They were killed in barrel bomb explosions while sitting in their homes, hit by stray gunfire, pummeled by million-dollar cruise missiles or shot dead along ditches with single bullets to the back of their skulls.
In all, more than 100,000 people, perhaps a third or more civilians, died violently in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and the Gaza Strip in 2014, making it one of the bloodiest years in the Middle East’s history.
“Already in 2013 we all thought it had reached a level of violence and devastation that couldn’t get worse,” said Bente Scheller, Beirut-based Middle East director for the Heinrich Boll Foundation. “It became worse in every country.”
The people of Syria suffered by far the highest number of deaths. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, at least 76,000 people died violently in Syria, nearly a quarter of them civilians, in the most deadly year of a conflict ignited by government violence against peaceful protesters in 2011.
The struggle has since mushroomed into a complicated civil war pitting the regime of Bashar al-Assad against an array of rebel fighters, including powerful forces allied with al-Qaeda, who are also battling the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis. Fighting in 2014 ravaged Syria and spread misery throughout the region.
“The Syria crisis is the biggest humanitarian crisis we have faced in the past two decades,” said Juliette Touma, spokeswoman for the UN’s special envoy to Syria. “The human toll is so huge. More than half of Syria’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance: 75 per cent of people in need are women and children. The impact the crisis in Syria is having on the region from a social, security and economic side is immense.”
Elsewhere, more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the long-smouldering sectarian conflict in Iraq, the most deaths since the peak of the country’s civil conflict in 2007, according to the Iraqi government. But other sources report higher numbers of casualties in the country, which is in danger of breaking apart as a result of the takeover of a third of its territory by Isis. Iraqi Body Count, an independent project, estimated that more than 17,000 civilians alone died in 2014, double the number killed in 2013 and four times as many as 2012. UN figures counted 12,000 killed and twice as many injured by November but excluded war-torn Anbar province.
“Iraqis continue to be daily subjected to the unspeakable horrors of killing, maiming, reign of terror, displacement, extreme forms of intolerance and poverty,” Nikolay Mladenov, UN special envoy to Iraq said last month.
At least 2,800 people have died in Libya’s expanding civil war, according to Libya Body Count, a website whose emergence attests to the descent of the country’s once joyous 2011 uprising into an increasingly vicious conflict between two armed camps loyal to rival authorities.
The less governance there is, the more chaos and devastation and the less prospect for any settlement that will lead to quick results– Bente Scheller, Heinrich Boll Foundation
Another 2,100 people, overwhelmingly Palestinians, died in a 50-day conflict pitting the Israeli government against Hamas and other militant organisations in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated enclave of 1.8m.
Hundreds also died in suicide bombings, drone strikes and sectarian warfare in impoverished Yemen.
Perhaps even more dismaying than the large death toll is that none of the underlying political tensions driving the conflicts appear to be easing. In fact, violence and lawlessness have the potential to accelerate in all the conflicts.
No compromise appears on the horizon between Mr Assad and his rivals in Syria, and the last peace talks collapsed months ago. Iraq’s conflict looks set to become more bloody as revamped security forces seek to retake Mosul from Isis. Libya’s war grows more extreme by the week, with rival camps striking each other from the air and increasingly targeting vital infrastructure. The decades long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians appears further from resolution than at any point since the second intifada 25 years ago.
“The conditions under which 2014 developed did not change,” Ms Scheller said. “The less governance there is, the more chaos and devastation and the less prospect for any settlement that will lead to quick results.”