May 28th, 2012
12:59 PM ET

Children shot, knifed, axed to death in Syria's Houla massacre, reports say

The livid white-haired Syrian’s question to the U.N. blue helmet was rhetorical. He didn’t expect a real answer, not to that question.

“Did the infant carry an RPG?” he asked angrily, gesturing wildly, his hands clad in red rubber gloves.

He had washed the bodies of nine slain children already, one of whom was not even a year old, he told the U.N. observer. He wanted to know why. That question he actually wanted answered. The observer appeared overwhelmed.

Why are they treating us like animals?” the man demanded.

It was an understatement. Across Houla, an anti-regime suburb of Homs, images emerged indicating people there had been treated like something less than animals. The bodies of 108 people killed, most of them women and children, filled rooms, rugs and the backs of trucks.

Children were missing limbs. Others suffered gaping head and chest wounds. Images showed children sprawled on blood-smeared floors, their lifeless eyes staring into oblivion, their clothing torn and stained crimson. While many young victims were apparently shot, there were reports that children had been stabbed to death or attacked with axes.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States was horrified by "credible reports" of the massacre, "including stabbing and ax attacks on women and children."

In one video posted online, a man shows a room full of dead bodies covered with sheets. He pulls back one and asks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a pointed question: “Here are the children. What was their crime, Bashar? What was their crime, Arabs?”

The Syrian regime, which has been locked in warfare with rebels for more than a year, has blamed the deaths – many victims were apparently shot point blank with small arms – on terrorists, including al Qaeda. The Syrian regime often blames civilian deaths on terrorists and labels rebels as such.

Several envoys, including those from Germany, Britain and France, aren’t buying it, and rebels say the massacre essentially tosses a U.N.-brokered ceasefire out the window.

It’s difficult to say what exactly happened Friday after morning prayers because much of Houla is now abandoned, its witnesses having fled to rebel-held positions in the city. It doesn’t help that Syria limits foreign journalists’ access, leaving most media outlets to vet the heavy stream of YouTube videos coming out of the country.

Also confounding coverage is that some of the footage coming out of Houla is so gruesome as to be – as one British broadcaster called it – “unbroadcastable.”

Yet some things have been widely reported, and it appears most witnesses and human-rights organizations concur that the mass killings began with a protest early Friday afternoon.

Protests had been planned in the capital of Damascus and in various locations in Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor provinces that day. The shelling in Houla began shortly after 2 p.m., according to Human Rights Watch, after soldiers at an army checkpoint in the nearby village of Taldou opened fire to disperse demonstrators. Houla is a largely Sunni Muslim enclave surrounded by Shiite and Alawite villages, the latter being the sect to which al-Assad belongs.

Rebels attacked the checkpoint, and “the Syrian army responded by shelling various neighborhoods in Houla,” HRW stated in a press release.

First, tanks began shelling the neighborhood at about 2:30 p.m., and the mortar fire began a couple of hours later, all emanating from the air force military college located at Houla’s entrance.

"Around 7:00 p.m., the shelling intensified and whole buildings were shaking. The army started firing some sort of rockets that would shake an entire area,” the news release states.

Several reports indicate this was about the time that armed men in military uniforms began attacking homes, and HRW reported that dozens of the dead were from the Abdel Razzak family that lives in eight or nine adjacent homes near the dam on the outskirts of town.

A mother and her 10-year-old boy, both of whom belonged to the family, recalled hearing an inordinate number of gunshots. The mother took the boy to a barn to hide, and her son told HRW he heard men shouting and women crying.

He peeked out the window occasionally, fearing he might be spotted if he watched for too long. Men wearing uniforms or camouflage entered his home, he said.

“Then across the street I saw my friend Shafiq, 13 years old, outside standing alone. An armed man in military uniform grabbed him and put him at the corner of a house. He took his own weapon and shot him in the head. His mother and big sister – I think she was 14 years old – went outside and started shouting and crying. The same man shot at both of them more than once,” he said.

His mother said she and the boy came out from hiding after the rebel Free Syria Army arrived.

“I saw Shafiq on the ground dead. I saw three families: three women, two of them with children. All of them were shot. Some were shot in the head and others had multiple shots in the body,” she told HRW. “One of the children survived. She is 14 years old. She was shot twice in the leg. I also saw my cousin who was shot in the chest. A 13-year-old boy who was paralyzed was shot three times in his chest as well."

Many witnesses are pointing fingers at the regime or pro-regime civilian militiamen known as the Shabiha. A woman in her late 50s told the Syrian Network of Human Rights how the Shabiha punished one member of the Abarra family, according to The Telegraph in London.

She “confirmed that the Shabiha handcuffed the children of Abarra family and told the father to look at their children, how they will be killed in front of his eyes, before they killed him,” the group told the newspaper.

