- Slaughtered son had wanted to be a doctor so he could help his brother who had cerebal palsy
- Two twins aged 17 had their throat cuts and four-month old baby daughter found in pool of blood
- Father had been previously arrested at demonstrations as the Arab Spring intensified
- A total of 62 of the victims were from widowers extended family
- UN mission head Major-General Robert Mood said killing in Houla was indiscriminate and unforgivable
- Russia and China continue to block UN attempts to introduce sanctions
- A further 25 people have died in more violent attacks
PUBLISHED: 19:02 EST, 9 June 2012 | UPDATED: 07:41 EST, 10 June 2012
All of his family – his wife Ghaida and their five children – lay slaughtered, victims of the Houla massacre that will for ever stain Syria’s history.
Three weeks earlier Hassan, 46, photographed his four-month-old daughter Safa as she played happily in a red buggy.
He tries to hold that memory in his mind. But images of Safa’s tiny body in a pool of blood keep invading his consciousness. She had been shot in the head at close range.
Nearby, Hassan found 17-year-old twins Ghias and Firas. Sensible beyond their years, they were his first born and he was proud of the way they looked out for the rest of the family when he was away from home.
They too lay dead, their throats cut. A bright boy, Firas had desperately wanted to be a doctor so he could help his severely disabled brother Abdullah, aged ten.
Pictured together earlier this year, Firas stares proudly at the camera holding Abdullah aloft with one arm.
It is a charming image, one Hassan will treasure for ever.
Abdullah’s life, blighted by cerebral palsy, was ended by a machete in the back of his head. Finding his dead body is the last thing his father remembers before passing out, overwhelmed by shock.
Ghaida, 35, his wife of 17 years, was also murdered. So, too, was their 14-year-old daughter Falak.
The pain just goes on and on. ‘I am destroyed by what has happened,’ said Hassan. ‘This transcends politics, or any kind of rationality. It is unadulterated evil.’
In all on that terrible day, 49 children, 35 women and 25 men were executed – one by one – by militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sixty-two of the victims were from Hassan’s extended family.
The world reacted with outrage and some spoke of the Houla massacre being a ‘game-changer’.
It may yet mark a turning point but thus far nothing has changed and the killing continues.
In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Syria could soon go from ‘tipping point to breaking point’.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Tragic: Firas, left, who proudly holds his younger brother Abdullah said he wanted to be a doctor so he could help his sibling. Right sister Falak. All were killed in the massacre in Houla, Syria
After the massacre, The Mail on Sunday, along with other newspapers, published pictures of some of the dead children to illustrate the depth of revulsion at the killings.
As Hassan Abdel-Razzaq says: ‘I wanted the world to see what happened to my family. I also took pictures so that there would be evidence of what had happened.’
The Mail on Sunday spoke to Hassan over Skype in an interview arranged by human rights workers in London and opposition activists in Houla.
Many families have fled the region fearing further attacks, but Hassan remains at his family home.
Openly critical of the Assad regime before the massacre, he was twice arrested at demonstrations as the Arab Spring intensified, though he was never convicted of any crime.
It left him fearful for his own safety, but he says he could never have conceived of his wife and children being threatened.
On May 25, news reached the family that armed militia – the Shabiha – were approaching to ‘enforce the law’.
There had been a protest earlier in the day which led to an exchange of fire at an army checkpoint at Taldou on the outskirts of Houla. Later there was shelling.
‘I immediately made plans to get away,’ said Hassan, who feared he would be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
His extended family occupied nine houses next to each other on farmland near Taldou’s water dam and it would later emerge that they were among the first to be killed.
But when Hassan left the house, nothing had happened in the town to suggest the Shabiha were intent on carrying out systematic killings.
‘I’ve always worked hard to earn money to support my family and could not risk getting captured,’ said Hassan. ‘My only hope was to get away until the militia left.’
But, hiding nearby, he heard shouting and the noise of the baby crying. ‘Even then I had no idea what was really going on inside the house,’ he said. ‘My reaction was to stay away from the soldiers and then to return a few hours later.’
He said he fully expected his sons to look after the family until the soldiers moved on.
‘I had no idea what they had planned this time. I certainly could not imagine the acts of intense evil which have destroyed my family, and my entire life,’ he added.
‘I feel so guilty that I was not there to save them from this barbarity. Assad targeted our neighbourhood to make an example and they did not care who died.’
UN mission head Major-General Robert Mood said the killing in Houla was ‘indiscriminate and unforgivable’, while Foreign Secretary William Hague described it as an ‘appalling crime’.
Killed: Severely disabled Abdullah, left, and twins Ghias, centre, and Firas right were all slaughtered at their home in Houla
Yet Russia and China have continually blocked attempts to introduce UN sanctions against Syria and have resisted all suggestions of armed intervention.
Fighting has continued despite the deployment of some 250 UN observers monitoring a ceasefire brokered by UN peace envoy Kofi Annan.
Earlier last week there was another massacre in Qubair, a village near the western city of Hama, in which 78 people, including women and children, are said to have been killed.
According to activists, security forces launched a bombardment of the village, which has fewer than 30 houses.
Many of the victims were then shot in the head and incinerated and there were claims that militiamen danced over dead bodies while singing pro-Assad songs.
Meanwhile, at least 25 people died in further violence yesterday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people were killed in by government shelling in the southern city of Daraa.
Eight others were killed in shelling and clashes between pro and opposition forces in other regions, including Homs.
The bombardment of Daraa began before dawn. Government tanks pounded a civilian neighbourhood with artillery in an attack that struck dozens of homes.
By early morning nine women and three children were among the dead, it was claimed. YouTube footage showed a mosque strewn with casualties.
