Friday 25 May began like any other Friday in the Syrian opposition town of Houla. Local people gathered up the anti-regime placards they had inscribed with revolutionary slogans in black marker pen and took them to a mosque near the town square.
Around mid-morning in the village of Taldou, on the outskirts of Houla, they knelt in the streets for prayers, half an hour of piety and reflection before a weekly ritual of rage and defiance.
But the placards were never used. A few moments after the prayers ended at around 1.15pm, witnesses say, shots were fired by regime artillery. The shells marked the start of an offensive in which more than 100 people were killed, most of them women and children.
On Thursday, the Syrian government blamed the deaths on “terrorist gangs”. The Guardian has been speaking to Houla residents and survivors to reconstruct the events of that day.
Maysara, a local elder who doubles as a leader in the Syrian Revolutionary Council, said the shelling lasted for about three hours. “Just as we were getting ready to start the demonstration, the shelling started,” he said. Everyone ran to take cover in nearby buildings.
The people of Houla had been attacked before, but the men who had gathered noticed that something was different this time. “The [intensity of the] shelling was unusual,” said a second local, Abu Aruba. “It clearly signalled that something was happening.”
The barrage was followed by a movement of security forces, according to Maysara. “The regime army was gathering near the water plant [on the southern outskirts of town],” he said. “We knew they were planning something big.”
Abu Aruba estimated that around 300 men gathered at a Syrian military depot just near the water plant. According to several accounts, the shabiha and regime troops rallied after members of the Free Syria Army attacked a regime checkpoint earlier in the day.
The men at the water plant were a mix of security forces and the feared loyalist shabiha militia that has been at the vanguard of the 16-month nationwide crackdown on dissent.
The rain of shellfire prevented most of the men from returning to their homes, where their families were sheltering indoors. “Nobody could get to them,” said another elder, Abu Jaffour, who watched the barrage from the fields to the west of Taldou. “The places that were being hit were impossible to reach.”
Video footage recorded on mobile phones by terrified Taldou locals shows some of the men trying to rescue the women, children and elderly men who were trapped in their homes, some of which were being splintered by artillery and tank shells. The rescuers scrambled to an area that had just been hit by a shell, killing at least two people who had been in the open. The video shows more shells crashing down as they tried to drag the victims to safety.
Sometime between 3.30pm and 4pm, according to the accounts of locals, the shelling became less intense. There was, however, to be no reprieve.
Around that time, the shabiha militias started approaching Taldou and a village to the north, Kufrlaha. Witnesses say the shabiha gathered near the water plant and the military depot nearby, before moving to the villages of Foulah and Qabou, two of four villages of the Allawite sect that surround the exclusively Sunni town of Houla.
“We looked outside and saw the army checking houses in the neighbourhood,” said Rasha al-Sayed Ali, 29, whose family home is in the south of Taldou. “They were near the water plant and one of the tanks started firing on our neighbourhood. They were trying to give cover to soldiers who were starting to break into the houses.
“There was knocking on our door and my father answered,” Sayed Ali said.
She displayed her father’s military identity card and told the men that he was a retired soldier. She said one of the men then grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pushed her and four other women who were in the house into the corner of a room while they beat her father.
“Then they brought my father into the room and shot him in front of us,” she said.
“I saw my father’s brains spill from his head.” One of the security men fired his gun into the ceiling, she said, and shouted: “We took revenge for you, Imam Ali” – a reference to the most revered imam of the Shia Islamic faith.
“They were security men and shabiha,” she said. “One of them then said to the other, what are we going to do with the children? The other replied shoot them before the elders.”
Sayed Ali was shot in the chest. “I fell to the floor. After a while, I looked around to see that all my brothers and my mother were sinking in blood. I started to crawl and could hear the cry of my cousin who was only one month old. The baby’s mother was dead. Four of my sisters and my pregnant sister-in-law were killed. So was our neighbour. My brother’s baby was two months old and sleeping upstairs. They shot her too.”
According to the UN, women and children were deliberately mowed down during the rampage. At least 49 babies and children were killed and at least 20 women.
Ten-year-old Maha Abdul Razziq was inside the family home on the south-western outskirts of Taldou when the militiamen arrived.
“I was with Ghufran, my two-and-a-half-year-old cousin, in one of the rooms, when one of the security men broke into the house,” she said. “He was holding a knife.
“He said ‘go into the corner’,” Maha said. Then the armed man removed gold bracelets from her cousin’s wrist and shot them both. “I was shot in my leg and arm and fell down,” she said. After first missing Ghufran, Maha said, the gunman returned to shoot her in the chest, killing her.
Apart from her father who had been working in Lebanon, Maha was the only member of her family to survive. Sobbing as she spoke, she named each of the young relatives that had been killed.
“I saw the three of my [siblings] dead. Yassein, who is five years old, Yasser and my sister Maya, who was three years old.
“My mother was killed by shabiha. They were shot all together. I went out of the house to see the bodies of the daughters of our neighbour Sameen.”
Only one of them was still alive.
She continued naming more relatives, all from the Abdul Razziq family.
The homes of the Abdul Razziq family were the first that the militias reached when they approached Taldou. More than 60 of the massacre victims are thought to have belonged to this single extended family.
The shabiha approached from the south-east – from the direction of Foulah and Qabou, according to numerous local accounts.
“The shabiha took advantage of the fact that there was no one there to protect them,” Abu Aruba said. “There was no one there on the outskirts. They just slaughtered everybody.”
By early evening, much of the killing had stopped, the witnesses say. According to the residents of Houla, most of the militiamen had returned to Foulah and Qabou. A small group, however, remained behind. It is this group which is believed to have gone looking for the Sayed family at around 3am on Saturday morning.
According to Ali Sayed, the sole survivor of a rampage that killed his family, the militiamen asked for all the men in his family by name. “They spoke with an Allawite accent,” he told the Guardian. “They said they were from Foulah. They were shabiha. And they were proud of it.”
Many of the wounded in Houla are still being treated in makeshift medical clinics. Among them are people whose families worked with regime security forces or the local police.
“They were targeted because they were linked to the regime,” one of the nurses treating the wounded men said. “The shabiha wanted to create the impression that other forces were responsible.”
Damascus on Thursday claimed that 600-800 armed men with heavy weapons had entered the Houla villages, slaughtering residents, then fleeing.
The people of Houla have no patience for the regime’s version of what took place last weekend. “Look,” said Abu Jaffour. “The armed men came under the cover of shellfire from villages completely under regime control. They are Allawite villages, 500 metres to 2km away from us. And they want the world to believe that hundreds from al-Qaida had taken refuge there. They are the terrorists and they will pay for this.”
As the sectarian tensions unleashed by what happened in Houla continue to boil, the people of the town resumed their weekly ritual on Friday. With no sound of gunfire, nor militias on the horizon, they took to the streets to demand the end of the regime.