Piecing together exactly what happened in the sprawling rural area, which is more a collection of Sunni settlements than a distinct village, is difficult given the Syrian government’s restrictions on journalists and the inevitable fog that has shrouded a day of intense and multifaceted violence.
But interviews conducted by telephone and on Skype make it clear that, even by the standards of the brutal Syrian revolt, what happened in Houla on May 25 was extraordinary, an act of hatred and perhaps revenge that exposed the depth of the animosities tearing the country apart.
The events in Houla, an area northwest of the city of Homs, also exposed the powerlessness of the international community to stop what many fear is becoming the inevitable disintegration of Syria into a vicious civil war in which neighbors kill neighbors and the world looks on — as Bosnia and Rwanda experienced in an earlier era.
In a speech Sunday, Assad denied that his government was responsible and blamed the massacre on his opponents, saying it was unimaginable that security forces could do such a thing.
“Whoever did this in Houla could not be a human being but a monster. And even a monster could not carry out such an act,” he told a session of the nation’s newly chosen parliament.
Houla residents give a very different account. They blame the Syrian army and the loyalist militias known as the shabiha, which they say came from surrounding villages inhabited by members of Assad’s Shiite-affiliated Alawite sect. It is also clear that many questions remain unanswered.
The day began, as is typical on a Friday, with the men of the town gathering after prayers in at least two locations to hold demonstrations against the government. They left their wives, mothers, sisters and children at home, which is why so many of them would be among the dead.
“The people want to execute Bashar,” they chanted, according to a video of one demonstration. Held above the crowd was a big black banner, emblazoned in white with words that are chilling in light of what unfolded later in the day. “Let the world know we die with a smile on our faces,” it said.
And, as was typical on a Friday here and in many other parts of the country, shortly before 1 o’clock in the afternoon, as the protests began, Syrian troops positioned around the area began firing artillery and heavy machine guns to break up the demonstrations.
What happened next is murky, but according to at least two activists in Houla, rebel fighters attacked a Syrian army position overlooking the area. Nine soldiers were killed, including three officers, according to Ahmad Qassem, one of the activists, who said he was given the number by the local hospital. The government, in its account of the killings that day, has said that “several” of its troops were killed in an attack on a checkpoint. The rebel force also suffered casualties, Qassem said.