On the Fringes of the Aqrab Massacre: Visible Victims By Adam Larson, CIWCL co-founder
August 13, 2013
(edits August 16)
Little is really known about what happened in Aqrab in December, 2012, including whether there really was an Aqrab massacre. The only unequivocal claim of that came from rebels, announcing over 100 Alawite civilians blown up by everybody but themselves, on the night of December 10/11. Their exact version anyway has been proven false, and no clear replacement has ever been offered.
Rebels can usually film the victims of a massacre with unsettling ease, but not in Aqrab. This was noted from the outset; as soon as the delay in video proof ran into days and appeared permanent, Channel 4's Alex Thomson was asking why there were no videos of the dead or burials, if there had been a massacre (there are still none eight months later, or so it seems). He also heard from officials in Hama that that prisoners were still presumed alive, despite the loud reports to the contrary, and negotiations were still ongoing.
In fact, it cannot be said with certainty that there was a massacre, or that there wasn't one; as far as the world has heard since then, the purported 200-235 prisoners in question never did resurface, alive or dead. Rebels saw them last, but the brigades and their mouthpieces have said nothing since the false ending they announced on December 11. But the available evidence is clear that there was genocidal imprisonment of perhaps more than 500 civilians, death threats against them, extreme mistreatment and probably at least some executions (see below for some explanation of that).
There is at least one possible exception to the rule of no visual proof of a massacre: a six-year-old girl, dead, with her head apparently chopped open. This possible (slightly-laundered) Arab massacre victim is explained in the fourth and final section below. A few peripheral victim visuals of interest precede that, to help explain the clues that, in that girl, we can see a glimpse of the true sectarian slaughter at Aqrab.
Note: the following has been split into four parts, to allow a picture for each.
Daoud Family: In the Open
Among the very few inhabitant of Aqrab we get to see dead, listed or on video, five are members of a family Daoud. Their religion, politics, and the like are completely unknown to us at the moment. At least four of these were killed a week before the massacre, coinciding with the reported rebel takeover of December 2 and into the following days.
The Syrian Center for Documentation of Violations (SCDV) was handed reports of some "warplane shelling" that took the Daouds and a few others on December 3 (all martyrs, Dec. 2-3). One adult male "Abdulsalam Dawood" died intact by his doorstep, as if he'd stepped out to confront the distant jets and just dropped from a stroke (see left). No blood or disruption is visible. Listed cause of death: "warplane shelling," like the others. But he alone is given further notes on that : "He was martyred by regime forces sniper's shot."
The other three were given as Fawzia Dawood, adult female, age 60 (a typo?), shown in a Houla Media Center video (completely covered in the dark, with no visual value as evidence) and Fawzia's two unnamed sons, both listed as children and "martyred with his mother and brother due to shelling." This apparently happened after dad was killed, as these strange shells moved into the unguarded home.
This occurred in the same days survivors say rebels were raiding homes, taking their phones and keys, rounding the people up and burning their homes. Anyone who resisted would likely be shot (or strangled?) and his family made to suffer, and that might be what happened here. Or perhaps the rebel explanation is true and there was some, like, bombing and snipers and stuff.
Further, there is an Ahmed Daoud, possibly related - who died in December, according to a rebel video. They show Ahmed, freshly killed, seated outdoors in a plastic chair, his face just a mass of bloody tissue hanging down, pouring blood in his lap. The SCDV shows a still of this, says he was 24, and again "martyred due to shelling," on December 10 - as the Aqrab massacre was happening, but clear across town, at the entrance from al-Houla. In this part of town, was the regime dropping a special kind of shell that leaves one in his seat but explodes his face?
That he died at the entrance to the city from Houla, which rebels would use to invade on December 2, and that apparent relatives died the next day, suggests he too was killed at the time of the rebel assault, and this video was delayed. One possible explanation is that Ahmed was a lookout hit by a sniper bullet, to facilitate a quiet advance. After perhaps mutilating him further, and checking his ID, they knew which family punish for producing such an eldest son.
It seems all five Daouds died too early by about a week to be called Aqrab massacre victims. But all the dynamics are telling, showing shady deaths at one end of the first quiet week of rebel occupation, and at the other end the erred massacre report with chilling implications. Note the well-established pattern of blaming shelling for anything bad that happened during the rebel offensive. This continues below.
Sheikh Ali and the Ill-Fated Delegation
After the noise about Alawites killing their own, only a handfull of people - as many as eight - are acknowledged by opposition sources as dying in Aqrab on December 10 and 11. (see deaths in Aqrab Dec. 10/11 - 7 total, one killed by "shooting," the rest by "shelling.") Most or all of these are members of the ill-fated delegation - clerics, retired officers, and even the mayor, as many as nine different names given in different sources - that wound up dead for their efforts at ending the crisis.
This group of local community leaders came to negotiate the standoff, Thomson heard, around 4 PM on the 10th. By 8 PM talks had broken down, the delegates were apparently trapped in the hostage house when the shooting started. Activists say the Shabiha killed them: as the BBC reported "the elders were seized and killed," or so "the activists claimed," before "the militia threw grenades at hostages who were trying to run away, and then blew the building up as they themselves escaped." Loyalist news site Syria Politik reported that the delegation were trying to get the prisoners freed, until the rebels "started to slaughter a number of Alawite detainees, as well as a number of Sunnis who tried to mediate or objected to the sectarian killings." Actual escaped prisoner Ali al-Hosin told Alex Thomson and Channel 4 it was the prisoners who forced the delegates to stay with them: "Once they came into the house, we just said, 'We all go together, men women and children – or we all die together.'" He doesn't know or doesn't explain how it turned out differently.
