14 Dec 2012

Was there a massacre in the Syrian town of Aqrab?

To reach Aqrab is to penetrate deep into the badlands of central Syria, where many of the worst atrocities of the war have taken place.

It is not a journey undertaken lightly, and 24 hours of intense planning were needed before we were able to drive west from the provincial capital, Hama.

Even then, an onboard escort was necessary, and we were passed from escort vehicle to escort vehicle across the patchwork of villages on the central fertile plains.

Local knowledge is very much the difference between life and death in a place where a wrong turn can mean the wrong people who find the wrong papers on you – with consequences that are all too often fatal.

So a drive of just 10 miles or so as the crow flies took us over an hour. And then, coming over yet another rocky ridge, there it was: Aqrab.

Eye-witness accounts

It’s a small place, and we were under a mile away. A low-rise, densely packed town of 9,000 Sunni and 2,000 Alawites. Three large minarets pierce the glowering winter skies here.

What follows is a series of eye-witness accounts which runs almost entirely against the version of what happened here which has gone global from rebel propaganda websites.

We do not say what follows is the truth. But we can say it is the first independently observed story of Aqrab from the first outside journalist to reach this area.

We interviewed three key eye-witnesses in three separate locations. They could not have known either of our sudden arrival, nor did they know the identities of the other two eye-witnesses.

What is striking is that their accounts entirely corroborate each other, to the last detail. And their accounts are further backed up by at least a dozen conversations with other Alawites who had fled from Aqrab.

Hayat Youseh is sheltering with relatives in a village some distance from Aqrab.

Her husband is still in there. And her son, 18-year-old Ali Ibrahim, suffered a broken leg which went untreated for 12 days.

Ali al-Hosin is about 16 and clearly traumatised. He says both his parents and 23 members of his extended family are still trapped in there.

Madlyan Hosin is also close to tears. She says her four uncles and aunts are still in there, and two of the aunts are pregnant.

Not ‘normal Syrians’

All three agree – as do the rebels – that rebels attacked Aqrab on Sunday 2 December. Madlyan says: “They had long beards. It was hard to understand what they said. They weren’t dressed like normal Syrians.”

I press her and she is adamant that their Arabic was not from Syria.

The youth Ali told us: “They all had big beards and came in four or five cars, from the direction of al-Houla.”

They all insist, as did everybody else we met, that the rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) corralled around 500 Alawite civilians in a large red-coloured two-storey house belonging to a prominent businessman called Abu Ismail.

They then say they were held – around 500 men, women and children – in this building until the early hours of Tuesday 11 December. Nine days.

In that time they say almost no food was delivered, and women were hitting their own children to try and stop them crying. When it rained, they were holding rags out of the window to soak up and drink the moisture.

Hayat says that the rebels told everybody: “We are your brothers from al-Houla and al-Rastan, your Islamic brothers. We won’t hurt you.”

Both these towns are rebel strongholds. Al-Houla, just five miles away, is the scene of a notorious massacre in May of 108 civilians, mostly women and children.

Human shields?

They say the rebels wanted to take the women and children to al-Houla to use them as human shields against bombardment from government forces, and they believed they would kill the remaining men.

They all agree matters came to a head when a delegation of villagers was sent on Monday at 4pm to break the deadlock. In that delegation were a retired senior army officer, Hamid Azzudin, the town’s Sunni imam, Sheikh Sayid Hawash, and also Hashab, the town mayor.

When they arrived, the prisoners would not let them leave. As Ali puts it: “Once they came into the house, we just said, ‘We all go together, men women and children – or we all die together.'”

It appears negotiations ran between these elders and the rebels for around four hours, ending in deadlock at around eight o’clock on Monday night.

At that point, shooting broke out, the rebels firing through the windows and shouting that they had booby-trapped the building. The eye-witnesses say that the shooting died down at about midnight, after which a deal was done. In screaming night-time chaos and intermittent shooting, three vehicles took around 70 of the prisoners to safety in the nearest village a mile away.

However, it seems a fourth vehicle took a number of prisoners to al-Houla, where two – an unidentified woman and a boy – were treated for injuries in a rebel field hospital.

The woman and boy blamed pro-government militia for taking the prisoners, according to rebel websites, and that is the version of events which has gone around the world.

Until now.

