Published on 30 May 2012

The searing grief of Houla’s survivors

Crossing no man’s land from the last Syrian government checkpoint into the centre of Houla is an edgy business. The UN officer commanding the patrol advised us: “Keep at least 50 yards between you and the vehicle in front. If the shooting starts the plan is to turn round and get the f*** out. Remember again you’re on your own here – good luck.”

Warning: You may find some of the content in Alex Thomson’s accompanying video distressing.

So it’s a straight run for a mile or so to the next roundabout where a dead horse bloated and rotting in the middle of the road is the point where you know you have crossed the line. This does not mean safety from either snipers or shelling.

“They’re under a hell of lot of pressure to let us in this morning,” the same UN officer advised us speaking on condition of anonymity, “after the Kofi Annan visit yesterday.”

Indeed, all the way from Homs across the line into rebel held Houla, we heard not a single shot, nor any incoming artillery.

At the first signs of human life in rebel territory loud shouts of “freedom, freedom, freedom”, v-signs for victory and by the time we had managed to get out of our van we were completely mobbed by people shouting and crying in a mixture of relief, shock and anger.

At once we were pulled physically from house to house by people desperate to get their story to the outside world. Within minutes we meet 25-year-old Younis, lying in a room with two gunshot wounds in his torso. He’s telling us, weakly, how he was trying to help an 11-year-old boy on Friday when he was injured. The boy was shot dead.

A 15-year-old girl lies on another bed not 10 yards away describing how she witnessed the Shabiya militia crouching behind a window as she tried to flee. She too was shot.

Abdul Bari, 30, describes how he came by blast wounds during the protest after prayers on Friday.

Whether we like it or not we were pretty much dragged onto the streets again. On one hand an 8-year old boy shot in the arm, next to him a man showing us video on his telephone of two children, their throats slit so deeply they are virtually decapitated.

Another man suddenly approaches, educated with good English. He has gone through the emotions to reach cold, measured anger.

Over the next three hours I will deliberately ask him the same question to see if his story alters in any detail. It does not. He is willing to be interviewed and identified on camera. But to protect him we do not do this. Channel 4 News knows his name and full identity.

He describes in detail the world has not heard before what happened on Friday. He matters because over the next five hours we spend in Houla, scores of people will corroborate his story in various details.

He describes how there was intense shelling of the ground for several hours. After that the Shabiya – armed militia – entered the town from the southern to south western direction. He says there were around 100 of them dressed in military uniforms. They approached Dam Road which connects the large reservoir to the Houla villages. He says – and all agree – these men were Shia and Alawite who had come from specific Shia/Alawite villages to the south and west of Houla.

He names several villages and later we are taken to a rooftop where we can see those villages from the overwhelmingly Sunni town of Houla.

Two names come up time and again – Kabu and Felleh. They are so close, not more than two or three mile as the most. He goes on describing how the killers had written Shia slogans on their foreheads as they went house to house searching out and slaughtering Sunni families.

He says to us: “They have slaughtered us, they have killed us. When this is all over we will be victorious. And we will go there. And we will find them out and we will slaughter them and we will kill them. We will kill their men, women and children as they killed our men, women and children.”

Time again we are told there are many bodies still to be recovered.

On Sunday, I saw myself two bodies the UN is unaware of. At the mass grave containing at least 100 bodies – mostly women and children -they have been careful to leave a large open trench to take more corpses which will be simply wrapped in cloth – coffins are impossible. They do not even have running water or electricity in this town. Let alone luxuries like coffins.

The UN clearly agrees with their assessment. This afternoon part of their mission was the retrieval of more corpses but the difficulty is that they lie in areas close to Syrian army checkpoints considered too dangerous to reach.

