NPR correspondent Deborah Amos joined U.N. monitors and a small group of journalists Friday who were able to enter the Syrian village of Mazraat al-Qubair, where 78 people, including women and children, were killed on Wednesday by pro-government forces, according to opposition activists.
The Syrian village of Mazraat al-Qubair is empty and in ruins — with buildings burned and marked with bullet holes. Dead animals lay in the dirt. A group of young Syrian men, their faces covered, swarm the visiting U.N. monitors and journalists so they can tell their stories to the first outsiders to reach the village in central Syria.
"They left no one alive in the village," says one young man, as the wind whips through the village. "They are with the government — the people who killed here."
Activists charge that a pro-government militia from a neighboring village killed at least 78 people here on Wednesday in retaliation for anti-government activities in this isolated farming hamlet near the city of Hama.
The villagers say that army soldiers made them bury the dead on Thursday, a day before the U.N. monitors were allowed in.
Syrian troops turned back the U.N. monitors on Thursday. But on Friday, the monitors — wearing their trademark blue helmets — were able to enter the village.
"People come to this village and start to kill. Children killed [in the] head," one man says in broken English. Asked if the children were shot in the head, he says, "Yes."
He then leads the visitors to a concrete-block house that smells of death. Inside, it's a horrific scene. There is blood on the floor. There are body parts. There is a table cloth filled with gore.
Behind the village mosque, there are 17 fresh graves.
The Obama administration, the U.N. and many countries have condemned the killings, which bear similarities to a mass slaughter in the village of Houla on May 25, when more than 100 people were killed by pro-government forces, according to activists.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, claims it was not responsible for either of the mass killings.
Collecting The Evidence
The U.N. monitors and a team of experienced investigators are here to collect the grim evidence, which means studying the charred remains, photographing bullet marks and interviewing witnesses.
But they acknowledge that it's a daunting task. It's now been 48 hours since the killings took place. Some witnesses give conflicting accounts; the numbers of dead vary, as do the reasons for the attack.
One of the witnesses is dressed in fatigues and says he is part of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group that is fighting President Bashar Assad's government.
Many questions may be unanswered, but the monitors agree that something terrible happened in this village.
The U.N. has 20 monitors at the site, making it the largest operation since the U.N. mission began, according to U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh. "It's very hard because we don't have the bodies. It will take a while; it will take more interviews. Maybe we need to talk to more people from the different villages," she says.
Ghosheh describes the day as a "symbolic success."
"It's a success being able to actually register what happened, and get at least some factual information of what happened here," she adds.
As the monitors and the journalists leave the village and drive back to Damascus, the city's skyline is filled with the smoke of burning fires. The army was out in force after sustained fighting in three parts of the capital, some of the worst violence in the city since the anti-government protests began.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. And we're starting the hour in Syria, where the bloodshed continues. And U.N. monitors have now reached the site of the latest horrors. The capital, Damascus, shook today with some of the heaviest fighting yet between government forces and army defectors. And to the north, U.N. monitors entered a village to investigate an alleged massacre. Activists say as many as 78 civilians, including women and children, were killed there on Wednesday. And yesterday, Syrian troops turned the U.N. mission away.
Today, monitors, in their blue helmets, entered the village of Mazraat al-Qubair. NPR's Deborah Amos followed them in and then returned to Damascus. She joins us now. Deborah, to begin, what did you and the U.N. monitors see as you entered this village?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Audie, this village is eerily quiet and in ruins. Buildings are burned, marked with bullet holes. In one house, there was a carpet soaked in blood, in another, there was gore still on the floor, a tablecloth filled with blood. You could see bullet holes across the walls, dead animals, dirt. Something terrible happened in this village. And the monitors were there to try to figure it out. It took us hours to get in today because the monitors don't enter a village unless they have agreement from the government and from the opposition. And that was tough on two counts. The government didn't want them in the village, and the opposition was afraid to talk to them.
CORNISH: Were there any survivors or eyewitnesses?
AMOS: There were witnesses, young men who came from some of the villages that were close by. Clearly activists, they came with their faces covered, sunglasses on. They gave no names, wouldn't give out telephone numbers, certainly not to the journalists. The monitors interviewed them. They talked about at least 78 people being killed, only seven survivors in this village. Women and children were killed in this massacre. They say it was committed by pro-government militias in the surrounding villages. It's a situation where this village had become active, anti-government, and they say it was a retaliation.
We also saw one witness who came in fatigues. He said he was a member of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group that is fighting the government. And, you know, we still are in a situation the government says it was terrorists who committed this crime, and the activists say it was the government.
CORNISH: Can the U.N. monitors write a definitive report based on what they've found?
AMOS: Well, they say it's daunting simply based on the testimony that they got today, which was conflicting from these young men who were very nervous and very, very afraid to be speaking to the U.N. because there has been government retaliations against people who have spoken out to the U.N. They say they're going to stick with it. They - some of the human rights specialists stayed behind in the village to do some extra interviewing. These are people who had come out of Afghanistan, have experience in this kind of interviewing. It may take days. It may take weeks. They want to go to some of the villages nearby to see if they can find out more details.
CORNISH: And briefly, Deb, the scene today in Damascus.
AMOS: As we came back into town, Audie, there was smoke on the skyline, very tough checkpoints, soldiers everywhere. Fighting started in the capital on Thursday, went all the way through Friday. This is very new for Damascus. It's been in the suburbs. It has not been in neighborhoods in the heart of the city, and you could feel the tension coming back into the capital from the north.
CORNISH: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus. Deborah, thank you.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.