Our witnesses, however, were interviewed independently of each other and are prepared to give their names and appear on global television.

Curiously, rebel websites say the building containing the prisoners who remained, was completely destroyed by government artillery and air strikes on Tuesday. However, we saw and filmed the building in which eye-witnesses said they were imprisoned, and it appears intact – as does the rest of the village.

Another curious observation. If you check rebel websites and their YouTube videos, from 2 December onwards, there appears to be no mention of a large number of Alawites being held in the village. This appears an unusual omission for what would presumably be an enormous propaganda coup.

Another curiosity is that their version of events doesn’t explain why government officials in Hama are frantically negotiating the release of prisoners, wounded people and, indeed, bodies from a stand-off which they say is still going on right now.

And another thing to ponder. Invariably when there’s a massacre, the rebels put the bodies out on YouTube and make a song and dance about it.  If the government really did massacre up to 250 people from President Assad’s own Alawite sect, YouTube would be 10 feet deep in rebel videos, of the bodies, of the funerals, of the carnage. Be in no doubt about this. Yet check on YouTube – there is not a scrap of video to back their story.

Both sides talk of what would be the biggest massacre of Alawites of this war. They are, of course, the same sect as President Bashar al-Assad. The rebels have put their version of the story out, saying between 200 and 250 people were killed when the government bombed that house on Tuesday.

Fearing for their lives, government officials will not comment on camera, but they are convinced a major massacre has happened here after the lucky few broke free early on Tuesday morning.

One group of people can unlock one dispute here, and that is the Red Crescent, who gained access to the prisoners nine days into the stand-off. They know for sure whether it was government militia or rebels holding those people. However, this is a dangerous place, and so far the Red Crescent have made no comment.

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27 reader comments

  1. Chris Chapton says:

    Indeed, one British Broadcasting Corporation ran with the angle that government supporters were using government supporters as shields (I know, right), and that the rebels were there to save them….based on the testimony of a child surrounded by rebel fighters – propagated by ‘activists’.

    The media coverage is sickening; the incident horrifying.

    Well done Alex, but it wont be enough to save Syria

  2. Michael.k says:

    Alex. You’re doing really excellent work. Acting like a proper journalist, rather than as a
    ‘mouthpiece’ for one side or anothers… propaganda, and in wars, especially civil wars, is there anything else? Your reports from Syria seemed to change somewhat after you ‘accidentally’ almost became a ‘valuable’ casuality yourself. That kind of thing tends to focus the mind on what’s happening around one. Glad you survived.

    I think, when this horror is over, your reporting from Syria will be held up as something close to the ‘gold standard’ and studied by students of journalism, as an example to others of what journalism should and could be, rather than the ‘crap’ we’re being fed by various partisans over and over again. Thanks.

  3. Alan Bishop says:

    At last some western media reportage that reveals that this conflict is not from a Disney script where the rebels are the good guys and the government supporters are evil!

  4. hannah gibbons says:

    thank you Alex for trying to find out the truth about what is happening in Syria. I feel I cannot trust the main news media or my own government anymore. What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and we rely on journalists like you who are willing to investigate further at great risk to yourselves

  5. Philip Edwards says:


    Anyone remotely acquainted with Middle East society knows the “rebels” are not “Free,” not “Syrian,” and not an “Army.” They are hired murderers and religious fanatics. Nor do they belong to “Al Qaeda” – because there is no organisation of that name. That title was invented by the CIA, as was “Vietcong,” and for the same reason.

    I suspect the Boys from Langley and The Friends from Vauxhall Cross have a lot to answer for in this evil, as have the rest of the European “intelligence” services.

    As Orwell once said, telling the truth at times like this is a revolutionary act. And that is one thing the Yanks and their European puppets don’t want.

    Please stay safe. Your courageous reports are wonderful.

  6. mo says:

    Channel 4 news. The last bastion of real and honest journalism.

  7. CE says:

    Thank you so much for your reporting, Alex.

    There is a lot of video evidence of the Houla “rebels” and some Salafist types having a fight in Aqrab on Dec 2, and of events the days after, especially Dec 6. Uploaded and “presented” by the same guy who presented the Taldou witnesses to the world and very likely yourself when you were there. Jalal Suleiman, you may remember him. Here is one video from Dec 2 showing them taking over a checkpoint:

    We have collected and roughly ordered them at our research wiki here:

    We have also found clues that there might have been an additional event/maybe the “real” massacre in a village a few miles north of Aqrab named Akrad Ibrahim. It would be great if you could find out more about that.

