REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Like most demonstrators in the crowd, Syrian university student Muaz Jaban was undaunted when soldiers began firing on their anti-government protest in his northern hometown of Ma’arra last week.
So the commanding officer ordered tanks to open fire.
Now lying in a Turkish hospital bed barely a kilometer from the Syrian border, the 22-year-old student of Arabic literature stares blankly at the bandaged stumps that were once his legs.
“We saw the tanks pull into town. In front of them were soldiers. First, the soldiers started firing on the protesters, but we stayed where we were,” said Jaban’s uncle, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals on family at home.
“There was a high-ranking officer there with stars,” he said, tapping his shoulder with three fingers. “He gave the order for the tanks to open fire.”
A tank fired one shell straight into the crowd killing three people and wounding at least 10, the uncle said. Jaban’s left leg was severed near his pelvis and his right leg just below the knee.
Unable to mutter more than a few words, Jaban listens intently as his uncle retells his story. He grimaces as his uncle lifts the blanket to reveal what is left of his legs. Fluid weeps from his wounds and stains the bedsheet beneath him.
Whether from the effects of the painkillers, shock or a mixture of both, Jaban’s vacant gaze shows that reality has not yet sunk in. His trauma bears chilling testament to the increasingly violent nature of the conflict raging inside Syria.
The year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which started as a peaceful protest movement, has drawn a brutal response from his security forces and there are now clashes on a daily basis around the country.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed so far and the toll is rising rapidly. Thousands more, like Jaban, have been wounded in the conflict which Damascus portrays as an insurrection by foreign-backed terrorists.
The violence does come from both sides. Advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Tuesday condemned tactics of opposition fighters, saying rebels in Syria had kidnapped, tortured and executed security personnel and supporters of Assad.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny full access to rights groups and journalists.
Jaban is one of scores of wounded Syrian civilians and rebel fighters being treated in Turkish hospitals in Hatay province along the Syrian border.
Refugees sneak into Turkey day and night, scrambling through barbed wire fencing at unofficial border crossings. There are some 16,500 Syrian refugees now in Turkey with 200 to 300 people now crossing every day.
Turkey has raised the possibility of creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria to protect the fleeing civilians, among options it could take if the stream of refugees turns into a flood.
Jaban was taken to the Turkish border by rebel fighters, sometimes by vehicle, sometimes carried on a stretcher, to avoid the army checkpoints. He was finally passed through the barbed wire border fence on Sunday to a waiting Turkish ambulance.
His uncle says Assad’s forces are still occupying his hometown and the surrounding Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
“The tanks are still there. Everyone is under fire,” he said. As he speaks, Jaban slowly lifts his hand and pretends to pull a trigger with his finger as if to illustrate his uncle’s point.
Asked if he wants to say anything, Jaban shakes his head and points two of his fingers to form a victory sign, a trademark symbol of the Syrian uprising and other “Arab Spring” revolts.
In the bed next to his, lies 36-year-old Mohammad. Unlike Jaban, Mohammad is a fighter in the Free Syrian Army, the ill-equipped opposition force battling Assad’s military. He was wounded in a gun battle with Syrian troops in the city of Idlib a month ago.
With his gaunt frame and bandaged body, Mohammad, who gave only one name, does not match the image of a fighter. He describes himself as a civilian who was just protecting his community.
“The tanks started firing on the city at 5:30 in the morning. The roofs on the houses started to cave in. They did not stop firing until lunchtime,” he said.
“It was the same the next day but this time they continued until 7 p.m. On the second day, they entered the centre of the city. Whoever got in their way, they fired on them.”
Mohammad was shot twice in the abdomen and once in his right arm, shattering the bone. He received rudimentary treatment in Syria a month ago and was then smuggled into Turkey on Sunday, by fighters using blankets as a stretcher.
But after he receives surgery on his arm and abdomen, Mohammad has no plans of staying in Turkey.
“We don’t want to stay here. I want to go back. As soon as I can, I will go back to Syria,” he said.
Writing by Jonathon Burch