Amateur video footage shows a purported image of Ali el-Sayed. The Times, London, contacted an activist with a satellite telephone in Houla, Syria, who said the boy was now in a safe place and that his photograph could be published without endangering him. (AP)
June 1: The photograph shows a solemn-looking boy in a T-shirt with short black hair, big brown eyes and smooth olive skin. He is staring at a point just above the camera.
The difference between this and all the other photographs of children that have emerged from Houla in central Syria this week is that this boy’s face has not been disfigured by a bullet hole or knife wound.
By some miracle, Ali el-Sayed, 11, is still alive, though he says that his parents and four siblings perished when gunmen massacred 108 men, women and children in the town last weekend.
Ali is one of the few who witnessed the massacre and survived. He did so, Ali said yesterday, by smearing himself in his brother’s blood and pretending to be dead. “I was terrified.... My whole body was trembling,” he told the Associated Press. With almost all foreign journalists and observers banned from Syria, it was impossible to independently corroborate his story. But there is plenty of evidence to support his description of the gunmen’s rampage, not least the photographs of the 49 children who were shot or hacked to death.
The AP contacted Ali through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the child over Skype.
As Ali tells it, his ordeal began late on last Friday or early on Saturday morning (May 25-26) when a dozen bearded gunmen with shaven heads arrived outside his house and fired through the door.
They asked for Ali’s father, Aref, and oldest brother, Shawki, and led them outside. “My mother started screaming ‘Why did you take them? Why did you take them?’,” Ali said.
A man in civilian clothes took his mother to the bedroom and shot her several times, Ali said. “Then he left the bedroom. He used his torch to see in front of him. When he saw my sister Rasha he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway.”
Ali said that he was cowering near his other two brothers, Aden, 8, and Nader, 6. The gunmen fired at all three of them, killing Aden and Nasser, but missing Ali.
As the gunmen set about looting the house Ali said that he hid next to his brother’s body. “I put my brother’s blood all over me and acted like I was dead,” he said. The ruse worked despite his almost uncontrollable trembling.
The gunmen also shot Ali’s father, his eldest brother and his uncle, Abu Haider, outside the house. After they left, Ali fled to relatives nearby.
UN investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as Shabiha who operate on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s government.
The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists. Even if the Shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiralling toward civil war.
Recruited from the ranks of 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 Assad’s opponents.
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 violence had haunting sectarian overtones, according to witness accounts. The victims lived in the Houla area’s Sunni villages, but the Shabiha forces came from a nearby area populated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shias.
Days after the attack, many remain missing. Ali can describe the attack on his family. But the full story of the massacre may never emerge, said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist who is not from the village but who later helped gather corpses in Houla.
“There are no eyewitnesses of the massacre,” al-Qassem said. “The eyewitnesses are all dead.”