Even of those few credited dead, only one is shown that way: Sheikh Ali, with unclear injuries, as seen above. Blown-up or killed in shelling does not seem to be the most likely cause of death. The SCDV lists him as Ali al-Omar, "Imam and Khatib of Aqrab town." The brief story they relate says "a group of Shabiha detained him with many other people, they killed him and then they blew themselves in the building and the people in it," which they also describe as "shelling." But that's the same story proven to be untrue, and again, these "many other people" don't seem to appear on any videos or in the SCDV database.
Otherwise, just because they weren't listed or haven't had video proof released, doesn't mean the hundreds of prisoners were necessarily alive and well on December 11 or for long after. According to those who made it out, alive and free at least long enough to speak, the conditions they endured leave little hope for survival.
The escapees that Thomson and other media have spoken to make clear that rebel fighters have corralled them there, with no "Shabiha" involved, just some of their adult males, apparently lightly armed, trying to protect them. But they wound up surrounded in the red-painted house, at the mercy of the rebels then running the town. As they relate, families became bargaining chips, threatened with death if exchanges didn't work. Some who were released made it to safety, later describing brutality and shootings, and threats to kill all the men ("Shabiha") and keep the women and children as "human shields" or, really, as whatever. They would just keep them.
They relate how food and water were totally denied to urge acceptance of that deal, and how the air was choked with smoke from burning tires, to add a partial oxygen embargo. One woman describing all this treatment, on about December 13, estimated that even without a massacre “perhaps 3/4 of the people there are already dead by now.”
Others who survived the night of the 10th remained in rebel custody, and corroborate the others, in their own way. Taken to al-Houla, a select few Alawites spoke "apparently ... under duress," Thomson though. They mentioned none of the horrible treatment, nor rebel captivity at all, blamed "Shabiha" for anything bad, which remains jumbled and vague, and did it with smoke stains on their hands and faces as in the picture above. Washing up might have been one of the lesser rewards the prisoners only got after they told the right story.
Note: the victim pictured above, an older woman with smoke-stained hands and nostrils at least, seems extremely depressed, emotionally broken, and ready for death, after her week of rebel hospitality. She blames Shabiha with no enthusiasm and with the flattest, deadest voice you can imagine.
The Girl Amal: Who's Killing Hope Here?
Here is the possible exception to the rule of no victims shown, an important and dramatic one, and those same telltale smoke stains are the main clue.
Houla Media Center made most of the videos in Aqrab from Dec. 2 forward, following the Houla fighters in. That's besides any videos from al-Houla itself, including the videos of captive Alawite survivors. At the time this hostage crisis was preparing to burst, in the first few hours of December 10, a young girl martyr was filmed in another of their videos (extremely graphic), coincidentally killed by some "regime shelling" in Houla itself at that time, the video says. She's named in the title as Amal Firas al-Qadi. This video is linked from her SCDV listing: Amal Firas al-Qadi, age 6, Location: Houla, Homs, Martyrdom location: Blank. Date of death, 2012-12-10, cause: shelling. Notes: “martyred due to the heavy artillery shelling of the city.”
Amal does not look much like a shelling victim. Instead of numerous injuries all over and concrete dust, she has one injury - her skull is split wide open, skin and bone alike cut sharply, as if by a hatchet or machete (blacked-out in the image here). The skull was opened along this one neat line, the upper right side down to the forehead, only slightly distorting the top of her face but leaving the rest normal-looking. A side flap of skull hangs outward, major top portion with hair loose and lifted. It looks very dark inside, a lot like her brain is completely gone. The rebel narrator says as much in Arabic.
It is possible such an injury could be caused by shelling, especially considering the odd things shells dropped on Aqrab are alleged to have done already in that week. But those probably aren't true, and it's been shown there was no bombing of the place she might well have been - the hostage house in Aqrab. Amal's clothes look dingy, like someone held for days somewhere where you can't do laundry. Her face is gray with what looks like smoke stains. These suggest she was in the hostage house with the burning tires like the survivors, or some place in the Houla-Aqrab area where children were made to endure very similar conditions. And someone has hacked her skull open.
The time is a slight problem: the video was posted apparently late on December 9, GMT ( before 3 am in Syria), but with a death date of December 10. This suggests she was killed in those first hours of the 10th, and the video posted quickly. That puts her death about 24 hours ahead of the reported time frame for the massacre, which seems to be widely supported. This could mean the two incidents are not connected, or this was a killing ahead of the main massacre, the part where, as Syria Politik heard, the rebels "started to slaughter a number of Alawite detainees."
The name given for this girl - Amal Firas al-Qadi - could be untrue, part of the laundering to hide an identifiable Aqrab Alawi name, like Jubeili. There's at least one rebel fighter of the family name al-Qadi killed there June 1, 2013. Maybe a rebel involved in the confinement in Aqrab "adopted" this example girl for visual impact, taking her home to Houla. Full name meaning: Hope - bold lion - judge. That's just perfect enough to be made up, perhaps. Her bold hopes were slashed short by regime thugs, her rebel-held corpse has judged. Following on judge (al-Qadi), the world is the jury and the brigades the executioners of some Alawite scum, maybe later that same day, or even at the same she herself was murdered.