x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian boy played dead to survive Houla massacre

Syria Unrest: When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali Al Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.

This image made from amateur video, purports Ali Al Sayed, 11, who survived the Houla massacre by pretending to be dead. Shaam News Network via AP video / AP Photo
This image made from amateur video, purports Ali Al Sayed, 11, who survived the Houla massacre by pretending to be dead. Shaam News Network via AP video / AP Photo

BEIRUT // When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali Al Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, 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.

The youngest to die was Ali's 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 Associated Press over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree. Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.

The killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of President Bashar Al Assad.

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

Recruited from the ranks of Mr Al 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.

In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighbourhoods and firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen are deployed specifically to brutalise and intimidate Mr Al Assad's opponents.

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

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

As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what, exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness.

By most accounts, the gunmen descended on Houla from an arc of nearby villages, making the deaths all the more horrifying because the victims could have known their attackers.

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

Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre began."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 said his mother began weeping the moment about 11 gunmen entered the home in the middle of the night. The men led Ali's father and oldest brother outside.

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 torch 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 is among the few survivors of the massacre, although it was impossible to independently corroborate his story. The AP contacted him through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview over Skype.