Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre – By Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun
Initially, the United Nations was convinced that the Syrian government was behind the brutal Houla massacre. But then, some began to have doubts. SPIEGEL traveled to the town to interview survivors and witnesses — and was able to reconstruct the horrifying slaughter.
Nothing is going to happen, Muawiya Sayyid, a retired police officer, reassured his family on the afternoon of May 25. They were afraid to leave the house, but Sayyid reminded his family that he had been a colonel and troops with regime connections had remained unharmed in previous raids.
It was a fatal miscalculation, as Colonel Sayyid was forced to realize during the last few minutes of his life. According to statements by his surviving wife and daughter, he was in his room on the second floor when he overheard the murderers in front of the house as they agreed bring out the women first and then kill everyone. He told his wife and children to run. « I’ll try to stall them, » he said. He succeeded, but paid for it with his life.
The Houla massacre at the end of May, which claimed the lives of 108 village residents, according to the United Nations, including 49 children and 34 women, most of them murdered with hatchets, knives and guns, shocked the world. UN observers were able to gain access to the site of the carnage, where they could see the bodies and independently confirm what had happened there. The Syrian ambassadors to the UN and 12 countries, including Germany, were expelled. On June 1, the UN Human Rights Council condemned the Syrian regime and its shabiha militias for the massacre, with Russia and China voting against the resolution. The government in Damascus, however, blamed the incident on « terrorists » and denounced what it called a « tsunami of lies » over the massacre.
But then views began to shift. As time passed, the UN began to question its original findings. On June 27, the Human Rights Council discussed a report prepared by its Syria commission, which concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine who had committed the massacre.
Since May 26, when Alex Thompson with Britain’s Channel 4 television station joined UN observers in Houla for a few hours, no foreign journalist had been in the town to examine the site and speak directly with surviving members of the massacred families and eyewitnesses of the attack.
Now, though, a SPIEGEL team has managed to visit the place where the massacre occurred: Taldou, the largest of four widely scattered villages that form the Houla municipality. Getting there was complicated; the Syrian regime doesn’t want any foreign journalists in the country, especially not in Houla.
The region is also surrounded by a ring of Alawite villages, where the Syrian army has established bases from which it continues to fire at Houla with tanks and artillery. The regime provides arms to the villages, which in turn supply the pro-regime shabiha militias, which have set up checkpoints on area roads and are participating in attacks.
Taldou itself, home to more than 15,000 people before the revolution, is under the control of its own residents. They have formed a unit of the FSA, which protects them from smaller attacks, but not from bombardment. Parts of the village, including one of the areas where the massacre took place, remain inaccessible, because they are within the range of army snipers positioned on a ridge outside the town.
The SPIEGEL team spent two days in Taldou, where it was able to move about freely, interview surviving members of the Sayyid and Abdul Rassak families and speak with witnesses. Some of the witnesses spoke on camera, while others wanted to remain anonymous, because they still have relatives in prison or in cities controlled by the regime. To prevent collective memories from interfering with their own experiences, the witnesses were interviewed individually and asked what they had seen and heard.
After Friday prayers on May 25, the residents of Taldou formed their usual protest marches against the regime. But then, in the early afternoon, army forces began heavily bombarding the village from several surrounding bases. FSA units launched counter-attacks on a number of army checkpoints. Witnesses, though, say that there were hardly any FSA fighters in Taldou on that afternoon, which is why the advancing death squads faced no resistance. It was still broad daylight when the first wave arrived.
On the afternoon of May 25, Mohammed Faur Abdul Rassak was on his way to his house on Sadd Street, which intersects with the side street where the massacre victims lived. He had called his house after hearing rumors that shabiha groups from several surrounding localities, including the exclusively Alawite village of Fullah, were on their way to Taldou. « They are forming groups, » his father had told him, saying that there was a lot of shooting and that people were afraid to leave their houses. « Shortly after five, I was near our house, where you can see the road to Fullah on the hill. About 10 cars and at least 400 men were approaching on that road. Some were wearing military uniforms, while others were dressed in civilian clothing. Some had long beards and shaved heads. Some of the men were wearing red armbands.
A second group, consisting of about 30 men in uniform, came from the waterworks where the military is based. I approached my house slowly and hid on Sadd Street. From there, I watched as the men quickly dispersed and first posted a man with a machine gun in the intersection, so that they could monitor the area. The two groups probably met there. I saw four or five men, dressed in civilian clothing and uniforms, go into each house. They were carrying Kalashnikovs, and whenever they went into a house I would hear a few shots a short time later. Some soldiers saw me, so I ran away, about 400 meters (1,312 feet) from the site. I heard other shots at about 7 p.m., but it sounded more like they were celebrating. When it seemed to be over, someone gave me a ride on his motorcycle, and we found 12 bodies from the Samir Abdul Rassak family in the first house we entered. »
From his house on Sadd Street, Jihad Raslan, an officer who had been on home leave for the previous four days, saw armed men in civilian clothes and uniforms approaching an olive grove between the Alawite village of Fullah and Taldou at about 6:30 p.m. « I saw more than 100 men, but it was hard to tell. The shelling had subsided. I carefully left my house to see what was happening. A woman, who was walking toward me from the west and recognized me, called out: ‘They’re killing people!’ Around six, I saw another woman with gunshot wounds lying on the street, and she said: ‘They’re going into the houses and killing!’
