Derived from the Arabic for “ghost”, the word Shabiha ( Shabeeha) has come to embody the latest repressive twist of Syria’s minority dictatorship.
In neighbourhoods such as Moaddemiya, a rebellious suburb near the capital brutality meted out by the Shabiha has become a powerful source of fear.
A video from there shows Shabiha, who are mostly recruited from the president’s Alawite sect, standing above bloodied corpses. “Say Bashar al Assad and the Alawites will forever rule,” said a man in the video, moving the jaw of the corpse with his shoe.
The Shabiha are armed, and paid a daily rate of 2000 Syrian pounds, with extra for working on Friday, the weekend day when the largest demonstration has traditionally taken place.
“They have weapons and a licence to kill,” said Omar al Khani of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union. “The government brings these gangs to protests.
Most are recruited by the intelligences services. They are given a free hand to do what they want. If they kill for job no questions are asked,” added Khani. “It is the policy of the Free Syrian Army to kill the Shabiha,”
Faced with a nationwide uprising it has failed to quash, the regime is unrestrained in its attacks on the civilians who seek to cast off its control. Yesterday it was reported that victims of unrelenting shelling on the Baba Amr district of beseiged Homs were being treated by a vetinary surgeon. The only medical professional administering life saving treatment to the wounded was relying on his knowledge of sheep anatomy to those brought to his makeshift field hospital.
In the capital the battle lines are not yet drawn in such stark definition. For the most part the Shabiha lounge in Damascene streets, monitoring passers-by and keeping a tally of local movements.
But their patrols frequently take a sinister turn, especially in the capital’s hostile suburbs.
A group of Moaddemiya women recounted a litany of terrors the Shabiha has inflicted on the community.
“They imprisoned Nasser Serir, a peace activist for six months. Five days after he was released, a gang broke into his home and shot him in front of his children and his mother. They pushed his body from the balcony of the second floor apartment,” said ‘Obeida’, a middle aged women.
“Two weeks ago they entered into a family friend’s home. They held the men at gunpoint and trampled on them,” interjected ‘Hala’. “They punched the handicapped son in the stomach. Really, you cannot imagines these things!” The day before, a group had arrested her 60 year old father said Bola, a student in the group. Insisting that he had never before been to an anti-government protest, she said she could not fathom why he was taken.
“He was leaving the mosque after praying. He is a peaceful man, he is frightened of the security forces,” she said. “I cannot go to him. If I did they might take me too,” added Bola.
The Shabiha, which the international community has long condemned as outsourcing oppression, are not always easy to discern, said Damascus residents. “They give them military uniforms so that people cannot differentiate between them and the army. Some of the soldiers are very kind, but if you want to speak one in the street you should know if they are Shabeha or military,” warned Obeida.