Democracy Lab

The Corridor of Death

How the Syrian government's use of snipers against its own citizens gives the lie to its talk of fighting terrorism.

In the last day of my medical mission to Aleppo in October 2013, I was asked to examine a toddler who had arrived at our hospital after being shot in the head by a sniper one hour earlier. His name was Hamza Ramadan, and he was just three years old. His heart was beating, but he exhibited no other signs of life. I was told that snipers had targeted Hamza, his mother, and his sister as they tried to sprint through the passage separating the opposition-controlled east side of Aleppo to the regime-controlled west.

That two-block street has now come to be known as "The Corridor of Death" ("Maabar Almawet" in Arabic). Snipers perched on the roofs of three regime-controlled buildings at the end of the passage have turned the place into a killing ground. Hamza's mother and sister were killed instantly. Their bodies were rushed to the hospital, along with Hamza's, in the back of a car owned by bystanders. (Ambulances are a luxury in Aleppo. According to the World Health Organization, more than 75 percent of Syria's ambulances have been damaged in the conflict.)

Since the start of the first demonstrations in 2011, the Syrian regime has tried to cast the whole opposition as extremists and terrorists. This has been an effective strategy, playing into the fears of al Qaeda and jihadists that are prevalent in the United States and Europe. The more recent influx of foreign jihadists into Syria has added some legitimacy to such claims. The Western media has fallen into the regime's trap, portraying the conflict as a fight between the government and terrorists -- and sometimes implicitly justifying the regime's crimes against its own people. The reality, as I saw it, is far more malicious: The government of President Assad is waging war not only against an armed enemy, but also against its own population.

My medical mission to Aleppo was organized by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a group dedicated to helping the victims of the war. My aim was to serve the victims of war in that ancient city and world heritage site, now the epicenter of aerial bombing and shelling. No amount of disaster management or trauma care training could have possibly prepared me for the brutal reality of the hospital I visited. At the hospital, which was code-named "M-1" for security reasons, the vast majority of our patients were local residents injured by shrapnel from barrel bomb attacks or indiscriminate shelling from fights between rebels and regime troops. But many, like Hamza, were civilians targeted in the most direct and ruthless way possible: by snipers.

The use of snipers gives the lie to government propaganda. Snipers know exactly whom they're shooting. When snipers look through their telescopic sights at someone's head or chest, they know if the target is a child or a fighter. According to the Aleppo Civilian Medical Council, snipers in the "Corridor of Death" gun down five to 20 civilians every day. Most of the victims die instantly. Those who survive are likely to suffer lifelong disabilities: amputations, loss of an eye, or spinal cord injury and paralysis are just a few on a long list of possibilities. The Oxford Research Group reports that 11,420 children (aged 17 and under) were recorded killed in the Syrian conflict by end of August 2013, from an overall total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed. One in four of those child deaths were caused by small arms fire, including children targeted and summarily executed by snipers. Hamza was one of those unlucky children.

For many citizens of Aleppo, venturing to the other side of the city is not optional. Some have to take the risk on their daily commutes to and from work. Others have to venture to the farmer's market on the eastern side to buy food and fuel. Still others make the perilous journey to visit their families stuck on the opposite side of the crossing.

Snipers play an important role in the modern battlefield, especially now that new technology, such as infrared vision and long-range guns, have made the task of remote killing much easier. During the Bosnian war, Serbian snipers, who favored the tall buildings overlooking the infamous Vrbanja Bridge, gunned down civilians trying to flee the city. In one infamous instance in May 1993, they shot and killed a young couple, now known as Sarajevo's "Romeo and Juliet" (he was a Serb, she was a Muslim). Their bodies lay entwined for five days. The international media covered such incidents widely. But unlike their counterparts in Sarajevo, Syria's snipers are acting with relatively little media attention. Aleppo is not as accessible to journalists as Sarajevo, and Syrian sniper victims attract little notice. Thus, Assad's snipers operate with complete impunity, targeting women and children, and killing just to spread fear, hatred, and vengeance.

