Crouching in a gap between two grey boulders, Mohammed Rahman Sohail first heard the screams of defiance, then the machine guns opening up.
Down the valley, around 300 metres away, he could make out about 100 men like him hiding behind jagged rocks, desperately trying to outmanoeuvre the turrets pointing their way.
The tanks and men with machine guns had moved out from nearby villages and readied themselves on the high ground, herding their captives like dogs corralling stock to this small forsaken valley on a mountain plateau in northern Syria.
With the men trapped below, gunmen loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad walked steadily around the ridge until every man beneath them had no chance of escape.
The only way out was a suicidal dash towards a five-metre wide exit to a large ravine below. Some of the men made the futile run for it. The rest accepted their fate. Sohail hid silently, trembling and terrified as everyone of the men were mowed down.
“They were screaming and shouting Allahu Akbar as they died,” said Sohail, weeping as he recalled the massacre. “The sounds of their death were agonising. They will stay with me forever.”
Sohail said the gunfire continued for six hours on that terrible day, 21 December last year. “They [the regime soldiers] had everyone out of the nearby villages, Kfra Arya and Sarji, by 9.45am,” he said. “They started at 10am and finished at 4pm. I didn’t move all that time. What could I do?”
Sohail, an officer in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been in the fields when the army arrived that day. He heard the commotion in the nearby villages and stayed put. As far as he knows he is the only living witness to what took place in this remote rural hamlet of Jebel al-Zawiya. In the 18 months of violence that has ravaged Syria, it is one of the worst single massacres to have taken place.
It is also one of the most well-documented acts of savagery, with local men meticulously filming the aftermath of murdered men piled amid a pristine ravine. The images had a Jonestown-like depravity.
When the guns fell silent, 83 men were dead. Among them were two of Sohail’s brothers and 10 of his cousins. Every one of the corpses was riddled with bullets from heavy weapons. “There was even an imam whose throat they had cut,” he said. “They were barbarians.”
In December last year, regime troops had gone hunting for defectors in northern Syria, particularly those who had fled to two rebellious areas, Jebel al-Zawiya and Jisr al-Shughour, which the Assad regime claims are hotbeds of Islamic militancy.
The FSA considered this part of the country to be one of its strongholds. It was able to seize and hold swathes of ground and launch attacks on military columns that came their way. The ranks of defectors were starting to swell and pose a serious threat to the regime’s ability to retain control here.
“There were many defectors coming in to us every day,” said Sohail, sitting with a group of men – in effect a military platoon – in a nearby village last week.
Another officer said: “It is true that around half, roughly 43, of the men were defectors. They had been with the revolution for only a short time and the army had tricked them into leaving the village. By the time they realised the conspiracy, they could not escape.”
Several weeks after mourning his dead family members, Sohail returned to the lead the ravaged local FSA unit. Not long afterwards a new defector arrived. “He said he was one of the men in the tanks firing his machine gun,” said Sohail. “He asked for my forgiveness and said [his officers] had told him that we were all from Libya and members of al-Qa’ida and that every one of us was to be killed.
“I forgave him and said he was welcome.”
Sohail said that, despite the terrible price the defector’s gun had helped take on his family, he could not bring himself to hold a grudge against him. “He was just following orders,” said Sohail. “If he had refused to fire, they would have killed him.”
Four days before the Guardian met Sohail, the army unit from which the defector had fled caught up with him.
“He was driving a bread van out towards another village,” said Sohail. “They took him from his car and shot him dead.”
Defections – and bloody reprisals – still take place almost daily in this part of the rebel heartland. Regime troops have retaken the biggest city in northern Syria, Idblib, and their hold on some of the outlying villages appears to be increasing. But Jebel al-Zawiya remains, for now, an uncontrollable corner of a deeply unstable country.
“That’s all they can do – kill,” said the second officer. “We have paid a heavy price here. But so have they.”
Martin Chulov, The Guardian