There is an overwhelming and searing grief. What can you say? What can you do? What can you offer an elderly man, Abdul Hamad, who knows not only that his daughter was killed but that her throat was hacked with a knife, it seems, wielded by men who live just a few miles distant.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @alextomo

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25 reader comments

  1. Anthony Martin says:

    Alex, when I said you dare to fear where others don’t, I didn’t mean go back on another mission! But, it has to be said, you Journalists are very brave indeed and, the world does not pay enough respect and gratitude to the dangerous job you do.
    I hate these horrific situations round the world and I see no end to them. We can only hope that by setting good standards of humanity and decency, people will mimic such acts.
    Please take care and, take time out away from the horrors on your return.
    Oh, and if you see any Frogs, record ’em! ;)

    1. sav1 says:

      Brave, my foot. It’s all about ego. If you want brave talk about the ordinary civilians who get butchered or bombed thanks to ‘journalist’ lies.

      1. Anthony Martin says:

        Hi Sav1,
        Unfortunately, all conflict areas have opposing views and the ‘fog of war’ leads truth to be the first victim.
        Alex works for Channel 4. Their job is to remain unbiased and mindful of not falling foul of government induced propaganda. That can’t never be an easy job for any Journalist or broadcaster. Striking a balance is like walking on Eggs and hoping not to break ’em.
        What we all agree on is this, conflicts and wars are the pinnacle of human evilness and, many people gain from adding fuel to these fires of hate. But, like I said above, it’s only acts of altruism and decent humanity that will prove to be the bedrock that breeds tolerance, respect and harmony between peoples.
        I’ve watched many reports by Channel 4 compared to the other mainstream media and, I believe they give one of the best balanced news, along with RT.
        Let’s hope promote the good in people and set examples of care. There’s nothing to lose by doing so.
        Thanks for your comment.

      2. sav1 says:

        Please spare me that ‘fog of war’ rubbish everytime you want to excuse blatent lies. Channel 4’s coverage is no less laughable than the Guardian or BBC. Jonathan Miller being one of the worst.

        These ‘journalists’ are not interested in harmony, they are interested in getting their rocks off on tbe misery of others – they hunger for death and destruction and will lie to achieve it. It’s their Boy’s Own adventures come to life. It’s all about them.

  2. Question All says:

    So Alex, what exactly is the point to this round of allegation and counter allegation?

    Clearly there is a Sunni uprising against the Syrian government. Clearly there have been atrocities committed on both sides. Clearly there are disparate and desperate elements on both sides.

    Thugs from government supporting militias and terrorists (and I do mean TERRORISTS) from outside of the country have created a bloodbath. However, where exactly does the hysteria and sabre rattling over ‘the politics of the last atrocity’ (copyright Gerry Adams) lead us? Is the aim of western media reporting to urge another NATO bombing campaign, or is it to report on the human suffering of all sides in this conflict?

    Thank goodness for the UN vetoes of the Russians and Chinese, because if it were left to western governments and western media outlets we might already be involved in a regional conflict that draws in Syria, Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

    I’d like to see a C4 News report that investigates the logistical support, financing and arming of the ‘rebels’ in Syria (and Libya before it) by the dictatorships of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

    Where is the report about the influence of the traveling ‘roadshow of rebellion’ that is the Islamic fundamentalist Jihadists on yet another quest after their adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya?

  3. Martyn Gregory says:

    Brilliant & Brave stuff Alex. Stay safe!!

  4. Cornish Assadwatcher says:

    Thanks for being brave enough to go in there and send this report. The world needs to know what is happening to ordinary people in Syria who are being attacked and killed by Assad’s thugs. It is shameful that Russia, China and Iran put their political interests before the lives of Syrian children.

  5. Ingenious says:

    The pro-regime thugs are called Shabiha, not Shabiya.

  6. Dominic Reville says:

    So are the Shabiha purported to be sponsored by the government? Is there any hard evidence to support this? This situation has descended into a Bosnian butchery which begs the question: where is Bill Clinton?

    There are few infinites in the universe: the universe itself, human stupidity, man’s inhumanity to man.

  7. Jim Rabbitts says:

    Thank God someone is reporting the facts on the ground. A very moving report that the whole world should read.