At the start of the conflict, snipers targeted civilians as part of the regime's strategy to disrupt peaceful demonstrations, using mortal fear to discourage people from joining the nonviolent movement. The Syrian civil war began when the Syrian security forces, or mukhabarat, arrested and tortured 15 middle-schoolers in southern Syria in March 2011 in retaliation for anti-regime slogans the boys had painted on walls. When the people of Daraa took to the streets to demand the release of the young boys, the snipers were waiting for them. Government snipers stationed in a tall building nearby killed four protesters and injured dozens of others. Youtube videos documented the killings, some even capturing images of the snipers themselves. Snipers also were awaiting early demonstrators in other Syrian cities. In the first nine months of the crisis, hundreds of videos documented men, women, and children being shot during demonstrations, bleeding in rudimentary field hospitals, or dying in vain like this boy who was shot in Homs in October 2011, or this boy shot in Damascus. (Warning: Links lead to graphic videos.)

It was clear to the doctors who treated the victims that the strategy has since shifted: Snipers are no longer merely scaring the population with the threat of random bullets. They now intend to cause irreversible harm or death. Aleppine doctors have told me horrific stories depicting sadistic patterns in the snipers' targets. The snipers have turned the killings into a sickening sport. Some of the shooters, probably bored by long hours of scouring for targets, play games, challenging themselves to hit two people with one bullet, or picking off stray cats and dogs.

David Nott, a British trauma surgeon who has previously worked in war zones in Bosnia, Libya, Chad, Sudan, and the Congo, spent five weeks at M-1, and told the London Times that snipers would chose to aim at different parts of civilians bodies each day. On the first day, they would aim for the groin; the next day, the neck; the next, the chest. "From the first patients that came in the morning, you could almost tell what you'd see for the rest of the day," Nott reported. "It was a game. We heard the snipers were winning packets of cigarettes for hitting the correct number of targets."

Nott remembers one day when two late-term pregnant women came into the hospital after being hit by snipers. The babies both died, one suffering a bullet to the brain. On another day, more than six pregnant women were caught by sniper fire. "The women were all shot through the uterus, so that must have been what [the snipers] were aiming for," Nott commented. "This was deliberate. It was hell beyond hell." Nott's photo of the unborn baby with a bullet lodged in its head was widely-distributed. The baby and its mother were both pronounced dead at M-1.

Almost every doctor I met at the hospital told me another horrific story about a young mother who tried to make the crossing with her two children. When she hastened through the corridor, holding one child in each hand, a sniper targeted her 4-year-old son, killing him instantly. She started screaming in agony. Then a bullet hit her second son, a 3 year-old, and killed him, too. She sat down between the bodies of her sons, waiting for the sniper to shoot her... but the shot did not come. He spared her to live a life without her children, to be consumed by a gnawing emptiness -- something snipers have done to countless Syrian mothers. When she finally arrived at M-1 with the dead bodies of her two sons, she was in the middle of a complete mental breakdown.

The snipers, and the regime that deploys them, have succeeded in transforming a peaceful movement for democratic revolution into a civil war, planting fear and deep psychological scars, displacing tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for safety, creating hatred among different ethnic and religious groups, fuelling sectarianism, and attracting extremism. Their bullets have not only killed my compatriots, but also my homeland. They have assassinated Syria.

The United Nations stopped counting the number of those killed in Syria after the total reached more than 100,000 victims. Syria is facing a humanitarian tragedy of unprecedented proportions. But Hamza, like the other 12,000 children who have been killed, is not a number. He was a child, full of life. Like any other child, he played, laughed, cried, and dreamed. He could have grown up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or even president -- but a cold-hearted government sniper took that chance away from him. The Syrian regime's ruthless and relentless slaughter of its own people is a despicable crime. It must be stopped.



