'Berri the murderer is no more. Allahu Akbar'


EVERYONE IN Aleppo had something to say about Zeino Berri. Some called him a drugs kingpin, others talked of him as an arms dealer you didn’t ever want to cross. But most people feared the powerful clan leader because of his role in organising the local chapter of the shabiha, the pro-Assad militias who have been accused of multiple atrocities during the 16-month revolt against the Syrian president.

Earlier this week, as rebel fighters continued to make advances here in Syria’s most populous city, they captured Berri and several of his clansmen. What followed was an example of the seemingly endless cycle of revenge that is driving much of the bloody conflict Syria finds itself in.

Mobile phone footage shows Berri and his relatives, stripped to their underwear and stumbling as they are jostled by rebel fighters. Minutes later they are killed with several shots to the head, Hajj Jizara, a fighter who witnessed the killing told The Irish Times. He said their bodies were later mutilated with knives.

Hajj Jizara proudly displayed a clip of the bloodied corpses he had filmed on his phone. He then showed off a Kalashnikov which he said had belonged to Berri. Pumping the gun in the air, he cried: “Berri the murderer is no more. Allahu Akbar.”

Hussein Ahmed, a driver turned rebel fighter who also witnessed Berri’s grisly demise, says the shabiha boss was defiant to the end. “I heard his last words. He shouted out: “You the so-called Free Army will soon be finished,” Ahmed recalls. The Free Army is a reference to the self-named rebel Free Syrian Army.

“Few will cry for Berri in Aleppo,” says another fighter. “He was a notorious figure and his death will be a big blow for the shabiha, a big blow for the regime in this city.”

The rebels were gathered around a police station they had captured the previous day. The battle for this station, now a gutted, burnt-out shell with the three-starred green, white and black revolutionary flag fluttering from the roof, lasted one week. When it was over, said the rebels, several high-ranking Syrian military officers were dead.

“Every day we gain something more,” said one fighter, dressed in T-shirt and fatigues. “God willing soon we will have Aleppo and then we will march on Damascus.”

The drive though Aleppo’s rebel-held districts passes through deserted streets punctuated by checkpoints manned by youthful fighters, some of whom look barely out of their teens. One totes the golden head of Bashar al-Assad, cut from a nearby statue. Assad’s features are daubed with red paint and rebels taunt the likeness as the fighter walks past.

In the warren of narrow streets that makes up Salahuddin, a rebel stronghold which has been pounded by the regime’s fighter aircraft in recent days, the atmosphere is ghostly.

“Everyone has left except for the thowar [revolutionaries],” says one fighter with his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.

“But the people trust us: many left the keys to their homes with us and told us that we could take whatever food we needed.”

One woman sat anxiously in a shot-up minibus nearby. She had just returned to her empty home for a quick visit after fleeing the regime’s bombardment days ago. “We left so quickly, I forgot important medicine,” she said. “My children are in another area of the city, it is safer there. Who knows when we will be able to come back?”

A fighter looking on shook his head. “God help Aleppo,” he said. “We just want Bashar to go, that’s all. We want to save our city and save our country.”