When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed said he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother’s blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.
The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one.
The youngest to die was Ali’s brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes — one in his head, another in his back.
“I put my brother’s blood all over me and acted like I was dead,” Ali said over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an orphan and an only child.
Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria’s central Homs Province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.
The killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has unleashed a violent crackdown on an uprising that began in March last year. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
UN investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as shabiha who operate on behalf of al-Assad’s government.
Recruited from the ranks of al-Assad’s Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha.
In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The gunmen are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate al-Assad’s opponents.
Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of corpses shrouded in blankets.
“When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the massacre,” said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. “I saw a kid with his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than one year old who was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering.”
The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists — and even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiraling toward civil war.
As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what, exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness.
According to the UN, which is investigating the attack, most of the victims were shot at close range, as were Ali’s parents and siblings. The attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, to terrorize the population.
This type of massacre — even more than the shelling and mortar attacks that have become daily occurrences in the uprising — is a sign of a new level of violence. By most accounts, the gunmen descended on Houla from an arc of nearby villages, making the deaths all the more horrifying because the victims could have known their attackers.