The flat, once peaceful town of Houla is an unforgiving place in which to try and investigate what could well be a major war crime and is certainly a significant massacre of civilians.
By Alex Thomson, Houla
10:26PM BST 27 May 2012
Martin Griffiths, the deputy commander of the UN’s observer mission toSyria, on Sunday attempted to lead a small team of peace monitors and aid workers into the area where at least 90 people died on Friday, despite the firefights that continued to rage all the time they were there.
“It is difficult, very difficult,” Mr Griffiths said. “We found one family – a mother and her four children – all of them were dead, the bodies still left there.”
As his UN team went about the business of monitoring a ceasefire, which in Houla does not really exist, the continuing violence hampered their work and clearly put them in danger,
“The Syrian army sent up an armoured personnel carrier. It was armed with a large cannon and it passed our vehicles and fired off two rounds,” Mr Griffiths said.
“That of course caused another firefight which obviously delayed our work and held us up a bit.”
Something of a typical understatement from this quiet but determined Englishman, but the UN team did manage enough time in Houla to assess just what happened during Friday’s atrocity.
Mr Griffiths said both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) command in Rastan and civilian eyewitnesses in Houla itself had said the same thing.
Shelling of the town began at about 12.30pm after prayers and lasted about two hours.
Then, from around 3pm, groups of armed civilian militias — known as the Shabiha — began moving house to house and the killings, using knives and firearms, began.
According to both sources speaking independently, it went on for hours, family by family. Both groups say the killings continued until about 2am on Saturday.
The Syrian army on the ground in Houla and their political masters in Damascus say it was the work of “terrorists”, by which they mean the FSA. Soldier after soldier insisted to us that the FSA was a mixture of Afghan, Libyan, Iraq and Moroccan mercenaries. They offered no evidence to support this.
Yet all around you in Houla, there is compelling evidence to suggest it is Syria’s government and Syria’s army who are telling the lies about the massacre on Friday.
The evidence is simply this: the fact that in Houla right now you still find civilians where the FSA control the ground. Yet there are none (except corpses) where the Syrian army is in control.
So you ask yourself this: why do people remain in one area and not the other? Why do civilians apparently feel safe with the rebels? Why have they fled the area controlled by their own government’s army?
We cannot be sure as yet. But since civilians do not feel safe under the protection of their own army it suggests they perceive a link between that army’s shelling and the murderous Shabiha who came afterwards on Friday in Houla and will surely come again.
*Alex Thomson is Chief Correspondent for Channel 4 News. He is the first British journalist to enter Houla since Friday’s massacre.