A Racist Farewell to Gary Locke

A ChinaFile conversation.

This version of the story has been corrected.

On Feb. 27, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, gave his final news conference of his two-and-a-half-year tenure in Beijing, where he emphasized human rights and decried Chinese treatment of dissidents and foreign journalists. Locke's tenure had always been complicated by his role as the first Chinese-American U.S. ambassador to China, and the reaction to his speech was no different. That same day, the state-run China News Service published a critique by author Wang Ping -- likely a pseudonym -- that called Locke a "banana man with yellow skin and a white heart," among other insults. A former governor of Washington and U.S. commerce secretary, Locke will shortly be replaced by former Sen. Max Baucus (D- Mont.).

ChinaFile, an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, hosts a feature called Conversations -- smart takes on breaking China news by some of the most respected and thoughtful observers of China, both inside and outside the country. In this ChinaFile conversation, participants discuss the editorial, the perils of racial perception, and Locke's legacy as ambassador. 

Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for the Chinese web services company Baidu:

Banana or Twinkie for "white-on-the-inside" East Asian–Americans, Oreo for African-Americans, coconut for South Asian–Americans, apple for Native Americans -- these epithets are all products of the simplistic, groundless belief that one's race should correspond to a (rarely defined) set of behavioral norms, to a locus of identity and loyalty. As an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the United States, I heard the term banana a lot, sometimes directed my way, sometimes in reference to another American of East Asian extraction who wasn't "Chinese" (or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese) enough. These were also terms I frequently heard and still occasionally hear East Asian–Americans call themselves, often with pride rather than self-deprecation. Whether it's insulting depends on the context and who's on the receiving end.

In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking Doberman, banana was meant with unmistakable malice -- that Locke is a race traitor who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the U.S. discourse on race. But while many Chinese will object to the editorial's broadsides against Locke (and many already have), I suspect they will focus much more on another part of the essay: the irony that state media would call out Locke for living well, but projecting everyman simplicity. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a "Chinese heart" to match, even multiple generations removed, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies -- that what you "owe" the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you -- is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

In Locke's case, you'd think that the fact that he was in Beijing as the top representative of the U.S. government would dispel any expectation that his loyalties and identity should be to anywhere but Washington (the state or D.C.). Yet I would wager that even among his ardent admirers in China -- the people who responded most positively to his backpack-toting, Starbucks-buying, down-to-earth style -- part of that admiration grew out of a sense that he was "one of us:" a Chinese person. Locke reinforced this, deliberately or otherwise, with each visit to his ancestral home in Taishan, Guangdong. It was certainly useful to play to, and it often worked. In any case, to have expected color-blindness toward Locke in China would be even more naive than to have expected it in the United States with President Barack Obama.

Americans are certainly not immune to the kind of thinking that gives rise to race traitor accusations. It's often there in the subtext when expatriates attack Mark Rowswell the white Canadian with impeccable spoken Chinese who has for many years played the character Dashan on Chinese television. It's implicit, alongside more reasonable objections, in criticism of white reporters who go on air for CCTV News. And it's there in the derision many feel for those who call themselves "eggs" -- white people who've convinced themselves that they're really "culturally Asian," with a "yolk" consisting, their detractors might say, of an obsessive familiarity with manga or anime, martial arts films, Eastern religion, traditional Chinese medicine, and of course "yellow fever," that creepy fetishistic attraction to East Asian women. Sure, the Globe and Mail or the New York Times are not flinging "race traitor." But it would hardly surprise me were subtler accusations of race treason to pop up on Fox.

Hyeon-Ju Rho, U.S. public interest lawyer:

Calling an Asian-American person a banana means, of course, that he is yellow on the outside, but white at the core. The banana critique suggests something interesting about the Chinese reaction to Locke. Initially many thought he might be easier to deal with than his predecessors because he was "one of us." Disappointment set in when -- surprise, surprise -- Locke stood firm in representing U.S. interests.

