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. Bubba from Alabama

    Geeeezzzzzzzzzz........and momma always said that "life was like a box of chocolates". Run, Assad, run!!!! Bring in the special forces. Annihilate Assad!

    May 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. L McConnell

    Get all the women and children out, then bomb the frigging place into oblivion.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Robert

    Assad has no reason to stop until the rebellion has been fully quelled. Why negotiate with your adversaries when you have the option to annihilate them? It's an ugly nasty truth, but it is the truth.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. matt

    Well we really shouldn't be surprised; dictators in the mideast have recognized for years that as long as they feign cooperation with whatever UN resolution gets passed, they can pretty much do whatever the hell they want. It's more politically convenient for western powers to sit on their ass and draft condemnations of outrages occuring in Syria, rather than to lead a military operation that would actually accomplish something. Nothing significant is going to change without military intervention, and with an election around the corner here in the US, that doesn't seem likely to happen.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      We are not the world's policeman. Nations have to figure out how to solve their own problems like others have done for a thousand years.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Citi Zen

    Russia and China ought to be ashamed of themselves for their continued support of the Syrian regime.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Free World

      What's worse, is their Internet propagandists are all over the web casting denials of these images. Calling them "Western propaganda." Looks pretty real to me. Utterly sickening. This is a real test for the world. We are entering a new era of conflict which resolves largely around propaganda. This crisis is a test of whether reality will win out over distortions and spin. The reality is these people are suffering. And no amount of comments can change that.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Yellow

    If Syrian military was shelling the city – they couldn't send in troops yet. So who did the killing?
    (do remember it was broadcast from this very CNN that victims died because of the shelling, yet now it's obvious that ithese were gunshot and stabbing.) If you dig just below the surface, it sounds like a very calculated, brutal propaganda event by the rebels.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • kien

      You are right. Just like a few months ago when shelling of Holms (???spelling) when they said gov't troops were forcing people out of their houses while getting shelled. The gov't wouldn't be shelling their own troops otherwise the troops would defect. The rebels are terrorist-driven as of late.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emile

      Thats right it wasn't the Syrian troops that committed these attrocities. The Western governments want the world to see it that way, but any one who digs just a little beyond the surface can see right away that this is not the regime's military way of killing people. These crimes were committed by a terrorist group. And since we have many terrorist groups in Syria the blame can be pointed in many directions. Funny how no one comments about the attrocities being commited in Libya's prisons regarding the black population, I suppose since they are being commited by those who NATO supported we can close our eyes to these crimes

      May 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • northernCA

      really? that's all you've got for your argument and you expect us to believe you? wake up, look around, come to your senses! The Syrian Army is killing their own children with Bashar's blessing.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff E.

    This brought tears to my eyes. How do we watch this while we instantly get involved in Libya? What kind of politics suggest that we just let this ride out without taking action?

    May 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • lower primate

      the kind that backs Ron Paul 2012

      May 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • hez316

      i believe there was a UN ok on the Libya action. Not for Syria. That's the "how". Can't explain the "why".

      May 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • ray

      unfortunately they don't have OIL Jeff.

      May 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Lorna

    No, Fran Townsend, it isn't immoral for the US NOT to take action in Syria. Any type of military intervention/assistance will result in boots on the ground. Their government leader(s) needs to take action instead of emtpy peace treaties. They expect the US to step in and take care of their issues! The US troops and their families pay the price. Enough is enough; the US needs to take care of our own! The Republicans need to stop urging POTUS to get involved!!!!

    May 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Hawaii

    "Children shot, knifed, axed to death."
    -Just another day in America.
    Oh, they forgot, "thrown off overpass, tossed in dumpster, dismembered by predator........"

    May 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dou44

    Sad, but the Americans in Khandahar massacred sleeping Afghan kids by shooting them in the mouth and anus in April.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • dscon

      wow me the pics and verification of the perps mkay?

      May 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • roger

      Seriously? One crazy guy who has been arrested and you say "Americans"? How is that at all similar? Do you ever think?

      May 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • This just In Cnn murder stories

      War must stop! We must all get the hell out!!!!

      May 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. dscon

    ahhhhh........the religion of peace.
    it is funny on one side...tragic on the other 🙁
    who is killing whom.................
    same crap in the US but the violence is lagging.
    let the libs have their way and it will come soon.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. roger

    @ reality – if you HAVE to ask you really don't want to know but Ill try. Hidatha was an exception to US military and government practice and policy. Houla was not. We accepted responsibility for the act, investigated, and prosecuted the Marines responsible. Syria is blaming someone else. Hidatha is far, far outside the norms of conduct for US forces. Arabs constantly use terror as a weapon of choice. Now I expect you to dispute this. Its what you people do. But those out there who don't suffer from terminal "blame America-itis" will also read this and, maybe, understand that we make mistakes. These people do it deliberately. THATS the difference. And why does this have to be explained to you?

    May 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Concerned Mother

    I just have to comment this time, was it really necessary to post the pictures of the dead? I mean, really CNN! Are you for real? The story was enough! How about leaving those out next time. You could have shown images of destruction around the place but not the dead.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |

    Here we go again - CNN trying to to stir up a war in the Middle East. They can't wait to get "embedded" reporters in there to find out it is a civil war involving atrocities committed by all participants.

    May 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. 2011cnn2011

    The Syrian Government is the Devil in disguise

    May 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
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