The wounded lay groaning on the carpeted floor, surrounded by family members as doctors sought to treat them with limited medical supplies.
It came a day after UN observers gained access to the site of the Qubair massacre. As monitors entered the village they found an entire neighbourhood flattened, the flesh of the victims stuck to some of the burnt walls.
Ban Ki-Moon told the UN Security Council that, according to preliminary evidence, troops had surrounded the village while militia entered and killed civilians with ‘barbarity’.
Damascus denied responsibility and blamed foreign-backed ‘terrorists’ – as it has done repeatedly in the past.
But the findings have prompted Western governments to launch a new push for harsher sanctions against the Syrian regime.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed heightened concern about Syria’s unrest yesterday.
But he said Russia would not back any UN Security Council proposals for the use of force against Damascus.
Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions against the Syrian president. But Lavrov said Russia would support Assad’s departure if the move resulted from Syrian dialogue and not external pressure.
ON THESE STREETS, EVERYONE IS A GENERAL, EVERYONE HAS A GUN: CHANNEL 4 NEWS REPORTER WHO WAS SHOT AT DESCRIBES ‘AMBIGUOUS’ SITUATION ON THE STREETS OF HOULA
His body lay under a blanket, with a bloody smear marking a trail across the floor to show where he had been dragged.
I pulled it back to see that he was an elderly man who had been shot through the chest. In the building next door was another, smaller body – a five-year-old girl who had suffered the same wound and, who, like the man, had remained undiscovered by the UN recovery teams.
Both were victims of the massacre of more than 100 people in the Syrian town of Houla on May 25 – a horror which was repeated last week in Hama, where a further 78 were slaughtered.
I was the only journalist to venture into Houla in the days after the atrocity, and saw not only the devastation wrought by the massacre, but also the impact of the shelling which kills and maims civilians daily.
What I saw during my time in the town left me in little doubt of the ambiguities of the situation. Based on the evidence, it seems unfathomable that the pro-Assad forces responsible for the carnage could have achieved their horrifying ends without working with the Syrian army.
But in an act which proved the cynicism and complexity of the motives of those involved in the civil war, I was also set up by a group of rebels, who led my team into the line of fire of the Syrian army.
The killing of a Western journalist by government forces would have been a coup for those hoping to discredit Assad’s regime.
When we arrived in Houla on the morning after the massacre, it was the shelling people complained about almost as much as the massacre.
I saw three vehicles with heavy-calibre guns mounted on the top, deploying rapidly along the road into the town from the south.
They were firing their weapons into the town centre even as a UN and Red Crescent convoy was delivering aid and investigating the atrocity.
All around us, people were crying and dragging us into houses to show us their injured relatives.
In the urgent desperation to tell the world what has happened here, all norms of rural Muslim society were abandoned. We are told not to remove our shoes to enter people’s homes to film: ‘Please come! Come now – keep your shoes! You come!’
The shock of being led into 15-year-old Aya’s bedroom to film men pulling her T-shirt up to reveal her dressing over a bullet wound in her back, in a Muslim land, was somehow almost as shocking as the injury itself.
‘Please – you can film,’ they said as they began pulling back the dressing. I quickly said it would not be necessary.
Outside, a man named Abdel wandered the streets, incoherent with grief, showing us mobile phone images of the daughters he has lost and wife who has disappeared.
Another man was shouting of revenge in excellent English: ‘We will win! And when we do we will do it to them. We will kill them. We will kill their children.’
Some bystanders murmered ‘No’ and ‘Please, no’, but plenty more cheered.
Like so many in Houla they claimed to know the places where the killers came from.
We got on to a roof and the villages were pointed out to us, but when we arrived, there was no sign of the killers.
We still do not know for certain who carried out the massacres in Houla and Hama. But we do know this: the rag-tag rebel army does not have heavy weapons, still less the command and control, to fire into a defined target zone for several hours at a time.
We also know that during the massacres, several hundred men in army uniforms entered the shelling zones and began shooting women and children, and slashing at their throats. When they were there, the shelling miraculously ceased.
What matters for Syria and the wider world is the choice presented by these facts – either the butchers were lucky, or they were in communication with those firing the heavy weapons: the Syrian army.
This, of course, is what the Syrian government has been unable to explain. They couldn’t do it after Houla. They couldn’t after Hama. I fear to even write this, but they will not be able to after the next massacre, which will likely happen in the next few days.
Yet the situation is far from straightforward. The ‘Free Syrian Army’, so often portrayed as heroic fighters by journalists whom they have smuggled into the country, are no doubt just that in many cases.
But these same rebels are also involved in the mass eviction and intimidation of other ethnic minorities. Mother Agnes Miriam, a Catholic nun from a monastery in Qara to the south, said rebels gave all Christians six days to get out of town.
It was in the same town last Monday that a group of rebel soldiers led us, not to the only safe route out from their town, but into a free-fire dead-zone.
It was inconceivable they did not know the road they sent us down was blocked just 100 yards from where they left us. We were forced into a three-point turn under fire before careering back to rebel lines.
The rebels are a rabble. Rather than a town in rebel hands, we saw different streets in the hands of different gangs. Everyone was a general. Everyone had an agenda. Everyone had a gun.
Are we at the turning point talked about by Kofi Annan? I am not convinced. Where are the major defections from the army in Syria? Where are the diplomatic defections across the world?
But there have been two key developments in the past 48 hours – serious street fighting in Damascus for the first time, and Moscow saying it would not seek to prevent or dissuade Assad from stepping down. There is hope.
- Alex Thomson is chief correspondent at Channel 4 News