Ironically, one of the challenges Asian-Americans face in the United States is the sense that we are not American enough. One of the country's great shames was the mass incarceration of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, while in more recent decades, Asian-Americans have continued to face the suspicion that they are somehow not fully American. In 1982, men who blamed him for autoworker jobs lost to Japanese competition murdered Vincent Chin, an immigrant of Chinese descent, in Detroit. In 1999, Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Taiwan who had lived in the United States for more than 30 years, was wrongfully accused of stealing secrets for China.

Despite these injustices, the American ability to welcome and be shaped by the talents of immigrants from around the globe has always been one of its greatest strengths. That Locke, a U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, could become governor of Washington, a secretary of commerce, and a U.S. ambassador is a testament to this.

The outdated notion of ethnicity reflected in the China News Service banana comment is part of a nationalist strand in the People's Republic of China's polity that hopefully is a minority view. And if being a banana means that Ambassador Locke is American to the core, I suspect that he might not mind the "insult" too much.

Sidney Rittenberg, founder and president of the China consulting team Rittenberg Associates:

Wang Ping's scurrilous and infantile personal attack on Locke -- well known for his personal integrity -- visits new global shame on China's state-owned media. Wang's title, "Farewell, Gary Locke!" is an attempt to gain traction by the use of a famous essay by Mao Zedong on the departure from China of U.S. Ambassador John Leighton Stuart in the run-up to the founding of the People's Republic of China. This cheap publicity trick, however, only adds to the shame, because of the contrast between the two essays.

1. Mao's essay, of which I was one of the translators, carefully avoids any disrespect for Stuart, instead going out of its way to cite Stuart's record as a Japanese prisoner in World War II. Wang launches a personal attack on Ambassador Locke, using the political language of the Chinese gutter.

2. Mao wrote his essay during a bitter civil war, in which the United States was providing major military, financial, and political support to his enemy, Chiang Kai-shek. His scathing critique of Washington's policy came naturally, under the circumstances. The state-owned, tightly controlled China News Service, on the other hand, published this filth at a time when leaders of both China and the United States have openly declared their commitment to forging a "new type of relationship" between these two great powers.

How, then, are foreign readers to view this attack on Locke? If the defense argument should be that "China News Service does not censor comment," that would cause knowledgeable observers to, as the Chinese saying goes, "Laugh their teeth out." But any other defense would reveal a disturbing ambiguity in China's policy toward the United States.

I am far from happy with U.S. foreign policy, including its China policy. But that's not the point here. The point is: How do we explain a Chinese media that indulges in such disreputable attacks, and in the hate campaign against all Japanese, when the state it represents is supposed to believe in internationalism, not in ultranationalism?

Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 professor of political science at Columbia University:

To be sure, the editorial is scurrilous, racist, and incoherent -- it claims, bafflingly, that when Locke left the "the skies suddenly became blue." But its main concern seems to be with Locke's effective projection of U.S. soft power. This is a battlefront that increasingly obsesses the Chinese leaders, as seen in their denunciations of universal values and the enumeration of "seven themes that cannot be discussed," including constitutionalism, civil society, freedom of speech, and independent media. To the leaders, these themes are not matters of intellectual debate. They are positions on a political battlefield, where the ruling Communist Party is in a weak position because of the widespread popularity of these ideas in China and the obvious inability of the Chinese regime to fulfill them.

Just as Beijing sees the current events in Ukraine as yet another "color revolution" cynically engineered by the West to expand its strategic footprint, so too Locke carrying his bags is seen as a political act aimed at humiliating the Chinese leadership and weakening its hold on power. If a white ambassador had played these games, they could have been seen as just another set of funny foreign customs. Sending an ethnic Chinese to conduct this kind of propaganda action must seem to show a special deviousness on the part of the schemers in Washington.

