A Video That Captures the Horror and the Inscrutability of Syria
The shaky footage, at once damningly explicit and maddeningly unverifiable, is symbolic of how the outside world perceives this bloody but often opaque conflict.
In case you're not able to endure all 16 bloody minutes of the video, uploaded this morning to YouTube, here is what it shows: a group of fatigue-clad, gun-carrying men mill around in front of some houses, smiling, pumping their fists in the air, and kicking at the dozens of bloody corpses that blanket the ground. Many of the dead have their hands tied, and appear to have been shoot in the face. The camera moves into one of the houses, which is so filled with more bodies -- some of whom appear to be women, some with their pants pulled down -- that they are piled two or three high. Some look like children, though the camera moves so fast and the quality is so poor that it's difficult to tell. The men laugh and shout at the corpses as they drag them inside. "Get him in, get him in. Yalla, leave him here to be shot and it's done," one of them says, according to the Guardian's translation. Later, the camera goes dark for a minute, and a series of gunshots are audible. When the video returns, we're back outside, but the camera shakes so much it's hard to follow. Dozens of soldiers are standing around, as if waiting for something. We move over to a van, where a young man dressed in civilian clothes is sitting, hunched over as if he is bound or in pain though it's hard to tell. The cameraman starts shouting at the young man, and you can hear his fist making contact. Then more milling. Someone says, "The tanks just arrived." After a few more minutes of bored-looking soldiers standing around, the camera turns to the house where the bodies had been stacked. There are two explosions and the house begins to smoke, then burn. The men watch for a bit and start walking away.
That is all we can say for sure about the events portrayed in the video. Its YouTube description and social media reports say that it was filmed in March in Hammameh, a town in Idlib province, but from outside Syria it's difficult or impossible to verify any of this. Syria-watchers on Twitter say the men, heavily armed and clad in military gear but apparently lacking official insignia, might be members of the dreaded pro-Assad shabiha militias. Whoever they are, the snippets of dialogue suggest they have tanks on their side.
Middle Eastern social media has been buzzing about the video all morning, fuming at what many people see as evidence of pro-Assad troops slaughtering civilians and then burning their corpses. NPR's Andy Carvin called it possibly "one of the most important videos to come out of Syria." But, as with so much social media out of Syria, we have few real ways to understand the details of what happened -- why did troops attack the village? did anyone fight back? who ordered it? When and where did it even happen? Though the details, as captured in these shaky but explicit images, seem damning, the larger context is largely a mystery.
This video is typical of much of our understanding of Syria's internal conflict today: fragmentary, difficult to decipher, but often suggesting a common trend of brutal violence by a regime crackdown that has reportedly killed over ten thousand civilians, including over a thousand children. Reports by more traditional journalists have tended to back this up. Just today, the Washington Post reports that the government has resumed shelling the rebellious city of Hama despite UN warnings not to, and the New York Times says that regime troops have prevented UN observers from investigating reported massacres.
Still, there are outliers, occasional stories that diverge from -- though do not necessarily contradict -- this larger narrative. A McClatchy reporter inside Syria says that rebels have secured spots in Syria's north, placing "a growing number of villages and towns effectively are outside government control." Alex Thomson, a reporter with the UK's Channel Four who is embedded with UN observers in Syria, believes that a group of rebels "deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army" by leading his car into a free-fire zone. "Dead journos are bad for Damascus," he reasons. "In a war where they slit the throats of toddlers back to the spine, what's the big deal in sending a van full of journalists into the killing zone? It was nothing personal." Thomson is only inferring that the rebels tried to get him killed, but he is a deeply experienced and respected war correspondent, so it's difficult to know how seriously to take his assertion. His story is another sketchy data point in the Syrian narrative, bloody and tragic and maddeningly inscrutable.
One of the few successes of Kofi Annan's otherwise troubled peace plan is the insertion of UN observers, who sometimes allow journalists to tag along. BBC Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar embedded this morning on a UN visit to Qubeir, a village outside the much-suffering city of Hama. Two days after an alleged massacre there, the UN had finally won permission to visit. Tweeting throughout, Danahar describes the destroyed homes, the tell-tale pools of blood and pieces of flesh, and perhaps most significantly, the total absence of bodies. In Syria, even the simple act of witnessing the obvious scene of a massacre is complicated by uncertainty and dishonesty. The tracks of military vehicles mean the army likely disposed of the bodies, the UN observers tell Danahar, who calls the signs of cover-up "calculated & clear."
