HOMS - It's 4:30 p.m., when Abou Bilal, a Syrian rebel, tells me about the telephone call he'd just received with the news: a massacre has taken place in the Nasihine neighborhood of the city. Twelve people, including several children, had been executed in their home. I had just returned from an exhausting day at a small medical facility set up in an area controlled by the opposition. It was full to overflowing with the severely wounded and the dead: all civilians, victims of loyalist snipers and bombs. An hour and a half after the news of the massacre, at 6 p.m., the first video images showing the bodies of the murdered family appears on YouTube.
Sniper shots can be heard non-stop in the surrounding area. We hear bursts of machine-gun fire, as well as explosions set off by forces loyal to the regime. Night has fallen, and several groups of soldiers from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) board unmarked vehicles to set off for the counter-attack. Rebels in charge of communication are glued to their computers to get the days information out.
At 7 p.m., I run into one of the FSA leaders, Abou Layl. He suggests driving me to the medical facility where the bodies of the victims of the massacre have been brought. Four rebels, three of them FSA soldiers, join us. We climb into a car that drives through the small dark streets at high speed. On approaching a barricade manned by loyalist forces, the driver turns the car lights off. Sharply, I tell one of the soldiers whos looking at the display of his cell phone to turn it off. Any sign of light could give us away.
As we cross one dangerous intersection at Wadi Avenue, which has been rechristend Charia Al-Maout or Avenue of Death -- one of the soldiers sitting in the front of the car puts his hand over the dashboard to hide their lights. Bending over in my seat so as not to be seen from the outside, I hear the man to my left praying. Just as we get to the other side of the avenue a shot aimed at us rings out.
The driver turns the lights back on, and continues zig-zagging at high speed through small streets. A few hundred meters later, he turns the lights off again and Abou Layl asks him to slow down because in the pitch black we risk an accident. We get to another dangerous street, and then make a turn. We head towards a lighted area, turn right, then left, continue straight ahead and finally reach the Karam Al-Zaitoun medical facility.
Shot point blank
There, in the courtyard, a crowd surrounds the murdered family. The bodies of five young children are lined up between the body of their father and five women. Half the skull of a little girl has been blown off, apparently from being shot point blank. A little boy was shot in the head from behind and the bullet exited through his left eye socket. A male nurse loosens the sheets that the bodies of three other children are wrapped in to show me their slit throats. I take photographs of the bodies.
Afterwards I go into the facility and Im led to the two children who have survived. Ali, 3, trembles with terror. Ghazal, a little girl of four months, stops crying when shes hugged. She had been shot in the leg.
A neighbor of the family, a man around 60, tells us what happened. When residents of the neighborhood realized that a massacre was underway on Al-Ansar Street, three of them, according to the man, decided to try and access the targeted house by drilling holes in the walls of the houses attached to it. He claims to have seen, through these holes, the killing of the children. He says there were seven attackers in military uniform belonging to loyalist forces. He states that the men were able to leave the house under protective fire from soldiers positioned outside, get into an armored vehicle and disappear.
The 11 murdered people were members of the Bahadour family, which occupied two neighboring apartments. Two other members of the family escaped death because they were not home at the time of the killings.
Al-Ansar Street, where the killings took place, has a mixed population of Alawites a Shiite sect to which the family of President Bashar Al-Assad belongs and Sunnis. Alawites are in the majority. The zone, barricaded by regime forces, is not far from the Alawite neighborhood of Zahra, which is firmly in the hands of the regime. The eyewitness to the killings said there had been threats against the Sunnis living on Al-Ansar Street and efforts to terrorize them so they would leave the area.
On the way back we nearly crashed into a car as we veer through the streets with the lights off. As we crossed the last avenue controlled by loyalist forces, one more sniper takes a shot at our vehicle.
Read the original article in French
See Mani's photographs published on LeMonde.fr
Photo - FreedomHouse