27 Jun 2012

UN report paints dark picture of Syria’s escalating violence

Today’s UN report is the result of several local investigations in Syria, though the investigating team say they were denied access to the site of the al-Houla massacre.

Having been interviewed by one of the lawyers investigating, after Channel 4 News twice visited the area, I’m aware of just how difficult investigators have found it, to produce concrete evidence of just who killed over 100 people in the town on 25 May.

In the end the report plays out two scenarios for the massacre, both of which it says are possible.

The first is that after a prolonged shelling barrage after Friday prayers that day, several hundred anti-government militia entered al-Houla probably from the east, from areas such as al-Rastan. They then used the shelling barrage in one area as cover to leave that area and attack and kill several families living to the south and southwest of the town.

The motive for that would be that these families were perceived as being pro-government and the militias wanted to escalate the conflict by blaming the atrocity on government forces.

The second scenario is that government forces of ‘shabbiha’ (pro-government militia) attacked and massacred the families after the shelling barrage. The investigators note that shelling followed by ground forces, snipers and shabbiha entering areas to search, arrest and kill civilians has been a proven and repeated pattern of this war.

Channel 4 News entered the vicinity of the massacre on Sunday 27 May and entered the town centre on Wednesday May 30th with Red Crescent and UN staff. On Monday 4 June we visited the Alawite villages near to al-Houla where residents in al-houla said the men who massacred people had come from.

According to the UN we remain the only people to have been to all three areas to investigate what happened.

We spoke to numerous people in al-Houla in different locations, independently of each other. Their unanimous view was that pro-government shabbihah were principally the people who did the killing.

We visited the mass graves where those who died are buried – mostly women and children. We also located a number of bodies undiscovered in the suburb where the massacre happened.

The town remains relatively populated with shops open and functioning. In the massacre area there was very few people to be seen at all and the shops were shut. There was intermittent fighting in this area.

What seemed interesting to me is why people would remain in the anti-government area of the town if that’s where the killers were? The possibility that they’d targeted pro-regime families might explain this however.

But equally in the Alawite villages close to Sunni al-Houla we found no sign of shabbiha. We were welcomed when we arrived unannounced and explained why we were there, who we were looking for.

Whilst there, government forces resumed their shelling of al-Houla.

The UN report says anti-government civilians and fighters from al-Houla were first on the scene of the massacre and took care of body retrieval and burial. The report leads to two possible reasons for this: they were there anyhow because they’d committed the atrocity. Or they’d heard the shots and screams, knew what had gone on and naturally entered the location at the first safe opportunity.

More widely the UN paints a stark picture of escalating violence from both sides in what President Assad today admitted is a war. The UN’s delicate phrase is “non-international armed conflict” aka civil war.

Both sides are, say the UN, guilty of atrocities.

“…the government forces and shabbiha have perpetrated unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention and torture and…have committed acts of sexual violence against men, women and children.”

Of the rebels fighting against the government for the Free Syrian army and other groups the report concludes:

“…anti-government armed forces have extra-judicially executed captured members of government forces” and says there’s evidence of such groups abducting and torturing people as well.

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