    While you’re there, take a look at our extensive research on the events in Taldou in March, which leads us to suspect that you might have been taken for a ride by Jalal and his buddies:

    Thanks again and take care, looking forward to your video report!

  8. heath says:

    Alex Thomson displays all the qualities needed to make him one of our finest journalists.

    I , for one, believe the reports he sends back to Channel 4 – this is no mean feat when one looks at the state of our media in general.

    Thankyou for your brave and honest words. Keep leading by example even under such
    harrowing circmstances and hopefully the rest will eventually catch up.

  9. Don says:

    Interested to know who the “escort” was and who put you in contact with the three witnesses. Government? Their version is nearly as bizarre as the FSA version, and similarly without video confirmation.

  10. Amjad of Arabia says:

    I find Thomson’s assertion that Syrians make a big “song and dance” about video massacres utterly tasteless and revolting. Massacres have to be documented with the means at the disposal of citizen journalists, as the Left’s favorite dictatorships do not allow the foreign media free and unfettered access to Syria. For months the regime apologists denied that Assad’s forces murdered protesters, or that that they used heavy artillery, or tanks, or airplanes, or cluster bombs, until the overwhelming evidence on Youtube proved otherwise.

    The BBC were in Damascus for a week, and yet the regime kept them as far away as they could from Aqrab. Apparently, they knew they had a sympathetic pair of eyes and ears in Channel Four.

  11. Al says:

    Some clarity a glimmer of light on the hidden reality of the terrible NATO / Saudi / GCC backed destruction of Syria and its people. This has nothing to do with freedom or democracy the peaceful movement for reform has long since been hijacked by fundamentalist who would not recognise a democratic ballot if it jumped up and bit them on the ass. The whole thing is a rouse to destroy a Country that would not play ball with the West.

  12. Armenian Syrian says:

    I see some of you are glad of what Alex is doing. I am glad also, but it is useless (No offense to Alex) unfortunately, because the “other” side that keeps lying 24/7 is much stronger, and it is spreaded worldwide..

    I am a Syrian born too, from Aleppo where it is a hell nowadays. I have seen these lies of world’s media the past year and more, I have seen many proofs that media world wide are united and lying, I come from a Christian background, I am an infidel in these rebels’ eyes, that’s why Christians in Syria “support”, the better word is “prefer” Assad over Muslim brotherhood.

    This is a conspiracy against Syria indeed, many believe that it’s a stupid thing to say, but it is so.. Look at the spread of Muslim brotherhood or Muslim fanaticism in the region, is that a coincidence? No! This is a plan by west, it’s not an “Arab spring” or that Arabs became civilized suddenly in 2011, and that they are asking “freedom”. Actually they are going backward to stoneage..

    Bottom line is, this plan is serving the western governments, Arabs’ enemies, Arabs are killing and hating each others, Sunnis hating Shias, Islamists hating seculars and so..

    What Alex is doing is great, but it’s not enough and it won’t save Syria. Because the whole world are bunch of sheep, follow their leaders like sheep, and they don’t care about the crimes their leaders do in other countries, Americans Europeans or the rest don’t care about their leaders’ foreign dirty policy..

    I am not an Assad supporter neither revolutionists! I support Assad’s mentality for secularism, but I don’t support his approach, there is no good or evil in Syria, good people are those who are with dialogue, the rest are all bad, from Assad to revolutionists who carry guns, this is the real game of throne, I don’t know who wins, but I know who loses, that’s Syrians, the people..

    If you want to save Syria, rally against your leaders, make them know that you are aware of their lies and dirty works, stop them by protesting..

