As the world dithers over Syria, shocking evidence of an entire family massacred by Assad thugs

Exclusive – Mail on Sunday - 10 June 2012

Though it torments him beyond comprehension, Hassan Abdel-Razzaq cannot help replaying in his mind the scenes that confronted him when he returned home on May 25.

All of his family – his wife Ghaida and their five children – lay slaughtered, victims of the Houla  massacre that will for ever stain Syria’s history.

Three weeks earlier Hassan, 46, photographed his four-month-old daughter Safa as she played happily in a red buggy.

He tries to hold that memory in his mind. But images of Safa’s tiny body in a pool of blood keep invading his consciousness. She had been shot in the head at close range.

Nearby, Hassan found 17-year-old twins Ghias and Firas. Sensible beyond their years, they were his first born and he was proud of the way they looked out for the rest of the family when he was away from home.

They too lay dead, their throats cut. A bright boy, Firas had desperately wanted to be a doctor so he could help his severely disabled brother Abdullah, aged ten.

Pictured together earlier this year, Firas stares proudly at the camera holding Abdullah aloft with one arm.

It is a charming image, one Hassan will treasure for ever.

Abdullah’s life, blighted by cerebral palsy, was ended by a machete in the back of his head. Finding  his dead body is the last thing his father remembers before passing out, overwhelmed by shock.

Ghaida, 35, his wife of 17 years, was also murdered. So, too, was their 14-year-old daughter Falak.

The pain just goes on and on. ‘I am destroyed by what has happened,’ said Hassan. ‘This transcends politics, or any kind of rationality. It is unadulterated evil.’

In all on that terrible day, 49  children, 35 women and 25 men were executed – one by one – by militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sixty-two of the victims were from Hassan’s extended family.

The world reacted with outrage and some spoke of the Houla massacre being a ‘game-changer’.

It may yet mark a turning point but thus far nothing has changed and the killing continues.

In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Syria could soon go from ‘tipping point to breaking point’.

After the massacre, The Mail on Sunday, along with other newspapers, published pictures of some of the dead children to illustrate the depth of revulsion at the killings.

As Hassan Abdel-Razzaq says:  ‘I wanted the world to see what happened to my family. I also took pictures so that there would be  evidence of what had happened.’

The Mail on Sunday spoke to Hassan over Skype in an interview arranged by human rights workers  in London and opposition activists  in Houla.

Many families have fled the region fearing further attacks, but Hassan remains at his family home.

Openly critical of the Assad regime before the massacre, he was twice arrested at demonstrations as the Arab Spring intensified, though he was never convicted of any crime.

It left him fearful for his own  safety, but he says he could never have conceived of his wife and children being threatened.

On May 25, news reached the family that armed militia – the Shabiha – were approaching to ‘enforce the law’.

There had been a protest earlier in the day which led to an exchange of fire at an army checkpoint at Taldou on the outskirts of Houla. Later there was shelling.

‘I immediately made plans to get away,’ said Hassan, who feared he would be imprisoned, tortured or killed.

His extended family occupied nine houses next to each other on farmland near Taldou’s water dam and it would later emerge that they were among the first to be killed.

But when Hassan left the house, nothing had happened in the town to suggest the Shabiha were intent on carrying out systematic killings.

‘I’ve always worked hard to earn money to support my family and could not risk getting captured,’ said Hassan. ‘My only hope was to get away until the militia left.’

But, hiding nearby, he heard shouting and the noise of the baby crying. ‘Even then I had no idea what was really going on inside the house,’ he said. ‘My reaction was to stay away from the soldiers and then to return a few hours later.’

He said he fully expected his sons to look after the family until the soldiers moved on.

‘I had no idea what they had planned this time. I certainly could not imagine the acts of intense evil which have destroyed my family, and my entire life,’ he added.

‘I feel so guilty that I was not there  to save them from this barbarity. Assad targeted our neighbourhood to make an example and they did not care who died.’

UN mission head Major-General Robert Mood said the killing in  Houla was ‘indiscriminate and unforgivable’, while Foreign Secretary  William Hague described it as an ‘appalling crime’.

Yet Russia and China have continually blocked attempts to introduce UN sanctions against Syria and have resisted all suggestions of armed intervention.

Fighting has continued despite the deployment of some 250 UN observers monitoring a ceasefire brokered by UN peace envoy Kofi Annan.

Earlier last week there was another massacre in Qubair, a village near the western city of Hama, in which 78 people, including women and children, are said to have been killed.

According to activists, security forces launched a bombardment of the village, which has fewer than 30 houses.

Many of the victims were then shot in the head and incinerated and there were claims that militiamen danced over dead bodies while singing pro-Assad songs.

Meanwhile, at least 25 people died in further violence yesterday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people were killed  in by government shelling in the southern city of Daraa.

Eight others were killed in shelling and clashes between pro and opposition forces in other regions, including Homs.

The bombardment of Daraa began before dawn. Government tanks pounded a civilian neighbourhood with artillery in an attack that struck dozens of homes.

By early morning nine women and three children were among the dead, it was claimed. YouTube footage showed a mosque strewn with casualties.

The wounded lay groaning on the carpeted floor, surrounded by family members as doctors sought to treat them with limited medical supplies.

It came a day after UN observers gained access to the site of the Qubair massacre. As monitors entered the village they found an entire neighbourhood flattened, the flesh of the victims stuck to some of the burnt walls.

Ban Ki-Moon told the UN Security Council that, according to preliminary evidence, troops had surrounded the village while militia entered and killed civilians with ‘barbarity’.

Damascus denied responsibility and blamed foreign-backed ‘terrorists’ – as it has done repeatedly in the past.

But the findings have prompted Western governments  to launch a new push for harsher sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed heightened  concern about Syria’s unrest yesterday.

But he said Russia would not back any UN Security Council  proposals for the use of force against Damascus.

Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions against the Syrian president. But Lavrov said Russia would support Assad’s departure if the move resulted from Syrian dialogue and not external pressure.

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