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Unspinning The Narrative Of A Syrian Massacre

In this image provided by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network, a woman holds a child in front of their destroyed home in Tremseh, Syria, on July 14. The authenticity, content, location and date have not been independently verified.

Fourth of five parts

At least 100 people were killed earlier this month in a Syrian village called Tremseh. Activists called the deaths a massacre of innocent civilians by government forces, but later reports suggested it was something different. After spending a week with rebel fighters in the country, I discovered some previously untold details about the killings.

In the days after the deaths, the facts were fuzzy. Unlike with previous massacres, the activists didn't release the names of the dead. Once some names did start trickling out, it looked like many of those killed were fighting-age men.

Destruction In Tremseh

On our way into Syria last week, we met a Spanish photographer named Daniel Leal Olivas. It was late at night at a rebel way station. He showed us gruesome pictures. He said he'd just returned from Tremseh, where he had been just a day after the killing.

"The first thing I remember is that it's a very small town," he says. "Another thing is everyone was in the street."

Women and children were standing in front of their houses crying, as if they had just gotten back into town, Olivas says. The men grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into a house.

"We found a toilet room, and ... that toilet room was full of blood," he says. "They told us, 'We found here bodies, executed,' " he says.

And, he says, parts of the village were destroyed.

"They burned a lot of cars. They burned motorcycles. They burned houses. They destroyed the mosque," Olivas says.

But they didn't burn indiscriminately, he says. Instead, it looked like the killers knew exactly what their targets were. On any given street, one house would be burned, riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood. Other houses were left untouched.

This image provided by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows a destroyed minaret of a mosque in Tremseh, Syria, on July 12. The authenticity, content, location and date have not been independently verified.
/ AP
This image provided by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows a destroyed minaret of a mosque in Tremseh, Syria, on July 12. The authenticity, content, location and date have not been independently verified.

While Olivas' account suggests that those who committed the killings were mostly targeting fighters, there's still the question, what sparked this killing, and why was it so brutal?

At The Rebels' Base

As we traveled deeper into Syria, we found rebel fighters who had some answers. We found our way to the steps of a house that's used as a base for a rebel commander. I can't say exactly where it is; the location is secret.

Abu Sleiman commands several units in a town right next to Tremseh. He provided weapons to two units based inside the village.

One fighter, who goes only by the name Khazzafi, was in a village near Tremseh on the day of the killing. He says the trouble started around 5 a.m.

Four officers in the Syrian army were driving near Tremseh. All of them were from the minority Alawite sect — the same sect as Syria's president, Bashar Assad, and his inner circle.

Khazzafi says rebels blew up the car with a homemade bomb, instantly killing the Alawite officers. Then the army began bombarding the town with artillery, tanks and helicopters.

Khazzafi says the shelling continued until midafternoon. Then the army pulled back, and armed Alawite militias known as shabiha, or ghosts, moved in and went on a killing spree. Khazzafi says he was in the woods just outside the village, helping evacuate wounded. He says he heard this chilling phrase spoken with an Alawite accent: "He's not dead yet. Finish him."

If Khazzafi's story is true, this would be the third major killing spree launched by pro-government Alawite militias in a Sunni village.

The Rise Of Sectarian Killings

For the first time, though, rebels are acknowledging that they played some role in sparking the attack. Still, they refuse to acknowledge that their very presence in these villages brings havoc on civilians.

The commander of this base says regardless of what caused the attack, the killing of a few officers does not justify hunting 100 people down and executing them in their village.

While many details from Tremseh remain unknown, it's clear that sectarian killings are on the rise in Syria.

As Abu Sleiman and his fighters begin their nightly prayer, we can tell by the way they move their hands and position their feet that they aren't Sunni hard-liners who consider all other sects to be infidels.

But to hear them talk is to hear them use nasty words about Alawites — and about how they hope to take revenge one day. That leaves many Syrians to wonder, even if the rebels do manage to topple the regime, what will come next?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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