An elderly woman recounted a similar scene for HRW, saying she was in a house with 10 family members when she heard gunshots and a man’s voice in another room.

“I hid behind the door. I saw another man standing outside by the entrance door and another one inside the house. They were wearing military clothes. I couldn’t see their faces,” she told the group.

She thought they were searching the house, but a few minutes later, she heard family members screaming. The children, none older than 14, began crying.

“I went down on the floor and tried to crawl so I could see what was happening. As I approached the door, I heard several gunshots,” she said. “I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot. They were shot in their bodies and their head.”

Too terrified to see if they were alive, the woman crawled to the back door and fled the home.

“I was in shock so I don’t know what happened later,” she told HRW.

A woman in a black abaya told Britain’s Channel 4 that the gunmen were killing entire families and showing no mercy to women and children.

“When they knocked on the door, we told them there were no men at home, only women and children, but one of them went inside and cornered everybody and started shooting. I lost four children and other relatives,” she said.

Though the government denies responsibility for the massacre and blames the rebels, a British reporter noted that residents of Houla have fled the parts of town controlled by the Syrian army.

“There are lots of civilians in the rebel-held areas,” said Alex Thomson of CNN affiliate ITN. “They are not apparently frightened of the fighters. They are speaking openly to the United Nations … In the areas of the town held by the army, there is nobody. It's a ghost town."

German Ambassador Peter Wettig said there was "clear evidence" connecting the government to the deaths. "The evidence is not murky, and there is a clear footprint of the government in this massacre," Wettig said.

Martin Brines, the French deputy ambassador, said a briefing by the head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria "clearly shows the responsibility of the Syrian government in failing to protect its civilians as well, as attacking them directly."

But Russia, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, believes "it still remains unclear what happened and what triggered what," as Russian charge d'affaires Alexander Pankin put it.

Despite a ceasefire brokered last month by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office, hundreds of civilians have been killed in Syria in the last six weeks. U.N. officials say more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands more displaced since the March 2011 uprising. Opposition groups peg the death toll at closer to 11,000.

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Filed under: Human rights • Protest • Syria • World
soundoff (707 Responses)
  1. justiceforwhom

    Whats with these people? Seriously.... the only thing that makes them remotely human is their biological makeup... everything else is dirty beast. World would be better without people like this.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Shane

    The middle east is full of nothing but animals. It has very little to do with religion. It has everything to do with societies that aren't smart enough to get out of the third century. Take oil out of their contribution and many of these countries would have nothing to offer the rest of the world except sand and camels. They build nothing. The innovate nowhere. They add nothing to the common good to the rest of the world. The best thing that could happen would be for some space junk or asteroid to somewhere in ol' Babylon and destroy everything within 2000 in all directions. We would all be better off for it.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. frank

    so sad that these children had to face such brutality before they were all massacred, how can these sick men bring it upon themselves to even commit such atrocities. And whats it going to solve? Absolutely nothing but 30 or so children who will never grow to be adults. I have faith that the people of Syria will bring swift and brutal justice to the sickos who did this.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. a1000lies

    Just drop the bomb already. The Middle East is the $#!T stain of the Earth. Absolutely nothing good or useful comes out of the Middle East except what's below the ground.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff S

      @1000lies

      Funny. Many in the middle east claim the same thing about the U.S.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesus Is Lord

      Jesus came out of the middle east. If you don't know that He is good, then you are in serious trouble.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. alienprophecy

    Sorry, but does it strike anybody else as if CNN seems to be fanning the flames of war? It is sad that these children have died, and may God bless their souls...but it is time for the Syrians themselves to fight for their own independence, as we did so many years ago.

    We cannot get involved in every skirmish just because someone makes an impassioned plea for help. We cannot be the world's military and expect there to be no repercussions. We cannot continue to subsidize the entire world's military and expect our debt to subside. And we cannot continue to let moral outrage just toss aside pragmatic judgement at every turn, as we have been doing for decades now to the tune of trillions of dollars in debt, a stagnant economy crippled by regulation, and a bleak future for our college graduates.

    We have seen much worse than this–for instance, ethnic cleansing down in Africa. While I will agree that it is news, perhaps it's time CNN started reporting on more domestic affairs–such as 43 Catholic representing 60 million Americans suing the Obama administration (the largest American lawsuit ever) over Obamacare. Oh, didn't hear about that? That's because this "news" station is more a water carrier for the Obama administration than anything else. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see this as some preemptive justification for a military action Obama authorizes a month or two before the election.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Win4All

      Couldnt have said it better.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • jimmysi

      Alien...you are truly ignorant to history...first of all, while we did fight for our own independence, we were assisted by the French who were more than happy to provide financial and military support in order to stick it to their British rivals. Second, This is far more complicated than just an internal skirmish. There are broader geo political issues at play including the Iranians, Russians and Chinese (such a wholesome bunch) who are actively supporting this bloodstained regime in Syria. Most of the rest of the Middle East wants this guy out but they don't have the muscle to help...I suppose you'd let an injured person die on the street rather than help if you were in a position to do so?