    Thank you.

  8. Muhammad Naveed Alam says:

    You are very brave; I respect your efforts to tell the truth. In political point of view I will say you are doing right because whole world want to read what you are writing but as a journalism student for me its look like you are on “mission” like Army was in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. Story is bit confused I could not understand who is killing innocent people? Syrian Army or Rebels and why you called them rebel? If the same situation happens in England what should you write rebels or terrorists, we have a very good example in last year (UK RIOTS when British Prime Minister said if necessary we call Army to control Riots)
    For me its look like one-sided story can you write and investigate who is giving weapons to rebels? Are they attacking on Syrian Army and civilians?

  9. Catalina says:
  10. Kaveh says:

    Excellent report Alex. Pity we had to leave and could not be on that trip with you.
    Good luck man and be safe. It was nice being on the field with you – loved your professional code of conduct (both of you).
    Best, Kaveh

  11. kwame says:

    The fact that someone had shia writting on the fore head doesn’t make him one for Christ sake,who committing such a crime would reveal his identity.it was all a set up to tarnish Assads’ image and create more enemity and pain between 2 moslem groups so the war would not end anytime soon.I thank God I am not an arab cos they are easy to deceive.Long live the good and reasoning people of Syria.

  12. Method says:

    Theres a slight problem here. The so called ‘Shabiha’ if they exist at all any more (they had a big confrontation with the authorities in the 90s and were thought to be wiped out) do not come from villages near Homs. They always came from coastal areas of Latakkia, Beniyas and Tartous.’Shia slogans on their heads’? Typical naive western journalists falling for the same old sectarian nonsense. Most Alawis wouldnt know a Shia slogan to save their lives let alone write them on their heads to go massacre Sunnis. I challenege the author of this to go to an Alawi village and ask them about Shia slogans and see how how ignorant and apathetic your average Alawi is to religion. Why do people accept this bad Alawis attacking Sunnis nonsense. The army is overwhelmingly Sunni so its largely Sunnis killing Sunnis and most of Bashar’s support base is Sunni. Plenty of Alawis have been killed by sectarian Islamists including beheadings and the like but the western media has ignored it completelt because they want to puish this bad alawis, good sunnis narrative. Every Shabiha story I have heard in the last year has thus far consisted of the same old anti-Alawi stereo types.

  13. calmac12000 says:

    A truly harrowing report and a further example of what obscenities human beings are capable of. The despair and helplessness of the civilian population, is palpable from your report. The sad thing is that this conflict cannot be reduced to a Manichean struggle, neither has Syria vast reserves of natural resources. Therefore the chance of any humanitarian intervention are remote. Syria is a prime example of the worlds attention being focused on short term objectives and narrow self interest. Instead of any meaningful attempt at sustainable conflict resolution and avoidance.

  14. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    This is the very best of honest journalism. Thank you. It is a pity others will not deliver in the same way.

    To sum up:

    1. Over 80 innocents were murdered at close range, not by artillery fire.
    2. A number of survivors say the murderers were from local villages and by implication were motivated by religious sectarianism.
    3. None of the murderers were DIRECTLY identified as local villagers except by marks on their foreheads.

    Given the nature of this conflict and the certain knowledge of external interference and infiltration it is fair to postulate the murderers could have been “false sponsors” (a term used by our “intelligence” services).

    Therefore, more information and evidence is required before responsibility is properly fixed.

    Please stay safe and be extra careful. Remember the attempts on John Pilger’s life during similar conflicts. Your bravery is beyond praise.

  15. citizen smith says:

    Brillaint ‘joined up’ reporting between you, Matt Frei and the studio.

    Send all the info/data to the Syrian government and copy the UN & UK government….dont just ask them to watch the news on the website…..push it right down the throats of these so called leaders and make ’em eat it!

  16. Zappy says:

    I normally have a great respect for your reporting.

    This time, it was biased that you twisted the facts.

