Al Jazeera English's account of 27 May of the mass killings in Houla
On Friday, 25 May, Houla in Syria's Homs Province was shelled by regime forces. Armed men then entered the town, moving from house to house and killing residents. More than 100 people would die by the following day.
Responsibility for the mass killing has been a subject of heated dispute, with accounts of pro-regime militia carrying out the attack disputed by the Assad Government and some commentators.
Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun recently visited Houla and interviewed witnesses. They have posted the following account for Spiegel Online, accompanied by six video testimonies:
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.
On June 8 and 14, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German daily, published two reports based on the statements of anonymous eyewitnesses, who claimed that members of the armed opposition had committed the massacre and then blamed it on the regime. According to the reports, 700 members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had come to Houla from various towns to kill families that had converted to the Alawite or Shiite faiths and had not joined the rebellion. At the beginning of June, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a member of German parliament for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pursued the matter and sharply criticized the rebels for what he called "massacre marketing."
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.