed; the answer: a new case file recorded against an unknown individual.

In early 2021, 26 people were shot by stray bullets in a number of Syrian governorates. The same thing was repeated on the New Year's Eve of 2022

Ali died because the bullet became lodged in his heart, which is a serious case that rarely anyone survives. Mohammad too lost his life because the bullet had settled in the brain, and it was not easy to get it out. The doctors said that the body may be able to adapt to it, but the condition of the little one did not improve and continued to steadily decline. He hung on for only six more days, and then he died, according to his mother Mona Shabib.

Dr. Ahmad Nizar Mohammad, an ENT doctor and founder of the Syrian Medical Health Platform (MedDose), says that 22% of those shot by bullets die, and that 70% of those injured are males, according to statistics from a number of hospitals over the last ten years.

Mohammad adds that the most serious injuries affect the axial areas of the body or the midline, such as the brain, face, neck, chest area, and the center of the abdomen, or injuries to the spleen or liver. Dealing with such injuries is not an easy process. The closer they are to the midline of the body, the greater the harm.

They always come back down

The problem with stray bullets and celebratory shootings is that the victims do not know who shoots them, and the perpetrators are not aware of what they did, despite knowing in advance that their weapon pointed in the air will result in projectiles that will definitely return to the ground. Every bullet fired in the air inevitably falls back down to the ground, explains Salah al-Din al-Khatib, a lawyer and international shooting champion, as well as the former president of the Syrian Arab Shooting Federation.

He explains that when firing bullets without directing them at a specific target, the projectile will fall freely, heading towards the ground, and its strength depends on the center of gravity and the law of gravity, while the angle of its fall varies based on the angle of the nozzle upon firing. There are weapons with projectiles that fall after one, two, or even three kilometers, whereas there are projectiles from pistols that go up to 100 to 200 meters and then fall back down to the ground.

In al-Khatib's opinion, any random shooting angle is dangerous, and not even a specific angle can be relied upon. In the event of people firing during sad or joyful events, it cannot be guaranteed that whoever holds the weapon will be able to adhere to a specific angle. In fact, whoever aims at an angle of 90 degrees vertically, may hit one of those in the gathering around him. And whoever shoots at a 45 degree angle will cause direct injury to those around him.

As for the lethal range of weapons, al-Khatib mentions that some weapons, such as the Kalashnikov — known to Syrians as "the Russian" — have a lethal range of about a thousand meters. Sniper weapons have a reach of more than 1,400 meters, while pistol bullets of 9mm, 38mm, 45mm and 6mm have a lethal range between 100 and 200 meters.

Bullets and shootings during disputes

Aside from joyful celebrations and sad occasions, bad luck may suddenly befall an innocent person going about his/her normal day, and accidentally passing through an area where a dispute is taking place and where weapons are used when it escalates. Such is the case of what happened with a young child in al-Suwayda.

In 2005, on August 25, at six o'clock in the evening, a quarrel broke out between two families living next to Ghassan Abu Tafesh's house in al-Suwayda. His wife and some neighbors went out to see what was happening, and among the crowd was his young seven-year-old son. The dispute, which had only been verbal and physical at first, soon escalated into a shooting, which led to the injury of two of the men fighting, while a third bullet settled in the back of the little boy, who was about forty meters away from the shooters.

A dispute between two families escalated into a shooting that killed a 7-year-old boy. The case was recorded as a "predestined fatality" and the killer was released from prison because a reconciliation was done between the tribes and 'blood money' was paid

Abu Tafesh says that the bullet caused internal bleeding and had cut the vein that feeds the heart. The bleeding did not stop despite getting emergency treatment in the ambulance. He died in the hospital, leaving his parents, who had only one child, traumatized and in great shock.

The case was recorded as a "predestined fatality", as a result of the intervention of the notables of the governorate, because the child's family was not part of the bloody dispute, and the murderer was arrested in the course of justice and in accordance with the law. But he was later released from prison, because a reconciliation was done between the clans and the 'blood money' was paid.

Against an unknown individual

The pain of Mrs. Mona and her family has not healed to this day. The same applies to the family of Ali al-Najdi and many other victims, who left this world, leaving in their wake only heartbreak and sorrow for their families, and a police case file that is closed with the phrase "against an unknown individual". This is due to the fact that they're rarely able to determine the direction of the shooting, even though the law — according to lawyer Rami al-Khair — requires the competent authorities to "investigate the crime that occurred and organize a fundamental investigation of what happened, and transfer this investigation to the Public Prosecutor, who orders the expansion of the investigation and inquiry, and it is imperative for internal security forces to take witness statements regarding the incident to reach the perpetrator who committed the crime."

There is no doubt that the abnormal conditions left by the war in Syria have cast a shadow on the work of its security institutions, but as long as the perpetrators continue to roam outside prison walls, and as long as most of the stories end with a crime recorded "against an unknown individual", the lives of many Syrians will continue to be threatened and deemed invaluable, the price of which is a bullet fired by a person celebrating or another grieving a one of his acquaintances.

* This report was completed with the support of ARIJ Network (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism)

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