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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