3 Jun 2012

In search of Houla’s killers

Just over a week has passed since the appalling events in al Houla and the critical factor in this has been the response of the Damascus regime.

Their assessment boils to this: it was armed terrorists who did it and they were armed with heavy weapons.

If you put that assessment together with what survivors and eye witnesses told Channel 4 News inside Houla last week, there is only one place to go right now.

It is clearly into the Alawite villages that lie to the west of the Sunni town of Houla, for it is from here, they will tell you in Houla that the Shabiha militiamen came to do their killing. And according to the government, remember, they had heavy weapons to shell the town before the massacre.

So Channel 4 News were today the first outsiders to reach and investigate in these villages. Not even the UN observers came here during their investigation. That seems curious to me, because everybody in Houla told them that these were the villages where the killers were.

So we set out from Damascus this morning not knowing what to expect. A welcome – or a lynching?

A seasoned Syrian journalist had told me “do not go there, you have to be sure. If these people are capable of doing these things to Syrian women and children, you do not know what they will do to you.”

I couldn’t argue with that, but I could take further advice. So this morning in Homs, we checked with the UN monitors to see if they had been here. They had not.

So we took advice from the police and army in Homs and to my amazement, after an hour or so, word came through that we could proceed.

I suppose a part of me feared hillside villages full of men with AK 47s and knives and a willingness to use both. In fact we found the usual and delightful warm hospitality of Syrians everywhere in the countryside. Valuable discussions over sweet Turkish coffee, the hookah pipe offered and several invitations to lunch

Beyond a few languid soldiers and the odd policeman no sign of militias. No trace of heavy weapons. No tank tracks on the roads.

A Syrian government forces tank travels through on May 27,2012 in Houla, Syria. (Getty)

Over a couple of hours the villagers told us the massacre was terrible but simply the result of Sunni tribes clashing with each other in Houla last Friday.

Which is odd – have they not read the government’s script? The government says the massacre was carried out by armed men, terrorists. Survivors say their assailants were Shabiha, or armed militia controlled by the government.

Well these Alawites insist there are not, nor have ever been, Shabiha in these villages.

We were about to leave when something potentially significant and rather awkward for the Syrian government happened before our eyes.

Out on the plain below us, three miles away came the sound of shells exploding right across al Houla.

So what’s going on president Assad? Are these just your Shabiha with the heavy weapons you claim they use on this town? Because we, unlike the UN or anybody else, have gone in to the Shabiha area and they’re not here but still the shells fall.

I think President Assad needs to explain what is going on if he still insists it is only some rogue band of militia shelling civilians areas here.

And not, in fact, his very own army?

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20 reader comments

  1. Meg Howarth says:

    Excellent investigative reporting, Alex. Keep it up. Best.

  2. rob says:

    The Syrian government has NOT said it was “Shabiha”. Where did you get that idea from?

  3. June Liveley says:

    Alex Thomson is now beginning to find the real Syria. You have to go deep to find out what Syrians really think- this takes time and patience. For over fifty years Syrians have become good at hiding what they think and feel: the regime created a climate of fear and the result is a warm, smiling welcome, but it may be real or maybe not. Until they know who you are they will not commit themselves. My first words of advice, when I started work in Syria, were: “Don’t trust anyone”. This advice served me well and now, after many years, I have earned the trust of some very good people. Alex Thomson doesn’t have time to go through that process, but his good judgement should serve him well. He is doing an amazing job as an investigative reporter, willing to go into areas where even the UN dare not go, and finding the unexpected. The regime believes it can lie its way out of this massacre – it can’t, because of evidence such as this report

  4. Brid says:

    “Over a couple of hours the villagers told us the massacre was terrible but simply the result of Sunni tribes clashing with each other in Houla last Friday.”

    If they weren’t in Houla during the massacre, they can only guess like everyone else, surely. The killings in Houla sound very like the actions of ex-Iraq or ex-Libya killers. We know these currently exist in Syria. And now the rebels are calling again (like that fake, Danny) for a no-fly zone. If such a thing goes ahead, and if it’s backed by the US/UK, there will be a Libya-style disaster in Syria.

  5. Question All says:

    Thank you for pursuing this story all the way to the Alawite villages outside of Houla.

    If the Shabiha did not come from these villages – and your report appears to establish that they did not – then where are they coming from and who are they accountable to?

    Are they a mobile, Syrian state-created ‘pseudo gang’ (a la Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations) or are they serving a separate master in the form a foreign state or militant Islamic organisation?

  6. Hesbol says:

    What a brave and good idea to go to the Alawite villages! It was very interesting to read about your friendly reception there. Their Sunni-tribe explanation sounds unlikely after hearing the survivors accounts. They all point their fingers at the surrounding Alawite villages, just a mile away. I wonder how much, and what kind of contact these neighbours have with each other. Anyway: It’s strange and appaling that no-one else(UN,Syrian investigators) has taken the route you did to look for answers. I truly hope you get to look more into this – we need to know more!

  7. Stephen Hargreaves says:

    Find out what you can, but stay safe. Good luck Alex.

  8. moualla syria says:

    Alex, you are either confused or lying. The govt of Syria did not blame the massacre on shabiha but rather on the rebels themselves. The rebels killed the minority of non-armed sunnis in houla who refused to carry guns, and used the massacre footage and media to blame syrian govt. Shabiha are supposed to be govt allies so blaming them won’t help the govt anyway.