      May 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • speakit

      It's not your imagination. CNN is blatantly pushing for western countries to intervene. Great CNN. Help send us (and it will be mainly americans) back into another middle eastern country by getting involved in an issue which is none of our business. Even better, lets oust him the syrian leadership and push "democracy" so they can elect a religious government. Because that would be SO much better for those people.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dr. P

      This IS news and CNN is doing their job by reporting it! If you'd prefer to listen to anti-Obama propaganda turn on Faux News and shut the hell up!

      May 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      Bingo!

      May 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • thrawn17

      You're right that the language is very charged.
      You are wrong about us "fighting for our own independence." We had France supporting us militarily, and the Dutch and Spanish sending us money.
      All of these countries waited untill it was obvious that we were "for real" and had a real chance before helping. We should do the same. We have a duty to protect life. You can debate over where the line is, but when a dictatorship is massacring its own civilians, we have a duty to get involved.
      Your argument was used through the 30's to justify why the U.S., Britian, France, etc. shouldn't stop Hitler's killings.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • J1789

      Grow up.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Americal69

      could it be because 85% of Catholics give a toot about the church's stance on some things.

      May 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. elizatoo

    Ok – when is someone going to engage one of the special ops teams that we all know exist – and get them into Syria and assassinate this pig. Anyone doing this to children is nothing but an animal of the lowest form and should be terminated in whatever way possible. Drop a bomb on the palace or wherever the hell he lives and be done with him. Filthy sick twisted piece of garbage.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • syberstorm

      As soon as you do that, you would be an outlaw. It is the same as terrorism. Any world leader would be allowed to hunt your president the same way.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ldm

    This whole story just sounds like drum beating by the press to engage us in more war. for those involved, this is a horrid incident but this kind of human tragedy happens so frequently on this planet on a daily basis, why should we get involved? when it effects us as a nation (like 9/11, like pearl harbor NOT like vietnam or iraq) then we respond. If we were required to get ourselves involved in every human tragedy, we would be fighting narco-terrorists in Mexico right now but we aren't because it is not our fight.
    I am tired of funding what even Eisenhower knew to be the military industrial complex that helps sell newspapers.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Woody

    I think it is sad that everyone is taught to believe in a god and religious book that was man written . You can not help people that say god will fix it all the time . Until people learn to deal with things without the hold that religion has on them this will probably continue to happen . I have been to the middle east and most people in America think Syria is in the mid east when it is actually in Asia at Asia Minor , same area of the world where the Jewish man Jesus was supposed to have been born . So much for the Quran, the bible, etc . All I can say is good luck believing a book will protect us .

    May 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Al

    This smells like the "incubator babies" hoax that started the Iraq war. That was when Hill and Knowlton PR firm came up with that hoax story to rally support. War is always based on big deceptions. It is important to pull people heart strings to get the war started.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Snake

    Disgusting. It's the only word I have for these attacks: disgusting. ESPECIALLY what adults CONSTANTLY do to children for the sake of the adult's interests – all over the world, children suffer HORRIBLY. And the world simply DOESN'T HAVE THE NUTS TO RESPOND.

    MAKE VIOLENCE AGAINST CHILDREN A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY IN WORLD COURT. PERIOD.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mjschriner

    waste of time trying to fix these people

    May 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. marctheduck

    This shows so clearly that the UN is useless. What we need is a coalition of free democracies (US, UK, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, etc.) to decide when to intervene in mass human massacres like this. Russia and China and the loonies (Venezuela, Iran, Pakistan, etc.) won't ever agree to intervene in other looney countries like Syria. If anyone is going to stop the massacre it will have to come about by abandoning the support of Russia, China or other lunatic countries. And where is American leadership these days? This whole thing is beyond sickening.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. lwjsiab12

    go ahead with civil war I am so tired to hear the killings of children and women every day. The

    May 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. larry5

    So, Assad should be removed and a new butcher installed to take over. These people are Muslims, after all. What good would a change do? Libya didn't exactly work out very well. The new management there is worse than ever. The fundamental problem is the Muslim religion and their handy dandy hand book. That book promotes exactly what's happening.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Maddy Gascar

    This kind of media coverage is EXACTLY what we experienced before going to war with Iraq! Daily barrages of the atrocities committed, with a little dose of "Hussein has ties with Al Quaeda" and "we think there are WMD in Iraq." Yes, it is extremely horrific that these children are dying, but the media blows it SO out of proportion, and is only giving the biased slant it WANTS to give us. Why is the media so hell-bent on us going into another war, and who is giving them the tools to fuel that fire?

    May 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
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