By BEN HUBBARD, Associated Press
ANADAN, Syria (AP) — The guards pulled him from his cell before dawn on Monday, bound his hands, blindfolded him and drove him to an empty lot in the Syrian city of Aleppo. They sat him in a row with 10 other captives, he said, then cocked their guns and opened fire.
"They sprayed us," recalled 21-year-old Mahmoud, the lone survivor of the latest mass killing of Syria's civil war. "The first bullet hit my chest, then one hit my foot, then my head. As soon as my head got hit, I thought, 'I'm dead.'"
Reports of such killings have surfaced frequently during the 17 months of deadly violence that activists seeking to topple President Bashar Assad say has killed more than 19,000 people. But details are usually scarce — no more than activist reports or amateur videos of bloodied bodies or mass graves posted on YouTube.
Mahmoud related his grisly ordeal to The Associated Press hours after it happened. Struggling to speak, he lay in a bed in a makeshift rebel-run field hospital set up in a wedding hall in this town 13 miles (20 kilometers) north of Aleppo. Bandages covered his foot, head and chest. Plastic vines and colored lights adorned the walls of the darkened building, and two red velvet chairs once used by brides and grooms sat on a small stage.
Mahmoud gave only his first name to protect his family who still live in the area.
While his story could not be independently confirmed, Mahmoud's wounds matched his story and residents who found him and his dead colleagues corroborated certain details.
Together, they painted a picture of the summary slaying of 10 men, at least some of whom had only loose links to the armed rebels seeking to topple the regime. That story jibes with activist claims of the increasingly brutal tactics regime forces are using to try to crush the rebellion that has spread to Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with peaceful protests calling for political reforms that were met with a fierce regime crackdown. Government brutality grew as dissent spread, and many in the opposition took up arms as the conflict morphed into a civil war.
Aleppo has been a stronghold of government support throughout the uprising, with a wealthy business class and many minority communities who fear they'll suffer if Assad falls. Until recently, the city of some 4 million people had been spared the violence that has ravaged other Syrian cities.
But during the last two weeks, rebels have been pushing into Aleppo's neighborhoods, clashing with security forces and torching police stations in a push to "liberate" the city. Syrian media has vowed the army is gearing up for a "decisive battle," while anti-regime activists have reported swelling numbers of troops and tanks on the city's edges.
The Syrian government blames the uprising on armed gangs and terrorists backed by foreign powers that seek to weaken Syria.
It was amid these tensions that Mahmoud, a Palestinian resident of Aleppo, had his fateful brush with Syrian security. On Thursday, Mahmoud said, he and a friend went to collect their paychecks from the thread factory where they work and heard clashes nearby. Soon eight men in civilian clothes stopped them and asked for their IDs and cell phones.
On Mahmoud's phone they found videos of anti-government demonstrations and messages he sent to rebels from the Free Syrian Army, asking God to protect them and make them victorious. The men threw Mahmoud and his friend in the trunk of a car and drove them to a trash dump, where they were blindfolded, bound and beaten with sticks and large rocks before being taken to a security office.
Mahmoud was locked in a crowded cell with about a dozen other men, he said. Each day, some were taken out and new ones brought in.
"We were there for four days and they only gave us water to drink once. They never fed us," he said. "They never asked us anything. Every day it was beating, beating, beating."
Before dawn on Monday, guards pulled Mahmoud and 10 others from their cells and told they were going to see a judge. They were bound at the wrists, blindfolded and driven to Aleppo's Khaldiyeh neighborhood, where they were lined up on a patch of rocky soil.