  13. brian says:

    good work.This version is most likely the correct one,as the shabiha meme is clearly propaganda used to demonise the government
    but how can 500 people be so easily corraled by men in 4 -5 cars?
    Clearly the perpetrators are not syrian….itd help to know where they are from

  14. Daniel says:

    Some things in this report don’t make sense to me.
    Firstly, why would the regime be hush hush about a massacre of Alawis? And why would a balanced journalist deeply cynical about the propaganda war being raged by both sides, seem so eager to believe the propaganda of poorly informed government officials?
    Secondly, there is no footage of any massacre and none of the eyewitnesses witnessed a massacre, so wouldn’t it make sense to assume that there was no massacre and the FSA just made it up?
    Thirdly, if Alex Thomson is not being helped by rebels, who is he been helped by? People with links to the government? Then how can we know he’s not being ‘guided’ in a certain direction?
    Fourthly, parts of the corroborations are little more than repetitions of the exact stereotype of a foreign jihadi as pumped out by the regime. Interesting?
    Finally, can people stop thinking a war is like the crap produced by Hollywood? Even in Mubarak’s Egypt people did not understand the fear Syrians lived in. And since the protests began, how many FSA have had their relatives abused and tortured, raped and killed, by Bashar’s Alawi militias? Most people moaning about the FSA’s lack of respect for human rights would have become far more barbaric had they felt the force of the regime on their immediate relatives. Furthermore, the regime has tried to make it into a sectarian war from day one. So between the West refusing to do more than talk hot air, and Russia and Iran extending the regime’s lifespan for possibly two years, it is not surprising it has come down to this…
    Btw, does anybody really think that tearing down shiite mosques has nothing to do with Iran? Just connect the dots…

  15. Amjad of Arabia says:

    So apparently, the town itself is still closed off, and you couldn’t get inside to confirm anything? And yet when Der Spiegel did its excellent report on the Houla massacre (which you conveniently fail to mention was carried out by the regime), they were inside the town and spoke to people inside it.

    Very telling indeed.

  16. Oab says:

    Channel 4, please ask Alex to leave. Seeing how the rebels have treated other journalists, I would be concerned for his safety and well being, especially after exposing the truth in this case. The US and its increasingly odd bed fellows in the region are unlikely to be swayed by anything less than a strong show of force from Russia, certainly not anything as unimportant as an inconvenient truth.

  17. كمال توفيق says:

    very important work mr Alex keep up the good investigation of the thruth in syria and that a big proof about the freedom of journalists in syria who take the authorisation from the syrian goverment to cover the war in syria between the syrian army the terrorist groups who came from all over the world ……………………..Algeria

  18. rayan says:

    I media of his country akrab :: There are a lot of notes on the interview :: First How Astatat Cars detainees escaped by benefiting from insurgents and the entire region under the control of the army free.Was not exit the consent of the militants and Cano also want to bring out the remaining if not holed their Shabiha inside.Secondly :: novel by the young girl is unacceptable because one individuals of Shabiha who helped commit the massacre and called frzat and as confirmed by the certificate and mother aeham is young relative. And most important of all this to send gunmen and town elders if they want to kill civilians??Not out 150 people and who among them came out in the report as a good gesture to teach our not very them.??
    And most important of all how to take testimony from his published Shabiha and bombed the town nearest
    Why did not the journalist Hia gunmen who Soro reporting pain sober Shabiha??
    Town nearest where there was no any dye sectarian and directory that since months the first revolution has killed more than 6 people from the town nearest the hands of some villages headlights neighboring and I am ready because give you the documents were not dealing with residents of the Alawite sect in the town any ill only we were carrying system liarits

  19. aude sapere says:

    Excellent reporting by Alex Thomson. This is what real journalism looks like.

    Just one issue regarding the editing of the video. Interesting to note the difference in the video report and the written report by Alex Thomson if you look carefully.

    The video includes this part:

    Not ‘normal Syrians’
    All three agree – as do the rebels – that rebels attacked Aqrab on Sunday 2 December. Madlyan says: “They had long beards. It was hard to understand what they said. They weren’t dressed like normal Syrians.”

    But it has been edited to remove this important line:

    “I press her and she is adamant that their Arabic was not from Syria.”

    This is not in the video.

    Who’s doing the editing at Channel 4 News.

    It’s possibly one of the most important points of the piece that this woman is adamant that the “rebels'” Arabic was not from Syria. To leave it out is gross negligence, at best.

    Alex Thomson’s work deserves better.

    Stay safe, Alex.

  20. Ali Kaber says:

    Good job Alex
    Thank you

  21. Micheal says:

    Great reporting , Alex. Definitely will be following Channel 4 from now on. Thumbs up. No BBC propaganda here. :)

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