Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East, tells DW that the massacre in Houla could be a turning point in the Syria conflict and says the international community must act now.
Nadim Houry is Human Rights Watch's deputy director of its Middle East and North Africa division, and director of the Beirut office. He has been coordinating information coming out of Houla.
DW: Can you tell us what exactly happened in Houla?
Nadim Houry: Last Friday there were protests in Houla around midday and from what we were able to gather from activists and survivors, shortly after the protests started there were some shootings from one of the military checkpoints to disperse the protests. Shortly afterwards, there was some sort of attack by members of the armed opposition, the Syrian Free Army. We don't know the exact number of casualties, but it seemed that that attack triggered intense shelling from the Syrian army on the town. And that shelling continued for almost hours. Whilst a number of people died in that shelling, what was really troublesome was what happened afterwards. At some point in the afternoon a number of armed gunmen went into homes on the outskirts of the Houla towns and proceeded to kill a number of people from the Abdel Razzak family. According to the list of dead, there were 62 members of the Abdel Razzak family killed, most of them women and children.
Is there any specific reason why this family may have been targeted?
Not that we know of yet. We cannot say anything about it - whether it was simply an opportunistic crime or whether they were targeted specifically.
You mentioned that HRW has been able to talk to survivors of the massacre. How have you been able to get information out of Houla?
We knew some activists in Houla. One of them went to a house where a number of the survivors had sought shelter. Using his internet connection we managed to speak on Skype. One of them was actually an 11-year old boy. He and his mother managed to escape by hiding in an old barn…From his point of hiding, he saw one of his distant relatives - a 13-year-old boy - taken outside his house and killed. When the mother of that 13-year old came running and screaming, she was killed in turn. The mother of the child we spoke to said she did not see the shooting herself, but when the gunmen left she was able to confirm his death and that entire family's death. It's a really terrifying account which has been corroborated by UN monitors and journalists.
HRW's Nadim Houry
So we're talking about executions of women and children at short-range. Is this something new, or is it something that has actually been going on for some time in Syria?
No, it's not exactly new. Just last month, HRW put out a report called "In Cold Blood." It documented executions in the governorates of Homs and Idlib during or shortly after large-scale military operations. In some of those killings there were women and children, but so far it has mostly been men who have been executed. Mostly young men, either suspected of being opposition fighters, or simply because they were men in towns that were largely against the government.
What I think distinguishes Houla is the sheer number of women and children who have been killed, and secondly the ability of the UN monitors to visit 24 hours later. Being able to visit the homes where these killings had taken place, I think it gave it a lot more weight, a lot more strength. And also the numbers, according to the UN 108 people were killed including 39 children. Many of the children were under 10 years old. These are truly shocking images and figures.
Given the international response to the massacre, with several countries expelling their Syrian ambassadors, do you think that this could be a turning point in the Syrian conflict?
So far the response has been mostly symbolic. It was important to send that message, but I think what one has to recognize now is that what is needed right now is a concerted effort by the security council, including by Russia, to really exert pressure on Syria to investigate and also to refer this to the international criminal court - not just the Houla massacre, but the other massacres we discussed in the governorates of Idlib and Homs. It could very well be a turning point. The question is now, is it going to be a turning point toward accountability and justice, or is it going to be a turning point toward an increasing slide of the country into civil war?
There is a lot of anger in Syria, and there's a fear that this is going to increase the sectarian tensions we are already seeing in other parts. When people accuse the Shabiha (pro-regime militiamen - the ed.) of committing that massacre, what they're saying is the Shabiha were Alawites and Shias. We don't have a way to confirm that right now, but it has increased sectarian tensions and this is why it is so important that the international community move to push for true justice, true accountability through an independent international investigation, and ideally through the referral to the international court.
Interview: Kate Laycock
Editor: Rob Mudge