13 Sep 2013

Al-Bayda: anatomy of a war crime

At least 169 people, including women and children, were killed in a massacre in the Syrian town of al-Bayda earlier this year. Warning: this exclusive video contains extremely distressing footage.

Warning: the video below contains extremely distressing footage from the beginning

At seven in the morning of 2 May this year, Syrian government forces entered the village of al-Bayda, an opposition enclave nestled in the hills by the Mediterranean coast in the western governorate of Tartus, writes James Brabazon.

Al-Bayda was a sleepy place. Not much happened there, and until this spring was unremarkable except for one defining fact: it was a predominantly Sunni village, entirely surrounded by pro-regime Alawite and Christian territory.

The Syrian government didn’t consider al-Bayda to be a threat. In May 2011 they rounded up all the men in the village square and beat many of them up to remind them President Assad was in charge – and then more or less left it alone.

There was no permanent Syrian army force there, no big checkpoint and no fighting. Regime forces came and went as they pleased. No-one attacked them.


The only function that al-Bayda played for the opposition was to help smuggle out individual deserting government soldiers who’d run away from their bases on the coast and were trying to reach rebel-held territory.

So when the Syrian army arrived in May – to arrest a group of three Syrian army deserters who were being hidden in the outskirts village by supporters of the opposition to President Assad – no-one could have guessed what would happen.

First, there was a shootout. The deserters and a group of around a dozen opposition fighters who went to their assistance – local men with light weapons – opened fire on the army. Residents said that later they saw the bodies of at least a dozen dead Syrian Army soldiers, their corpses trapped in the burned-out remains of their ambushed vehicle.

Taking no chances, the regime forces called in reinforcements. By 1pm the firefight was over. The deserters were either killed, or fled along with the opposition fighters up into the caves far outside the village.


Now government fighters massed around al-Bayda: regular Syrian Arab army units; uniformed national defence force paramilitaries (the so-called shabiha); and Syrian army special forces operators.

From the outskirts where the skirmish had taken place, the army and paramilitaries moved in. From three axes, in coordinated deployments, they swept through al-Bayda, moving from house to house.

The world should pay attention about what is happening in al-Bayda. Why is everyone asleep? Why don’t they do something? ‘Sara’

At 1.30pm the killing began. Men and women were separated in the houses. The “men” – which included teenage boys – were either executed immediately, or marched to the village square to be killed en masse. Most were shot. Some were hacked to death with long knives or cleavers. At least one young boy, Luqman al-Hiris, was beheaded – in front of his mother.

In the house of Mustafa Biyasi, 30 women and children were herded into one room and then executed – shot at point blank. Saffa Biyasi cuddled her baby boy, Hamza Biyasi. They lay dead next to each other, serene despite their injuries. Afnan Biyasi and another small child spooned each other on the bed they were shot on, perhaps holding each other for comfort in the last moments before the bullets ripped through their tiny bodies.

By 5pm the massacre was over. The Syrian army had killed at least 169 civilians in four hours. The verified final death toll is likely to reach beyond 250.


Bodies were stacked up in the local cellphone shop and burned, making them hard to identify. Um Mohammed, an eye witness to the massacre, was able to identify the charred remains of her son only by the chipped fingernail he’d broken earlier.

The next day government forces returned and burned al-Bayda. The sleepy village which once had a population of around 5,000 people was empty. Refugees fled to rebel-held areas of Syria and then on to Turkey and Lebanon.

It used to be called al-Bayda – the white village. Now they call it al-Sawda – the black village. ‘Sara’

If the government’s strategy has been to cleanse al-Bayda of its Sunni Muslim residents then they were successful: with the exception of a few elderly people too old to leave, only the Christian quarter remains inhabited.

Thirteen members of Fattou family, who did try to return were wiped out in their home by Syrian security forces on 21 July.

‘The Black Village’

While the investigation into the regime’s alleged use of nerve gas continues, the 2 May massacre in al-Bayda remains the single, most extensive verified act of the killing of civilians carried out by government forces since the war began.

But what perhaps is as shocking as the eyewitness accounts of murder by uniformed government troops is that the massacre at al-Bayda was almost entirely unreported in the mainstream media: a few short news pieces, a lot of web traffic and a report and brief overview at the time in the western press is really all the attention that al-Bayda received.

“Sara” – a 12-year-old girl who survived the massacre and who was interviewed for this programme, found the body of her tortured and murdered father. When asked if there was anything she’d like to say to the people abroad who might see this film she replied:

“The world should pay attention about what is happening in al-Bayda. Why is everyone asleep? Why don’t they do something?

“We had one nursing baby who died in his mother’s lap. What has he done? Did he overthrow the president? People should stand up to them, to our enemies.

“You cannot just keep quiet. This is not right. They have slaughtered all of us. They have emptied al-Bayda. There is no-one there any more. It used to be called al-Bayda – the white village. Now they call it al-Sawda – the black village.”


Field Producer: Abdulkader Al Dhon

Graphics: Trainor Davies Design

Film Editor: Tariq Sheik

Assistant Producer and Second Camera: Sasha Joelle Achilli

Researcher: Kamal Kaddourah

Filmed, Produced and Directed by James Brabazon