Wednesday, April 25, 2018

11-year-old boy recounts the massacre as violence continues in Syria

BEIRUT — When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed fell to the floor of his home, he said, soaking his clothes with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.

The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one during last week's massacre of 108 people in Houla.

The killings brought worldwide condemnation of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Japan and Turkey on Wednesday joined other nations in expelling Syrian diplomats.

Nevertheless, violence continued unabated Wednesday:

• U.N. officials announced that they had found the bodies of 13 electrical workers — all of whom had had their hands bound and had been shot execution-style — in Deir el-Zour province of eastern Syria.

• Syrian forces bombarded rebel-held areas and clashed with army defectors in Homs province, killing at least eight people, activists said.

Ali is one of the few survivors of the massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Homs province.

The AP contacted him through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the child Wednesday over Skype. It is impossible to independently corroborate his story.

The youngest to die in Ali's house was his brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes — one in his head, another in his back.

"I put my brother's blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told the AP, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the massacre that left him both an orphan and an only child.

U.N. investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as shabiha who operate on behalf of Assad's government.

Recruited from the ranks of Assad's Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha.

Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of corpses shrouded in blankets.

"When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the massacre," said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. "I saw a kid with his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than 1 year old who was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering."

The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists. And even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiraling toward civil war.

According to the U.N., which is investigating the attack, most of the victims were shot at close range, as were Ali's parents and siblings. The attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, to terrorize the population.

This type of massacre — even more than the shelling and mortar attacks that have become daily occurrences in the uprising — is a sign of a new level of violence.

According to activists in the area, the massacre came after the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels following anti-regime protests. Several demonstrators were killed, and the rebels were forced to withdraw. The pro-regime gunmen later stormed in, doing the bulk of the killing.

Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre in Houla began. He said there were two waves of violence, one starting at 5 p.m. Friday and a second at 4 a.m. Saturday.

"The shabiha took advantage of the withdrawal of rebel fighters," he said. "They started entering homes and killing the young as well as the old."

Ali, the 11-year-old, said his mother began weeping the moment about 11 gunmen entered the family home in the middle of the night. The men led Ali's father and oldest brother outside.

"My mother started screaming 'Why did you take them? Why did you take them?' " Ali said.

Soon afterward, he said, the gunmen killed Ali's entire family.

As Ali huddled with his youngest siblings, a man in civilian clothes took Ali's mother to the bedroom and shot her five times in the head and neck.

"Then he left the bedroom. He used his flashlight to see in front of him," Ali said. "When he saw my sister Rasha, he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway."

Ali had been hiding near his brothers Nader, 6, and Aden, 8. The gunmen shot both of them, killing them instantly. He then fired at Ali but missed.

"I was terrified," Ali said, speaking from Houla, where relatives have taken him in. "My whole body was trembling."

Days after the attack, many victims remain missing.

Ali can describe the attack on his family. But al-Qassem said the full story of the massacre may never emerge.

"There are no eyewitnesses of the massacre," he said. "The eyewitnesses are all dead."

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