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. Gordon

    If the world powers started bombing Al-Assad, you woiuld immediately see the slaughter of children stop. Ther real proble with the world reacting to this diaster is because Syria only exports 20% of the oill that Lybia exports, and Lybian oil is high grade and used for aircraft fuel. Any other question?

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

    There's islam for you.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JRH

    So... let's do the math: Syria has negligible oil + election year in the US = no humanitarian action. If Syria had copious oil or other mineral deposits, we'd be in there like a flash. Instead we sit idly by, celebrating how great our country is and how much respect we have for those who have given their lives for our "freedom". Welcome the United States of Hypocrisy.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Americal69

      that would be because oil is a strategic commodity. children not so much if you're trying to make a buck this week. didn't anyone tell you how the world works?

      May 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. J Jordan

    This behavior is so outrageous that it requires a world response. We cannot sit back and watch children slaughtered – it demands a response. The only reason the Russians and Chinese won't repudiate these actions is because they want to reserve the right to act in this manner if their people rise up as the Syrians did. Let there be no doubt, Putin is no better than Assad – he'd slaughter children to retain power also.

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

      What response do you want? Drop a nuke on them and start over?

      We've tried stoping crazy muslims from killing eachother in two nations now. It doesn't work. Let them kill themselves off, it's all they're good at.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • clint mccullough

      Russia and China remain our greatest enemies. They do everything in thier power to screw over the U.S. I just wish more people relized that China and Russia are bigger threats to the civilized world than Arabs.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • spud853947

      Around 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide but yet the world didn't rush to help. They most likely will not rush to help in this case, either.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • swags

      Don't doubt for one minute that 'yomamma' wouldn't do the same thing if there were massive uprisings in the US ! ! ! As for Syria & it's 'people' – Start Fighting for your freedoms – don't be afraid to shed blood cuz you're gonna probably die anyways – might as well go down fighting, duh – If you're waiting for a 'World Response' good luck with that – most nations that might want to help are so broke they need all their resources to keep their own people in line!!

      May 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. DBC

    All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bringit

    Here is Islam the religion of peace. The truth is laid bare for all to see. Muslim vs Muslim, and no way for them to blame infidels for this massacre.

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

      I don't think the religion is evil, but there are too many uneducated, extremist dolts who are members. Christianity used to go on major purge missions a few centuries ago, when many of them were uneducated dolts.

      It is a shame though, that we're too "moral" to assassinate foreign leaders more readily, or send in the stealth fighters. Reagan rang a few bells when he blew up Khadaffi's house in the '80s. Maybe we should render the Assads homeless, and maybe blow up a few of there relatives as "collateral damage". Obama might even rise a few points in the polls (heaven forbid!).

      May 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Samson

    If only Syria had oil then perhaps the world powers would have a reason to help.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. charles bowen

    Assassinate Assad Put this Devil In the Hole .......! Happy Memorial Day ! Thank You For Your Service....! Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    May 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alicia

    CNN's gonna run this story into the ground like a beached tanker.

    CNN, why don't / didn't you run the same kind of story on the children of Darfur? or any other handful of countries in Africa?... does your N W O leaders have some ulterior motives?....I know why, I would like to hear YOUR excuse.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Tin Foil Brigade Is Here

      N W O? Okay, Alicia, tell us why, then.....

      May 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matthew

      You were apparently on vacation during Darfur month. They went over that story until there was little left to report.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • spud853947

      There are countless examples of even worst things happening in the world and yet no one helped. Humans can be a sorry lot.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Stan

    phony 2012.

    Let's nuke em – that'll surely gonna have some democratizing effect.

    No humans – no problem, and we can still come and take our oil! hoooray.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matthew

      I love reading people's comments that the best solution for children being murdered in Syria is to drop a nuke on the country. For those of you who don't know, a nuclear blast is actually quite large, somewhat larger than a car or a house..or a city. There is a slight chance that dropping a nuclear weapon in an area within Syria might yield a death count of children equal to or more than what is occurring now. That's like burning down a house so it doesn't catch on fire.

      Contrary to what several video games have taught me, I'm just a little more than intelligent enough to know that you don't earn points for vaporizing real people.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. tp1776

    didn't the US organize resistance in Libya to prevent exactly the massacre of innocents that's now happening in Syria? Where are we now? Are the Syrians being sacrificed to a higher 'global politics' because Russia and China support Assad? I bet if this was debated in Congress there would be enough sentiment to say despite our debt and despite the anger of Russia and China and others in the UN, lets do something to protect these people.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Will i am

    What will it take for us to do something about this? They are butchering children!!!!

    Do you think Obama will come out and say that could be his son?

    May 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • KnowNow2

      Will you enlist tomorrow if he says let go fight? no you want someone else to die for your opinion. And no that couldn't be his son he is not Syrian, fool.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mooncricket1


    May 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jobdespair

    CNN needs to take this 24 hours. For God's sake, this is sick.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |

    Where's President Obama in all this? Not a single response or commentary. It infuriates me that he is so focused on getting re-elected that he doesn't have the moral background to take a stand and make an argument.

    May 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • KnowNow2

      Why don't you take your ass to Syria and fight if you feel so strongly about, you GOP fools say the President is spending to much, war is not free fool, who is going to pay for it? You dont want to raise taxes on the rich, ask the GOP if they will raise taxes on the rich if we go to war in Syria? and see what they say.

      May 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
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