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Were War Crimes Committed in Syria’s Houla?

May 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Syria's capital Damascus Monday, condemning a weekend massacre that killed at least 108 people in the village of Houla. Ray Suarez and Alex Thomson of Independent Television News, reporting from Homs, discuss the attacks amid a languishing U.N. cease-fire agreement.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Syria, we turn to ITN’s Alex Thomson, who visited the site of the massacre yesterday. I spoke to him a short while ago by phone. He’s reporting from the town of Homs, scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Syrian uprising.

Alex Thomson, welcome.

I understand that you were able to accompany a U.N. observer group into some of these scenes of the worst fighting. Tell us what you saw and where you were.

ALEX THOMSON, Independent Television News: I went in with a U.N. and Red Crescent convoy into the southern area of Houla yesterday.

Within moments of arriving, we were beckoned out by some soldiers. We thought we were under arrest. It was a confused picture. Then a firefight ensued. So, we took cover in a building, and I discovered that close to where we had taken cover, there was a blanket on the ground.

I pulled the blanket off. And it revealed a man way past fighting age, I would say at least 75, 80 years old, who had been shot in the head, gunshot wound to the head, which — I’m not a pathologist, but it looked like the reason of death for him.

I reached for a blanket, giving him whatever dignity I could in that situation, and went into the next room essentially to escape the gunfire. And there, there was the body of — another blanket was laid out on the floor. Under that, I found the body of a little girl probably 5 or 6 years old, no more than that. And she had a gunshot wound in her chest.

This is only a small part of what has happened in Houla. And these bodies will not yet have been discovered by the United Nations.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the past several weeks, the fighting has moved from place to place. Why does it shift to a place like Houla? Is the army taking the battle to places it perceives as being anti-government?

ALEX THOMSON: Well, I can only tell you — and this came from an exclusive interview I did with the deputy leader of the United Nations mission to Syria inside Houla yesterday.

He said, look, Alex, we have this from two sources. Both sources are entirely different places geographically. They don’t know each other. They haven’t met each other. And they say the same thing. This is not the United Nations’ opinion or view, but it’s what they were told about what happened, which is simply this, that last Friday after prayers about 12:30 in the afternoon, the Syrian army began a two-hour barrage. They shelled the town of Houla.

That was followed mid-afternoon by groups of armed men they call them, meaning thugs, armed military, if you like, dressed in civilian clothing. They went building to building. They went to house to house. They went family to family and they slaughtered people as they did so.

It is the corroborated views of people in the town and to the east from rebels in Rastan, which is a town nearby, that this went on until approximately 2:00 in the morning on Saturday.

RAY SUAREZ: And, as you mentioned, so few of them of fighting age. It seems to you, it appears, that they don’t mind targeting civilians, that that not what this is about, fighting another armed force.

ALEX THOMSON: You may say that, but the pattern of modern warfare tragically is that more and more it is people in the middle proportionately who are being in fact targeted.

Now, the rebels do not escape blame here. It is a fact of the war here that is going on that the rebels use civilian areas to fight their war in this war, as they did indeed in many occasions in Libya as well, for instance. So, they are using civilian areas.

They are not, I guess, deliberately using civilians as shields. But they are fighting in areas where there are civilians. Now, that’s a fact. Now, in reply to that, clearly, a conventional army fighting on conventional terms is using weapons, sometimes small-arms, but sometimes heavy weapons, in those areas.

If you’re going to do that as a means of warfare, you’re without question going to kill people. But what happened after prayers on Friday seems quite obviously to have been a deliberate war crime, in the sense that civilians were deliberately targeted, and they were deliberately massacred.

Martin Griffith, the deputy head of the U.N. mission, told me yesterday he personally had recovered yesterday the body of a woman and four children lying in a house.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this battle taking on a sectarian cast, Alex?

ALEX THOMSON: Well, there is a great sectarian — obviously, there is a huge sectarian sweep to this war. And it is a civil war between Sunni and between Shia sections of the populations, and indeed of the Alawite section of population from which the ruling caste, if you like, the Assad dynasty, comes from. That’s true.

But what is happening is overwhelmingly, in terms of the rebel forces, the uprising, simply a move to remove the regime. They want the Assad regime removed. Now, the Russian more than minister has said only today that so far as Russia is concerned, the great backers, of course, of this country, the only game in town for the Russians is the Assad plan, the Assad peace plan, which essentially safeguards the Assad position so far as the rebels see it.

That is absolutely unacceptable to the uprising. And it’s partly that and it’s partly, I have to say, the visit of Kofi Annan to Damascus which, ironically, has, if anything, provoked an upsurge in violence, rather than the maintenance of what is laughingly known as a cease-fire here.

RAY SUAREZ: Alex Thomson from ITN joining us from Homs, Syria — Alex, good to talk to you. Stay safe.

ALEX THOMSON: Thank you very much. Good night.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Syria and the threat to the wider region from the fighting there, visit us online, where we have a report from Time magazine’s Rania Abouzeid in Beirut.