    The villager told you that he was 100 percent sure that the murderers were the Alawite militias. You asked him what makes you so sure? He replied because of the slogans on their foreheads.

    Immediately you commented, that they were Alawites and Shias. This small slip of tongue or unintentional misrepresentation could cost innocent people their lives, where the extremist Salafis (the ones who are causing havoc in Syria with Saudi and Qatari finance) are committing genocide of Shias in Pakistan, resulting in target killings every single day.

    Moreover, which stupid would commit a crime against humanity at this huge scale and carry his ID with him? Either he has to be a lunatic or he and his supporters are so sure that the mood on international level is such, that any garbage is acceptable provided it makes western military intervention in Syria a reality, so that a lucrative market could open up for arms manufacturers, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar as underwriters, wholly and solely for sectarian hatred.

  17. sav1 says:

    Channel 4 have a dusgusting record over selling propaganda for Libya.

    Shia slogans on their heads? A journalist believes such nonsense?

    It’s the usual style – grab the journalists, surround them and make sure they only get to see what the activists want them to see. Create a chaotic scene. Did Alex Thompson at any point decide to go find people himself and ask them questions instead of being directed to or grabbed by them?

    What nonsense. Call yourself journalists? Do you have no shame? You have sold us lies after lies..Iraq, Libya and now Syria.

  18. Jeffrey Wiseman says:

    I have previously had the utmost respect for your professional work but the constant depiction of
    the Syrian military as vicious killers doing the dirty work of Assad is beyond reproach.

    You are perfectly aware that the conflict in Syria is not between the Syrian people and the State. It is a sectarian war caused by wahabi Shiah agent provocateurs aginst the Sunnis. It is financed by other Shiah Middle-Eastern countries in order to impose a continent-wide sharia law Islamic state, just as happened in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and is also happening in other areas of Africa.

    Wahabi Islamists are extremists who see every person who does not subscribe to their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as worthless sub-humans (yes even other Moslems). One of the significant ways of displaying their contempt is to kill Kafirs by slitting their throats. This has a much greater significance in Islam than it does to observers in the West and marks the Houla killings as sectarian. Soldiers don’t slit throats, they kill en-masse with bullets through the head. As these extremist Islamists are being supplied with Western weapons via the Moslem Brotherhood in Libya Houla is a direct result of Western interference in the Middle East and playing their game by reporting their black propaganda will only result in the deaths of more innocents. The idea that this conflict is an ideological war over increasing democracy and freedom is the biggest lie of the 21st century. Please look a little further next time.

    1. Alina says:

      Syria is country of different religions and confessions.and they USED TO LIVE ALTOGETHER PEACEFULLY.majority of population r sunni muslims (“muslim” doesn’t mean “wahabi extremist”).
      for few decades Assad’s regime has been telling syrians that it protects the minorities (while none asked him to do so, since there was no need).in fact the regime hopes to set fire between different religious communities – that’s his only chance to survive now, coz all Syria is on protests… that’s the reason behind making massacres like al Houla.regime’s officials and Assad’s fans rise speeches about sectarianism and try to turn it to the civil war.
      in one if the protests in Damascus a year ago the regime used against protesters “people’s militia”, wearing hand bracelet of alawits (while looking at their faces we recognized,those “militia” were not alawits) – so the regime meant to build this concept of “sectarianism” from the very beginning,when revolution just started, trying to provoke hate between people.
      it won’t work.we r all syrians and we r going to build free country, where all religions r happy and every criminal is punished.

      1. Fred says:

        Alina, it is already working.

    2. Zappy says:

      Notice the blatant ignorance of this post of Jeffery who can’t distinguish between the Wahabis and Shiahs. There is nothing called Wahabi Shiah militias. They both have been at two opposing ends for the last three centuries since the inception of Wahabism, which have been interfering into the affairs of other Muslim and non-Muslim nations, least of all, their successful terror mission on 9/11 and 7/7.

      You don’t have to contribute your opinion if you are not aware of the issues.

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