BEIRUT, Lebanon — On Tuesday, just a few hours before President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Homs, the Syrian Army shelled the city. And they resumed bombing as soon as he left, activists said.
But briefly, during the president's visit — his first since Homs was devastated by fighting last month — a surreal bonhomie prevailed. Assad was greeted by a group of well-wishers, rounded up and organized by security forces, activists claimed. There were faithful pledges of “With you until death” and “Reconstruction is 90 percent complete.”
But away from the spectacle, Homs residents saw matters from an entirely different vantage point. One such perspective comes from Abu Hamza Sabouh (not his real name) a 23-year-old former math student, now a rebel fighter.
It was on a Syrian TV station with close ties to Assad that Abu Hamza first learned that 17 members of his extended family had been killed, and that his brigade was being blamed for the murder.
“I wish I hadn’t seen that footage on TV. I saw my family killed: My father shot in the eye; my cousins, uncle, aunt and grandfather; my cousin lying on the bed, also shot in the head. Now I can’t get the images out of my mind,” he told GlobalPost from a hospital in north Lebanon, where he is receiving treatment for an elbow shattered by shrapnel.
He said that in February, he was injured fighting in Homs’ Baba Amr district with the Free Syrian Army’s Farouk Brigade, which held that and other neighborhoods until being forced to withdraw on March 1 after a month-long assault by Syrian forces that killed at least 700 people, and wounded thousands more.
The death toll from the year-long crackdown now exceeds 10,000, according to activists documenting fatalities. The vast majority of those killed are civilians, according to human rights groups.
Many have been killed by bullets, bombs or torture. But in the wake of the rebel withdrawal from Homs, activists documented what they said was the cold-blooded murder or scores of Sunni civilians by Syria’s security forces, which are composed mainly of minority Allawites, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam that dominates the country’s leadership.
Activists said the killing spree included the execution of 12 young men during raids on houses in Baba Amr by security forces hunting Free Syrian Army fighters, Abu Fares, a spokesman for the Homs Revolutionary Council, told GlobalPost.
In a another incident at least 10 men were executed outside a state-run cooperative supermarket that was transformed into a prison and military base where dozens of young men, some as young as 14, were held and tortured, said Abu Bakr, a local activist.
Many of those killed were wounded with large knives. Some corpses were found missing body parts or even decapitated, he said. Activists found children whose fingers had been cut off.
The last time Abu Hamza spoke to his family, who lived in the countryside on the edge of Baba Amr, he said he felt safe enough. The bombs and missiles flying over their heads had stopped and although Assad’s security forces had entered the village, they had only stolen cars, not killed anyone.
“I think the security forces came to the village and took the cars so the families could not escape,” he alleged. “Two days later security forces came back and forced the two families into one house. They killed 17 of them in cold blood. There were children from one and half years old to six. I don’t know what kind of religion these people follow who can do this.”
The bodies were first discovered on Feb. 29, just as the rebels were withdrawing from Homs and the regime’s forces were moving in. But it was not until March 5 that Abu Hamza heard his family name reported on Al Dunya, the only private satellite channel in Syria, which is majority-owned by Assad’s first cousin and Syria’s wealthiest tycoon, Rami Makhlouf.
Al Dunya blamed the murders on “armed terrorist gangs,” the label the regime has consistently used for its opponents. But this time, the propaganda was more specific: The Farouk Brigade, the very force Abu Hamza had been fighting with, were responsible for killing the Sabouhs.
The report showed bodies slumped on floor cushions in a front room where they had apparently been sharing lunch. The pictures included women and children who all appear to have been shot at close range. Pale graffiti scrawled on the walls shown in the broadcast, purportedly signed by the Free Syrian Army, said: “Death to the agents.”
Abu Hamza tells a different story.
“Al Dunya claims the Farouk Brigade were killing the people but I am 100 percent sure that they were not. I don’t know the name of the people who did this to my family but I know they must be from the army or Assad’s militias,” he said.
A statement by the surviving members of the Sabouth family, which was released by activists in Baba Amr on March 5, said they “hold the Assad regime fully accountable for this massacre in retaliation for the support we gave to the revolution.”
Abu Hamza said he thought the murders were more about spreading terror than revenge on his family in particular.
“My father was a government employee. He never went to a protest. Why would you kill a one and half-year old child? It’s to terrify people and tell them: ‘This could happen to you.’”