Eight days after a barrel bomb exploded near him in southern Syria, Abo Bakr Haj Ali is still picking shrapnel out of his wounds — proof, if it were needed, that President Assad’s claim yesterday that the regime is not using such indiscriminate explosives is a lie.
Mr Haj Ali’s shoulder, in which fragments are embedded, is now infected. So too are his ears and sinuses after the force of the blast drove dirt into his head. He was at work in a rebel-held stretch of Deraa province when he heard the warning sounds: the helicopter blades growing louder, then the swish of the bomb as it rushed to the ground. He ran into a street, putting himself closer to where the bomb was set to land but where he was less likely to be trapped by debris.
Barrel bombs are typically dropped in twos and this attack was no different. The first landed some way away from him, but the second destroyed his office and the blast knocked him out.
“There was so much pressure, I felt like my head was going to explode,” he said. “I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear. I thought I was going to die.”
Barrel bombs are cheap, do-it-yourself weapons made from bits of pipe or other metal containers, rather than actual steel drums. They are filled with explosives, often TNT or fertiliser-based explosives, and packed with shrapnel. They detonate on impact.
It was with a mixture of disbelief and fury that Syrians heard their president yesterday, in a BBC interview that was broadcast on Syrian state television, denying that his regime deployed such explosives.
Despite extensive evidence of the use of barrel bombs, Mr Assad said that the accusations were nothing better than “a childish story”.
“I know about the army, they use bullets, missiles, and bombs. I haven’t heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots,” Mr Assad, said. “There are no indiscriminate weapons.”
He added: “There is no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels. Like any army, we have bombs, we have missiles, we have bullets, etcetera. You know, what every army has.”
For Lama Fakih, of Human Rights Watch, whose work takes her to hospitals to interview maimed children, Mr Assad’s comments were unfathomable.
“I’ve met so many children who have lost limbs to these bombs. To say they aren’t being used is a clear denial of reality,” she said. “You can’t erase the impact these weapons have had, and for a president to try to whitewash this is outrageous.”
Barrel bombs were first documented in Syria in August 2012, when Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Bellingcat investigative journalism platform, posted photos of a “home-made bomb dropped by helicopter” to his weapons blog, Brown Moses.
That first sighting, 35km west of Aleppo, was followed by similar photographs and videos from Idlib, Daraa, and eventually across Syria.
Mr Higgins said that “anyone claiming barrel bombs haven’t been used is either a liar, deluded, out of touch, or some combination of the three.”
He added: “The type that’s become popular in the last year or so uses three tail fins to stabilise the bomb so it lands on a large improvised impact fuse. They’ve also added wheels to the base to assist pushing it out of the helicopter,” he said.
The helicopters fly high to evade anti-aircraft fire, but too high to hit targets with precision.
Ms Fakih said: “The Syrian government doesn’t use barrel bombs on frontlines, only in rebel-held areas. They’re not smart, targeted weapons. They serve almost no military objective,” she said.
“Their only purpose is to devastate civilian life. They displace, kill, maim and terrify.”
Last February, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to cease the use of barrel bombs. According to activists and civilians, barrel bombs were dropped on Syria as recently as yesterday.