Chen Weihua, columnist and chief Washington correspondent for China Daily and deputy editor of China Daily USA:

To me, the huge attention triggered by the article about Locke's departure carried on the China News Service website is both warranted and unwarranted.

First, the unjustified part: The story, though on China News Service's website, looks highly unlikely to be the work of its staff, let alone its editorial board. It looks more likely the creation of an unsophisticated blogger or freelancer.

The language used is simply too coarse, a departure from the standards and style of the China News Service I have observed over the years.

Second, Western media tends to interpret any article on Chinese news media as the view of the organization, but that is often not true. For example, many believe my weekly newspaper column represents the views of the paper or even the Chinese government. That is totally untrue. It is always my personal view.

In this sense, there is no need to make a big fuss of such an article, an ordinary one likely by a blogger. There are literally hundreds, if not millions, of different views on every single issue in China these days, especially when you follow social media.

Personally, I disagree with a lot of what the article said. I would also give Locke credit if he was the one who started the PM2.5 readings (air-quality readings of particulate matter less then 2.5 micrometers in diameter). My column last week was about how China's Ministry of Environmental Protection should become more powerful and accountable in the face of such severe smog shrouding much of China. PM2.5 readings allow more Chinese to recognize the severity and urgency of China's environmental and health challenges.

Dramatically cutting the visa time for Chinese tourists, as Locke has done, benefits both countries. It has enabled more Chinese to visit the United States to open their eyes. At the same time, this has proved to be a smart policy for the United States because of the huge purchasing power of Chinese visitors. 

Given that he's an American with Chinese ancestry and the U.S. ambassador to China, there is no doubt that Locke represents the United States, not China or Chinese. Many Chinese do not understand that the United States is a nation of immigrants. If everyone pledged loyalty to their ancestral hometown, there would be no United States.

Shen Dingli, professor and associate dean at Fudan University's Institute of International Studies:

In a globalizing world, everyone should have the tolerance to recognize the dual identities of others as both national citizens and as global villagers. Although Ambassador Locke must be concerned with all other countries including China, the country of his ancestors, his allegiance is first and foremost to his own country. This has nothing to do with his race or the color of either his skin or his core. It is hard to understand slandering a non-Chinese for failing to promote Chinese interests just because his ancestors were Chinese.

In fact, Ambassador Locke acted in conformity with the trend that China is attempting to practice. He traveled coach class to Beijing, in compliance with State Department rules that U.S. officials, even at the rank of ambassador, have to fly economy class if the flight time is fewer than 14 hours, unless the passenger has an official appointment upon arrival. Ambassador Locke's flight was half an hour shy of 14 hours and he didn't have an official engagement on arrival, so he didn't qualify to fly a more comfortable class. I am pleased to see that my country is now exerting tougher control over its own officials' travel and accommodation. Locke did, indeed, enjoy a coffee at Starbucks, but it is odd to conceive of this as a deliberate show to make himself seem more down to earth. He probably does the same kinds of things all the time in private. Even if his common touch were a deliberate performance, one ought to exercise civility in tolerating it. These days many people who do the same are commended for it.

It's true that Locke has addressed human rights issues frequently despite China's progress. But China has done the same with regard to other countries. Chairman Mao supported Martin Luther King's civil movement for equal rights; China supported Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid actions; and it still publishes the U.S. human rights reports, as long as the United States does so first. Fundamentally, China and the United States should engage in dialogue in such areas to truly implement a "new type of major-country relationship," rather than looking at one-sided stories about each other. Having said this, I am critical of Locke for illegally bringing rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a clear breach of Chinese law. But the Chinese government still allowed Chen to leave the country, showing its attachment to the importance of bilateral relations.

Given the intense complexity of China-U.S. relations, rather than issuing such questionable comments, it would be prudent to bid farewell to Ambassador Locke with openness and balance.

Correction: Max Baucus was a senator from Montana. An earlier version of the story incorrectly said that he was a senator from Minnesota.

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