BEIRUT — It was midday on a Friday, and all across Syria protesters were gathering for the anti-government demonstrations that have become a weekly routine since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began 14 months ago.
In Houla, in central Syria, this was to be a Friday like no other. By the end of the day, at least 108 people were dead, some of them killed by shelling, but most of them slaughtered in their homes. Women and children were shot at close range. Some had their throats slit, others had their eyes gouged out.
Piecing together exactly what happened in the sprawling rural area, which is more a collection of Sunni settlements than a distinct village, is difficult given the Syrian government’s restrictions on journalists and the inevitable fog that has shrouded a day of intense and multifaceted violence.
But interviews conducted by telephone and on Skype make it clear that, even by the standards of the brutal Syrian revolt, what happened in Houla on May 25 was extraordinary, an act of hatred and perhaps revenge that exposed the depth of the animosities tearing the country apart.
The events in Houla, an area northwest of the city of Homs, also exposed the powerlessness of the international community to stop what many fear is becoming the inevitable disintegration of Syria into a vicious civil war in which neighbors kill neighbors and the world looks on — as Bosnia and Rwanda experienced in an earlier era.
In a speech Sunday, Assad denied that his government was responsible and blamed the massacre on his opponents, saying it was unimaginable that security forces could do such a thing.
“Whoever did this in Houla could not be a human being but a monster. And even a monster could not carry out such an act,” he told a session of the nation’s newly chosen parliament.
Houla residents give a very different account. They blame the Syrian army and the loyalist militias known as the shabiha, which they say came from surrounding villages inhabited by members of Assad’s Shiite-affiliated Alawite sect. It is also clear that many questions remain unanswered.
The day began, as is typical on a Friday, with the men of the town gathering after prayers in at least two locations to hold demonstrations against the government. They left their wives, mothers, sisters and children at home, which is why so many of them would be among the dead.
“The people want to execute Bashar,” they chanted, according to a video of one demonstration. Held above the crowd was a big black banner, emblazoned in white with words that are chilling in light of what unfolded later in the day. “Let the world know we die with a smile on our faces,” it said.
And, as was typical on a Friday here and in many other parts of the country, shortly before 1 o’clock in the afternoon, as the protests began, Syrian troops positioned around the area began firing artillery and heavy machine guns to break up the demonstrations.
What happened next is murky, but according to at least two activists in Houla, rebel fighters attacked a Syrian army position overlooking the area. Nine soldiers were killed, including three officers, according to Ahmad Qassem, one of the activists, who said he was given the number by the local hospital. The government, in its account of the killings that day, has said that “several” of its troops were killed in an attack on a checkpoint. The rebel force also suffered casualties, Qassem said.
Whether the rebel attack was in response to the intensity of the shelling or whether the shelling intensified in response to the attack is unclear. But Houla residents described scenes of chaos as people sought shelter from the unusually heavy bombardments, attempted to rescue the wounded or tried to flee to calmer areas.
‘All were dead’
Away from the shelling, on the southwestern edge of Houla, a more sinister development began to unfold. A 25-year-old woman who gave her name as Fatima said she saw men in uniforms arriving in the late afternoon in a nearby street where members of the extended Abdel-Razzaq family lived.
Fatima said she assumed that the soldiers were conducting a routine raid, but then she began to hear shooting, which continued for at least an hour.
According to the videotaped testimony of the few survivors, the soldiers were accompanied by irregular shabiha militiamen from surrounding villages and moved through the homes shooting everyone they found.
“First they shot the other family, then they shot our family,” a teenage girl named Noura, shot in the abdomen, said on camera from a makeshift hospital bed last week. “I pretended I was dead so they wouldn’t shoot me again.”
“They were Assad’s army soldiers. I saw them, and they were Alawites,” recounted another woman, who said she also played dead after she and her four children were shot. “One was shooting, and another was finishing those who were not dead.”