Massacre in Palmyra

Massacre in Palmyra
Feature: When the Islamic State group captured the ancient Syrian city, they butchered the remaining soldiers. Only troops who were informed about a retreat survived, reports Absi Smeisem.
4 min read
26 May, 2015
Assad loyalists are beginning to question the validity of the war [AFP]
When the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis) launched its assault on the eastern entrance to Palmyra, Syrian soldier Mounir was suprised to find his officers run from the battlefield and leave the regular troops to face the militants alone.

There was no warning from the officers that the battle was lost and a retreat plan was already in place. What is certain is that the act saved the lives of the officers, but left the vast majority of the soldiers to face their deaths when the Syrian army positions were overrun.

Mounir only escaped because a member of the special forces told them that they had been ordered to retreat from the city.

Walking dead

Around 200 hundred soldiers, with no orders to withdraw, ran for their lives. It was 15 hours before they reached the relative safety of Tayfour airbase, while others took the road to Damacus.

The latter were captured by the Islamic State group and were likely among the 262 known victims of the militants' post-battle butchery. Other soldiers who did not recieve any word about the retreat and surrendered are also likely among the dead.

Mounir is from the Syrian city of Salamiyah, and was in the national army, which swears loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad, until his service ended in 2012. He was called up from the reserves a year ago and has served in Palmyra since.

When Mounir arrived home, he looked like a walking skeleton. His mother said that when she last saw him, he weighed around 80kg. Arriving at her door, having fled the ancient city ruins, he weighed little more than 45kg.

Mounir said he was among eleven soldiers tasked with protecting Palmyra's eastern flank. For four days he could see the IS militants in the distance, and each day prayed that reinforcements would arrive. They never came.

"On the fourth day, a member of the special forces, which were stationed nearby, suddenly told us that there was a verbal order for all forces to withdraw from Palmyra. I told my fellow soldiers, and we were surprised to find that all our commanders and their families had already disappeared from the city."
     It was like judgement day. Every soldier was left to himself, trying to find a way to escape certain death.
Mounir, Syrian regime soldier

Mounir and his comrades fled for their lives, and told any soldiers they could find about the order to retreat.

"It was like judgement day. Every soldier was left to himself, trying to find a way to escape certain death. The soldiers who fled towards Damascus were handed over to IS forces, while others were killed on the road. I knew death would be my fate if I fell into the hands of IS, because I am Ismaili."

Running for their lives

Mounir and his band comandeered cars from the city to make the 75km journey to the nearest regime airbase, but were caught in an ambush, which had targeted and killed a brigadier-general.

"We left the cars and started running. As we ran through the city, we saw other soldiers who had not receieved orders and were still in their positions. I think those who did not run must have been killed by the IS," Mounir said. 

Mounir phoned his uncle, who works at Tayfour airbase, and stayed on the line for 15 hours straight, as he guided them to safety.

"We ran as fast as we could, feeling that death could come at any moment. Some soldiers even gave up and decided to face their fate," Mounir said.

The soldiers ran continuously for 10km until they reached farmland, where they stopped to drink water from pipes they found.

But the airbase was still 60km away and there was no time to rest.

"We did not know where the IS forces were and if they were still after us to kill us. Towards the end of the road, when we were all too tired, we felt like our army boots were welded to our feet," Mounir said. 

Mounir's uncle was waiting for the dishevelled crew when they reached the regime base.

"He put me in his car and sent me to my home town because he knew [if we stayed there] we would be re-deployed to another lost battle," he said.

Mounir has grown tired of fighting to defend the Assad family and, like many other former regime loyalists, is looking for a way out of this hell.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.