I waited and continued to see people running away until 7 p.m. Half an hour later I went out with a flashlight, because the electricity had been shut off. Then I went into three houses in a row. In the first house, the house of Samir Abdul Rassak, one woman was dead and there were several women and children with gunshot wounds in another room. I saw Mustafa Abdul Rassak lying in a huge pool of blood, still breathing, in front of the second house; the dead family was inside. And there were more than 20 bodies in the third house, which belonged to Abu Shaalan Abdul Rassak. I helped put the bodies in cars and take them to the mosque, and then I took my own family to safety. »
Lieutenant Malik Baqur, an acquaintance of Jihad Raslan, was in his cousin’s house on Sadd Street when he heard that armed men were coming down from Fullah to Taldou. « Until six o’clock, there was so much shelling that I was afraid to go outside. At about 5:30 p.m., I saw 40 men in uniforms and civilian clothing going up to Fullah. Most of them were walking, but they were behind a silver pickup with a machine gun mounted on the bed. I had seen it a few days earlier at the checkpoint that had been set up in Fullah sometime earlier. I was standing a little higher up and could see the men until they were about 100 meters from the village.
Then I ran into Raslan, and we went into the houses together and saw the bodies. Some had had their skulls split open as if they’d been hit with a butcher’s hatchet, while others had been shot in the head, execution style, with a small hole in the front and bigger hole in the back. I counted 17 bodies all over the place in Mustafa Abdul al-Rassak’s house. »
Other survivors saw the group coming from Fullah, and they too remember similar details, like the red armbands that an old woman who wanted to remain anonymous saw: « The soldier in a green uniform who came down was wearing it. All the doors were open, because we still thought it was going to be a raid, like the ones that had already happened several times before. My daughter-in-law told him that there were only women and children here, and that our men were working in Lebanon. I was standing behind the door when he came in and started shooting right away. »
It was the mistaken belief that the murderers were merely there for a raid that cost so many people their lives — and also saved the lives of others, like Mustafa Abdul Rassak. He had hidden in an abandoned chicken farm 50 meters behind the house, because he was afraid of being arrested as a rebel.
After the first wave of the massacre in the late afternoon, there was another wave in another part of Taldou between about 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Because it was dark by then, none of the survivors saw where the killers had come from. But given that the houses were between two army checkpoints, it would have been almost impossible for rebels to move easily from house to house and shoot the residents without clashing with soldiers.
It was late in the evening, and 11-year-old Ali Adil Sayyid had been kept awake for hours by the sound of nearby shelling. « I heard voices outside at about 11 p.m. ‘Turn off the light! Open the door!’ they said. But the electricity was off, anyway. I heard them hitting the bottom of the door, but then they left.
I woke up again just before 4 a.m., when men came into the house. My brother and I were lying in the living room. When my sister Rasha tried to run away, one of the men shot her. My brother Adil was still sleeping when a man shot at him. A piece of Adil’s head was missing after that. The man also shot at me, but he didn’t hit me. I rolled over on my side and played dead. Then the men took two TV sets, our washing machine and the computer. I heard the sound of a BMB outside » — a type of armored personnel carrier used by the Syrian army.
According to Ali, his severely wounded brother Nadir « was still making noises, as if he had the hiccups. Then he died. »
Ali Adil Sayyid, the only surviving member of his family, is a distant relative of Abdulmuti Mashlab, a member of the Syrian parliament. This circumstance prompted UN observers to make the assumption that people were killed because of their family ties to a regime official. But Mashlab, says Ali, was merely the uncle of his uncle’s wife. Ali says that he and his father had gone to many demonstrations until last fall, « and we always bought kebabs and cola first! » But his father was arrested in November, « and he was afraid to go after that. »
The family of Muawiya Sayyid, the retired police officer, lived a few houses down the street. His daughter Maryam Sayyid was standing at the window inside the house, « when a group of soldiers approached from the waterworks for the first time, at about 4:30 p.m. They were shooting into the air and they banged against our door, but when no one responded they kept going. We felt safe. My father had been in the police for 30 years, most recently as a colonel. Nothing had ever happened to us in previous raids.
My brother was also in the house. He was a soldier and he had a broken leg, so he couldn’t move. They didn’t give him any time off for four months, because he was from Houla, which made him suspicious.