    Btw, you can look all you want for shabiha but won’t find them; they do not eexist. Shabiha is an ancient name for corrupt official thugs in Syria, they disappeared altogether long ago, and are now re-created by al Jazeera just to stir up emotions againt assad’s regime and demonize it. They are the ghost that have been blamed for all rebel crimes, to keep the rebels clean and provide hate to Syrian govt.

  9. Syrian says:

    What a heroic trip, reporting from the front line.
    What an oriantal Bazzar you are showing here.

  10. Tina Louise says:

    Really appreciate your thorough investigation Alex & Channel 4 News, thank you for such determination to dig for truth… seems a murky and difficult scene to explore and I wonder if the exploding shells that happened in time for your visit, were part of a desire to keep things murky and confused by whoever is behind this?

  11. Howard Allman says:

    Absolutely top notch journalism from AlexTomo both on TV and on Twitter.
    A guy cool under fire yet obviously deeply touched by the terrible events in Syria.

    Keep it up C4

  12. Philip Edwards says:


    Some observations:

    1. There should be some identifiable shrapnel from falling shells. This would identify manufacturers and potentially lead to the arms suppliers.

    2. The UN monitors should be able to identify the source of firing, assuming they have the same equipment that enabled them to identify fall of shot during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. If they haven’t got this equipment, why not?

    3. Why has nobody re-orbited observation satellites to help in this matter, as they did in Libya for NATO attacks?

    4. If it isn’t a Syrian army assault who is responsible?

    The situation is far from clear, the guilty not yet identified. Please stay safe.

  13. moualla syria says:

    Is this your freedom of speech, channel4? I posted yesterday my view of the massacre but was not published. Shame on you, Journalists in a free world!

  14. Jean Caffery says:


    Long been a fan of your reports from trouble spots, but this was an excellent and very brave piece of investigative journalism. Glad to see you back safe.

  15. PeterD says:

    The idea that Assad would be behind the headline grabbing slaughter of children, and then leave the mutilated bodies for the rebels to film for propaganda is complete nonsense. By using a supine press, Syria has been reduced to the state of Iraq without the need for Allied bombing. Has Alex Thomson been a willing propagandist or merely a useful fool?

  16. zazuge says:

    PeterD you don’t get the point of massacres ?
    why do you think deathsquads kill kids and women and take evidence if they are trying to terrorise other civilians?
    the point of killing kids with knifes is to terrorise their parents, neighboors and all the village
    “this is what happens if you oppose us”
    i know that because I’m from Algeria
    and the gov get away with it
    so much for the gov have much to loose from massacres
    if the giv stabilize the situation by terrorizing the population and disinformation
    all his sin will be forgoten by the International community

    1. June Liveley says:

      This ties in with what ordinary citizens of Syria are saying and feeling. But their message is, “We will not stop and we will not shut-up”. These terrorising tactics only make people more angry and more determined to continue with their revolution.

  17. K120 says:

    They WEREN’T killed with knives, as subsequent reports by mainstream press have found. The narrative (as is typical from Syria these days) is constantly changing.

    First it was supposed to have been heavy “army” shelling, then it was supposed to have been the army that slaughtered at close range, then it became the Shabiha using knives and now reports have emerged with witnesses saying that none of the victims had their throats cut, but were shot at close range. Of course the style of killings can point to who might have been responsible, but one thing is certain, the story always changes and there are few hard facts.

    It does seem odd that a big massacre often takes place just as the UN are preparing to convene to discuss Syria…

    The government, however, NEVER blamed the Shabiha. This is utterly illogical and outright misreporting. And since when is it a case of “shelling = Syrian army or Shabiha”, hasn’t anyone learned that the FSA and armed groups have the capacity to fire mortar shells themselves?? Flimsy conclusions from the MSM yet again.

    1. June Liveley says:

      How’s this for a hard fact; roughly 8 months ago the regime introduced a new law whereby prisoners convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, all serious crimes, would be set free,IF, they agreed to join the shabeha. These criminals were then armed and paid by the regime to create terror amongst ordinary citizens, especially those actively protesting against the regime. You can check this ‘hard fact’ with any ‘honest’ lawyer in Damascus.

      1. K120 says:

        I’m not defending the regime, or any similar authoritarian security state, nor am I an apologist for state repression, so don’t jump to conclusions and confuse me for an Assad sympathizer… and you certainly don’t have to convince me of the ugliness of certain aspects of the Ba’ath Party.

        I am simply saying there is a propaganda war going on (both parties are guilty of this, though not in equal measure, when one considers who has the attention of the global mainstream media), and there is also (I believe) ample evidence of a proxy war supported openly by foreign backers like the US and GCC, to destabilize the country – something they’ve had in mind for many years now. None of this is to say that there was never an uprising, or that it is all orchestrated from outside, but what began over a year ago as a genuine peaceful uprising has quickly and dangerously been undermined, with the country now at risk of being torn apart along sectarian lines.

        There are countless hard facts that many chose simply to ignore because it threatens to disturb the overly simplistic and convenient narrative of “mass revolt” vs “brutal regime”. It’s not so simple. I, for one, wish it were, but for the sake of the majority of Syrians and their real hopes for liberation in the future, people should start opening their eyes and being a little more discerning of information that goes round.

        Out of interest, is there a publicly available source for information on this law that was passed?

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