27 May 2012

Piecing together the bloody truth in Houla

Houla is today a deeply divided city. The front line between the Free Syrian Army rebel forces and the regular Syrian Army is just a few hundred yards from the southern entry point of this flat, dusty country town.

All day today, exchanges of fire have been g´╗┐oing on.

Repeatedly, the Syrian Army sent forward armoured personnel carriers towards the centre of town, from where the firing of heavy weapons could occasionally be heard.

From our position, small firefights happened intermittently during the several hours we were in the town.

The Syrian forces we were with kept saying there were incoming rounds from a sniper position held by the Free Syrian Army.

“M16. It is M16, you hear?” they said repeatedly. And there certainly were incoming rounds a few yards from our position.

At least one soldier was wounded. We saw him carried across the street to a vehicle to be evacuated. His condition is unknown.

All around us the soldiers of course said that the massacre that happened here on friday was caused by the rebels, or the “terrorists”, as they put it.

We met one man, an engineer called Ahmed Masood, who showed us his house, which he said had been attacked by terrorists.

When questioned closely, he admitted he was not there when it happened. His house is also right next to a military base and in an area where there are no civilians.

When you put this together it seems curious that a large number of rebel forces were able to come into this area and attack somebody’s house.

Equally, it is curious that in the area where we were – the southern portion of this town – there were no civilians at all.

They had all moved out. The Syrian army says they were forced out by the rebels – the terrorists, as they call them – at gunpoint, and they were murdered if they did not move.

It is therefore odd that in the northern area of the city there are still civilians. The United Nations saw them today and questioned them.

The deputy head of the UN mission in Syria, Martin Griffiths, told me: “We managed to find one family. There was a woman, unfortunately dead, with her four dead children. We were able to remove the bodies.”

I asked him what conditions were like in that part of the town he replied: “We were near the centre of the town when a Syrian army armoured personnel carrier approached.

“It passed us and fired two rounds. That of course caused a firefight. It certainly slowed us up a little in our mission.”

That might be something of an understatement. Firing here certainly continued throughout the time that we were there. This is not a conducive or an easy environment to make sense of what happened here on Friday.

Nonetheless, the United nations mission here is trying. Mr Griffiths told me that he had a corroborated story from two different sources.

The first is the Free Syrian Army command in the nearby town of Rastan, who said that the massacre on Friday was caused by “Shabiha” – civilian militia.

And that is the story that they heard elsewhere. In the town of Houla they questioned people repeatedly and the story was always the same, that at approximately 12.30pm on Friday after prayers there was a sustained barrage lasting in the region of two hours from the Syrian army.

This was followed by concerted attacks on foot led by the Shabiha, and this is when the masacre occured. The killings, these sources say, happened some time in the period from 3pm on Friday to approximately 1-2am on Saturday.

Late this afternoon we passed the United Nations and Red Cross convoy as they exited the town heading towards the now peaceful city of Homs.

They will attempt further investigations inside Houla tomorrow to get a more rounded and comprehensive picture of just what happened and how scores of people came to be dead – many of them women and children – last Friday after prayers.

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