31 May 2012

Answers in Houla are hard to come by

It’s not the obvious things that show you how desperate the people left in Houla are to tell their story to the outside world. Rather it is the smaller details that bring it home.

I am more or less manhandled into a house within minutes of stopping our van, in order to be shown the first of countless people lying around homes here in various states of injury.

Of course, I move to unlace my boots at the doorstep but there’s a chorus of disapproval. It doesn’t matter – not now, not here.

An hour or two later – boots firmly on of course – and I am in the bedroom of Aya, a 15-year-old girl. In itself this is unthinkable in a rural, Muslim community. In any Muslim community come to that. But within seconds she is being gently rolled to one side.

Her T-shirt, on which is written “Angel Teen” in silvery spangly letters, is pulled halfway up her back to reveal a large field dressing. It covers the large exit wound of a bullet.

She speaks slowly and calmy about it all, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for two Englishmen to come into her room and film her in this manner. But in the wake of Friday, and the massacre, so many things seem to have changed around here.

Lonely ritual of grief

Not far away Abdullah is on the street pawing pathetically at his phone, endlessly calling up the images of loved ones who have disappeared since Friday: “There are thirty of them. Thirty of my family,” he says, breaking down again. “Where are they? Where are they?”

And so begins his lonely ritual of grief and blank incomprehension at what happened here. Again he will pace around in the road, crying, calling up the pictures that torture him.

And there are many like that here. Few believe that the current total of 108 people killed last Friday – most of them women and children – will be anything like the full number.

Many people insist there are more bodies but they lie far too close to the Syrian Army positions along the southern fringe of the town for any kind of safe retrieval: “Can you imagine sir? Can you imagine what these people are like now in the heat, in the sun? Can you imagine?”

‘Shells fell like rain’

In a strange kind of way I sense people feel more able to talk about the shelling that day. The long bombardment the Syrian Army put into this town after fighting broke out here following prayers on Friday. Time and again we are approached by people with shrapnel fragments carefully collected after the event.

“The shells fell upon us like rain,” declares one man.

It is almost as if the events of the massacre are too off the scale to deal with, as well they might be. What can you say when you sit in a room full of people from this town and look at video depicting a large room filled with 18 bodies of toddlers and small children. They are not covered – they are there, eyes wide open, frozen in the terrified stare of death.

Like Abdullah outside, they gather here to call up these images now beamed around the world via YouTube. Time and again they watch, unable to take in the enormity of it all.

Syrian government response

Today the government announced in Damascus the interim findings of its three day inquiry into what happened at Houla and why. The government spokesman Jihad Makdissi claimed 600 to 700 armed militia carried out the attack using heavy weapons.

If true, he is now making a new claim that the Shabiha militias have heavy weapons. And if so Damascus has lost more control of its own country than anybody thought.

Few will treat the claim as credible outside the government and its supporters here.

In one sense there is at least a consensus between the people of this town and the government regime they so despise. Both sides agree it was not the regular Syrian army who committed the massacres but Shabiha militia. The name means ‘ghosts’ in Arabic.

They came at night. They will return, so many here say.

Shabiha militiamen

But what precise relationship do these armed Shabiha militiamen have to the government? Well short of intercepts from radio traffic or electronic communications between the two, I doubt very much that any clear answers will emerge, however long we wait.

But from what we do know, let us pose the obvious question. There was an extensive Syrian Army shelling barrage, then around one hundred men were able to enter the shelling zone without a single mortar, bullet or shell landing anywhere near them from the Syrian Army side. Perhaps that is simply coincidence. Perhaps it indicates clear communication and co-ordination between the two groups.

With no firm proof either way forthcoming as yet and possibly not ever, you have to believe in either staggering luck and coincidence, or prima facie evidence of co-ordination and planning.

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