Am on the outskirts of Hama on way to UN but have been stopped at a checkpoint. A test of one of the six points in the plan. Media freedom-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Clear evidence of previous fighting as we drove through Rasdan into Hama-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
UN are waiting for us few minutes down the road. We are waiting to get our passports and accreditation back. #syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
UN mission is on the phone to checkpoint commander trying to get us through. We are attempting to join them to investigate Qubeir killings-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
This is actually an ok checkpoint hold up. No where near the drugged up child soldiers we used to have to negotiate in Sierra Leone-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
And we're through!-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The streets of Hama are deserted aside from occasional checkpoints. And we've been stopped again!-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Frustrating UN just driven past us but soldiers wouldn't let us join them-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
And we through again after a lecture from a soldier saying " we don't you care about the terrorists killing us aren't we human too?"-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Sandbagged checkpoints on almost every corner in Hama-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Am now on outskirts of Qubeir #Syria where Wednesday's massacre took place. The UN has sent in a forward team to assess the safety situation-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Qubeir is in a very rural area. Individual houses are seperated by large fields of corn.-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
There are only 130 people living in the tiny village of Qubeir. I can see the farmhouses but we are still waiting to be taken down#Syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
If it wasn't for the misery we believe waits for us at the bottom of this hill you would describe Qubier as an idyllic spot. (1/3) #syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Villlage were the killings took place is just a few single story flat roofed buildings set in the middle of golden corn fields (2/3) #Syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
But the beauty of this land hides a growing sectarian conflict that seems to be spiraling out of control in #Syria (3/3)-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
A man called Ahmed has come up from the village who says he witnessed the killings. He has says dozens were killed. #syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
He has a badly bruised face but his story is conflicted & the UN say they are not sure he's honest as they think he followed the convoy-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Illustrates how are it is to get the truth here in #Syria and how tough the UN mission is-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
We are now driving down into the village of Qubier snaking along small deserted dirt roads #Syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
We went down into a valley & we've headed up towards a handful of small squat buildings. One seems to have a hole blown out by an RPG-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The roads are so rocky our car is having trouble climbing them-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
We are here. In front of a burnt out building is carcass of a donkey inside the buildings are gutted. The UN have not found any people yet-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
In front of me there is a piece of brain,in the corner there is a mass on congealed blood. This is a house in Qubeir #Syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The largest of the two houses on the hill top in Qubeir has been gutted by fire. The stench of burnt flesh is still strong-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The flies found the evidence of the Qubier massacre before UN got there. They buzzed & swooped around what remained of the tiny community-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The first house had been gutted by fire but thestench of burnt flesh still hung heavy in the air. The scene in next house was even worse.-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Blood was in pools around the room. Pieces of flesh lay among the scattered possession.-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Butchering the people didn'tsatisfy the blood lust of the attackers so they killed the live stock too. Their carcasses rotting in the sun-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
The only clue to where the bodies of the people may have gone are etched into the road. UN said they were tracks made by military vehicles-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Who ever did this may have acted with mindless violence but attempts to cover up the detaills of the atrocity are calculated & clear #Syria-- Paul Danahar (@pdanahar) June 8, 2012
Perhaps the greatest mystery for Syria is how the outside world can respond. Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel summed up much of the world's frustration, writing in today's Washington Post, "The so-called civilized world isn't even trying to stop the massacre. Its leaders issue statements, but the bloodshed continues. A situation that has lasted 13-odd months is not about to end." Still, Wiesel's proposal for ending the conflict is tellingly vague: "Why not warn Assad that, unless he stops the murderous policy he is engaged in, he will be arrested and brought to the international criminal court in the Hague and charged with committing crimes against humanity?" It's hard to imagine ICC charges ending the bloodshed any more than has Annan's peace plan.
Could military force work? U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, asked about intervention at a press conference yesterday, answered by highlighting the lack of concrete plans for solving Syria's crisis with military force. "I have to know what the outcome is. You tell me what the outcome is, I can build you a plan to achieve that outcome," he said. "I can't build that plan unless I understand the outcome."
As the world struggles to understand what is happening in Syria and to find a solution, Syrians are still dying. Opposition groups typically report 20 to 30 civilian deaths daily. One Syrian user on Twitter, much-followed by journalists for his English and his frequent aggregation of Arabic-language social media from inside Syria, fumed this morning, "Regime prevented observers from Qubair. Today it allowed them. It will present liars as residents. Media will now tell us truth is complicated."