He had only been allowed to return home because of his broken leg. But we weren’t afraid of the army. And if they were terrorists, how could they get here through the two checkpoints? What we were afraid of were the shells that had been raining down nearby for hours. It was still light outside, and our house is the last one on the street, so we were afraid to run away.
At about 6 p.m., we heard a tank on the street and men on a car who were chanting: ‘Shabiha forever! With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Bashar!’ We had never heard that before.
We were in the house, with my father in the room facing the street and everyone else in the room facing the back. At about 11 p.m., we could hear voices through loudspeakers, saying: ‘All lights out! Including candles!’ I went to my father in the other room. He had just heard the men standing downstairs in front of the door, and saying that they would take the women first and then kill everyone. I asked him what we should do. He said: ‘Go! I’ll go outside and try to stall them.’
There were 15 of us. We couldn’t take Ahmed with us, because he was too sick. But we were so afraid and in such a hurry that we forgot Sarah, my 8-year-old sister. She was sleeping. When I realized that, I went back to the house with my sister-in-law. We heard the men saying: ‘We want the women!’ My sister-in-law said: ‘There’s nothing we can do. They’re going to die.’ She pulled me back, and we fled. »
Maryam Sayyid’s mother, Hana Harmut, had remained in the house a moment longer and, in the darkness, didn’t see where the others had gone: « I returned to the back of the house, where I head the voices of the men inside. I heard Ahmed shouting, and then I heard Sarah as she woke up, started crying and loudly shouted ‘Mama.’ I heard my husband shouting: ‘Not Ahmed! Not Ahmed!’ Then there were a few shots. I don’t know how many. Then it was quiet for a little while. And then I heard noises that sounded like they were tearing apart the kitchen. Maybe they were looking for knives.
All I could think was that I had to get away from there, so I hid in a nearby barn where they normally keep the animals. I could hear the men until two or three in the morning, and then it became quiet again. »
The Sayyid family was neither overly prominent in the opposition, nor did it support the regime. The survivors believe that the father’s first name, Muawiya, was one of the reasons the Sayyids were targeted. Muawiya was also the name of a caliph who, more than 1,300 years ago, fought against the imams whom the Shiites consider to be their saints, and whose deaths are still ritually mourned today. The name is very offensive to radical Shiites and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to Alawites, who are part of the same religious group. And it certainly wouldn’t be the name of a man who had converted to Shiite Islam.
According to survivors, all of them residents of Taldou and other parts of Houla, there are no Shiite or Alawite families in Houla, nor were there any there before — just as there are no Sunni families in the surrounding Alawite villages. Although there were occasional marriages between Alawite and Sunni families in the past, the wife, say local residents, always moved to the husband’s village and converted to his faith.
But what about the anonymous eyewitnesses who had been quoted as saying that the victims of the Houla massacre were not Sunnis and members of the opposition at all, but were supporters of the regime?
Colonel Mohammed Tayyib Baqur, who served in the Syrian army for two-thirds of his life and deserted a few weeks ago, worked most recently in the political division of the Defense Ministry. He now reports that, on May 28, he received a call from Jamil Hassan, the head of Syrian Air Forces intelligence and one of the leading members of the regime: « He told me to come in on June 2. He pointed out that I was from Houla, and that an international conspiracy against Syria was underway. For that reason, he wanted me to find a few people, as poor as possible, from Houla or the surrounding area. I was to bring them to Damascus so that they could circulate the regime’s version of the massacre. He said that the people from Houla would be paid, and so would I. Then he called his office manager and told him to give me 25,000 Syrian pounds. » This is the equivalent of slightly more than €300 or roughly $385.
After 35 years in the army, says Baqur, he realized that the time had come to change sides. « I didn’t want to be part of it anymore, so I brought my family to safety and fled. »
If the rebels had truly committed the massacre, why has the army continued to fire at and shell Taldou for months, including the days when the SPIEGEL reporters were there? And if the FSA was behind the massacre, why did a large number of army officers from Houla defect to the FSA afterwards?
After the massacre, Taldou residents buried the dead in a square in the center of the village. They say that there were more bodies than the 108 counted by the UN observers. Although this can no longer be verified, it makes sense, because many of the bodies could only be recovered days after the troops had withdrawn.
It is now mid-July, and a few courageous workers are still shoveling new soil onto the graves, now that the ground has subsided. They want to replace the bricks that had been scattered around the site with a border of stones. At least it should look dignified, says one of the men. But it isn’t a good idea to stand around for too long, he warns. « Sometimes the soldiers fire rockets at this spot from the waterworks. » A few streets away, on Taldou’s ruined main square, where the army had maintained a checkpoint that it only abandoned six days after the massacre, there is some graffiti on a wall that local residents say was written by the soldiers: « Don’t be too upset! Sometimes the dogs dance on the lion, but they don’t even know that he is the lion. »
The name Assad means lion in Arabic.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan