RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The massacre in the place known as Houla has kept worldwide attention on the relentless violence in Syria. Western countries and the United Nations blame Syrian government troops and pro-government thugs for killing more than a hundred people, nearly half of them children. NPR's Kelly McEvers made a closer examination of those events and found that's only part of the picture.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If your survived the Houla massacre, it means you either ran away or played dead. It was a Friday, and like most Fridays for nearly 15 months, the men went out to protest, and like most Fridays, government troops started attacking protestors from afar with tanks and artillery. But this time, the shelling went on much longer. People started dying.
Then in what witnesses say was two waves of attacks, pro-government thugs known as shabiha went from house to house hunting their prey.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: They asked us if we had guns, this little girl tells observers from the United Nations on video. We said no and they opened fire.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: They killed my four sisters. A body fell on me, she says, so the killers couldn't see that she was still alive. She pokes at her check and head, showing how bullets went through people. In all, 108 people were killed, 49 of them children. The U.N. says about 20 of them were killed by tank and artillery fire, weapons that only government troops possess. The others were shot and stabbed at close range.
The Syrian government says the massacre was the work of hundreds of foreign-born terrorists stationed in a nearby town. It says these militants were out to punish one family that had a relative in the Syrian parliament, but Maryam Sayid, who survived the massacre of that family by running away, said the government's version is simply untrue.
MARYAM SAYID: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Why would we flee and hide with anti-government rebels, she says, if we were with the government? She describes the killers as Alawite thugs wearing all black and chanting sectarian slogans. Alawites are a minority in Syria, the same group as the ruling family.
SAYID: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: This was a sectarian killing, Maryam says. They killed us because we are Sunni. All of this, of course, is difficult to verify. Most Western journalists are barred from entering Syria, and only a few of those who have been let in have been allowed into Houla. The question that still hangs over this story is why, why such a brutal massacre in this town? Why so many killed? There are many theories. It was a punishment for the mass protests in town that day.
It was payback for the government soldiers who died when rebels attacked a checkpoint. It was revenge for a man who'd been killed and dumped on the side of the road earlier that week. None of these may be true, or all of them. Whatever the explanation, this definitely is not the first time there's been widespread killing of Sunni families, especially in this mixed region of Syria, the now notorious region of Homs.
Earlier this year, government troops shelled neighborhoods known to house anti-government rebels. Then, residents say, Alawite shabiha moved in and slaughtered entire families - again, Sunni women and children. At the time, analysts and human rights workers said such sectarian killings and any reprisals were contained to certain areas and discouraged by activists and religious leaders.
Nadim Houry heads the Human Rights Watch office here in Beirut. Now he says the sectarian violence could get worse, especially the more the government refuses to acknowledge it. He calls it denial.
NADIM HOURY: And in being in that complete denial and sort of not recognizing the victims and just remaining with platitudes and blaming, you know, foreign terrorists, al-Qaida type, people feel doubly wronged by them, and that just sort of increases their level of pain and their level of hatred.
MCEVERS: In fact, residents of Houla we recently talked to said if the government or the U.N. can't conduct a real investigation, they will conduct their own. They say they have a list of names of men who are responsible for the Houla killings. All of them are Alawites, all of them from the neighboring village. What they do with that list remains to be seen. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.