AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian mother of six who opened the door to a secret policeman in the border town of Deraa just had time to scream “Israelis are more merciful than you” before he shot her dead, relatives said on Thursday.
Neighbours were then chilled by the hysterical cries of her 10-year-old daughter Sameeha after the killing on Wednesday.
Tanks rolled into Deraa, the cradle of protests against President Bashar al-Assad, on Monday. Residents say at least 50 bodies have been picked up, mainly from the town’s old quarter, since then. Dozens more corpses still rot in the streets.
Sameeha’s mother, 42, known as Um Omar, was buried in her own backyard — Muslim tradition barred putting her body among 22 male corpses kept in a refrigerator truck awaiting burial.
“They have no fear of God. As Um Omar said before she died, if we had Israelis besieging Deraa, they would be more merciful,” said her cousin Ibrahim, 52, from the Masalmah tribe.
Syria has been in a state of war with Israel for over half a century, although a ceasefire has held since 1974.
Enraged Deraa residents say at least 40 tanks of the ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanised Brigade, commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, have deployed in the city situated near the border with Jordan.
“There are still a lot of bodies in the streets, we have only taken a few. Anyone who gets out will find a sniper ready to shoot him. They are not sparing anyone, men, women or children,” said a resident from the Mahameed clan.
“They are heartless. Obliterate all of Deraa, but let the children and sick women leave in a safe corridor,” he added.
Few risk going to the local state hospital, now occupied by troops. Residents say hundreds of people wounded during six weeks of protests have been taken into custody from the hospital. Secret police are said to be whisking bodies out of the morgue to prevent funerals that might spark further unrest.
Residents talk of a growing humanitarian crisis as the army siege of the city enters its fourth day. The streets remain empty, with thousands of security forces, snipers and special troops manning Russian-made tanks in every neighbourhood.
Syria has expelled most foreign correspondents, making it difficult to verify the situation on the ground.
Syrian and international rights groups have condemned the authorities for cutting electricity, water and telephone services since Monday. Essential supplies, such as baby milk and blood for transfusions, are running low.
Few of Deraa’s 120,000 citizens dare to leave their homes, spending long nights under candlelight. The sick and elderly, running short of medication, cannot access hospitals or clinics.
Witness accounts describe desperate relatives from nearby villages being turned back by bullets from troops at checkpoints sealing off Deraa from its surroundings in the Hauran plain.
“Why are they doing this to us? People are going mad worried about their stranded relatives in the city,” Abu Tamer said.
Villagers said a six-year-old named Majd al-Rifai was killed by a stray bullet from a checkpoint almost three km (two miles) away from her village of Saida.
In Deraa, the old quarter near the Omari Mosque has taken the brunt of tank shelling that echoes a 1982 attack on the city of Hama, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist revolt.
“They are turning Deraa into a new Hama, and many houses have become piles of rubble,” another witness said.
The old quarter’s cemetery has seen dozens of mass funerals for those killed in Deraa and now commemorated on posters as “martyrs” for the protests against 48 years of Baath Party rule.
Demonstrations erupted in Deraa six weeks ago after security police arrested two women, a doctor and an engineer, for their political views, and detained 15 teenagers who had scrawled slogans lifted from the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
“We were the first to stand up to their tyranny,” said Abu Farhan, a Deraa resident from the Abazaid clan. “They fear us, but with more martyrs dying, they are just bringing their own end closer and digging their own graves.”
Witnesses say security forces and troops have also looted stores and pharmacies in the center of Deraa, where the main government buildings, banks and businesses are located.
“They have emptied pharmacy shelves so that people do not find anything to treat their wounded. They are lions against us, but lambs toward the Israelis,” said Abu Yousef al-Asemee, a resident of Mahatta district as gunfire crackled nearby.