Report From Lebanon

Syrian Rebels, Regime Offer Dueling Tales of Karm al-Zeitoun Massacre

Activists say the regime slaughtered 45—and in a shift, state-run TV acknowledges the civilian casualties.

Rodrigo Abd / AP Photo

Monday morning brought grim news out of the embattled city of Homs. Activist Web pages filled up with grisly photos and videos showing the bodies of mutilated children and charred adults, one of whom appeared at least partially decapitated. In one video (warning: graphic), the bodies are shown gathered in a single room, as one young man sobs in the corner. The activists accused government-sponsored militiamen of slaughtering up to 45 people, including women and children, in the formerly rebel-held Karm al-Zeitoun. After using heavy shelling to push back the rebels, they said, the men entered late Sunday to carry out reprisal rapes and killings by hand.

Another, quite different, version of the carnage aired on state-run Syrian TV, though it also involved a massacre in Karm el-Zeitoun. One video showed a family killed inside their home, with a dead man on a couch surrounded by the bodies of women and children. In another, handcuffed men with no shoes lay outside a closed shop, executed. The state news agency didn’t say when the killings occurred or how many people perished, but did assign a motive to the “armed terrorist groups”: to “twist facts” and “elicit international stances against Syria.” It wasn’t clear if any of the bodies in the activists’ and Syrian regime’s videos were the same.

Aside from the utter brutality of the murders, the conflicting narratives on Karm al-Zeitoun are perhaps most notable because there are conflicting narratives at all. Though state-run news in Syria never misses an opportunity to take a potshot at those “armed terrorist groups” supposedly responsible for Syria’s ills, it rarely makes note of any activist claims of civilian casualties, instead simply omitting stories of civilian deaths altogether in favor of pieces on military funerals or diplomatic developments. In this case, however, both narratives agreed on one basic fact: something brutal happened in Karm al-Zeitoun on Sunday night, leaving yet more Syrian civilians dead.

That both narratives could contain some truth is perhaps not so surprising, given the account from Abdullah, 21, a resident of Karm al-Zeitoun who told his story in northern Lebanon two weeks ago, the day before he was about to head back into Homs as a new recruit with the Free Syrian Army. He described how his neighborhood, once half-Alawi and half-Sunni, had splintered along sectarian lines from the start of the uprising. As one of few such mixed communities, it is an extreme example of how society has come apart at its seams in Syria, in ways linking the local with the national, the corrupt with the sectarian, exploding into spasms of violence like those seen Sunday night.

“Everyone used to live mixed, but it became like war in the streets,” said Abdullah. Within days of the start of the protests in the southern city of Daraa, Alawis in Karm al-Zeitoun began kidnapping Sunnis for money, and vice versa. Eventually, the kidnappings became so common that they chucked ransoms for prisoner exchanges. “It wasn’t even happening officially, just civilian against civilian,” he said. Four of his neighbors from the Hussein family disappeared in March with no indication of who took them. After 12 hours, their bodies turned up, knifed, to the west of the neighborhood next to a mosque. Their family didn’t have the money for the ransom.

Within two months, the kidnappings had become a daily occurrence. “It was so much that everyone knew where to go if a relative disappeared,” said Abdullah. That would be to Wael al-Melham, the local MP, who would arrange the ransoms on the Alawi side for Sunni families. Activists from Karm al-Zeitoun corroborated the account, calling Melham and his cousins the “local mafiosos” who would cruise around the city in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns. Melham’s counterpart was a Sunni friend and local businessman, Abdulmajid al-Ashkir, a relative of Abdullah’s, who would coordinate the ransoms with Alawi families to track down their disappeared on the Sunni side. Ultimately, Ashkir outlived his usefulness, and he was arrested by the Political Security branch for his role in the kidnappings. Melham, unscathed, used his government position to hand out weapons licenses to fellow pro-regime Alawis in the neighborhood. An email request for comment bounced back.

The calculus changed when the rebel fighters calling themselves the Khalid bin Walid brigade of the Free Syrian Army began to push in from neighboring Bab Dreib in the summer. The kidnappings stopped on both sides, said Abdullah, but were replaced by other problems. “It was hard to go out. There were constant clashes,” he said. It took five days of fighting in September for his street alone to change hands, from Kalashnikov-wielding Alawi civilians to Kalashnikov-wielding rebels. As the rebels slowly but surely took control, the neighborhood’s Alawis fled, the fighters among them retreating back to Nuzha Street at the edge of the neighborhood. Only 150 meters separated Nuzha Street from the Free Syrian Army positions.

Nuzha Street became a military zone. Dark olive rocket launchers, two rows of six rockets mounted on car wheels, started to appear about three months ago, managed by Alawi civilians at faux military checkpoints, he said. Starting 45 days ago, no Sunnis were allowed near Nuzha Street. Once the bombing started in early February, all civilians, including Alawis, were barred entry. It was at this point, just before the bombs were launched from Nuzha Street all over the rest of the neighborhood, that Abdullah’s family decided to leave for the countryside. He later found out from neighbors who stayed behind that his house had been hit in the bombing. He decided to join the rebels in Bab Dreib.

It is impossible to know how Abdullah fared in Sunday’s violence. According to one activist reached Monday evening who had fled Karm al-Zeitoun earlier in the day, members of the Free Syrian Army were still defending the neighborhood to prevent further massacres. Though government forces have swept through Homs after last week’s retreat of the most organized rebel group from Bab Amro, some neighborhoods, such as Khaldiyeh and Bab al-Sabaa, are still under rebel control. Those displaced from Karm al-Zeitoun are now staying in mosques in Khaldiyeh, said another Homs resident. As of Monday night, the shelling had not stopped.