BAIDA, Syria (Reuters) - Awakened by the sound of gunfire, Ahmad could hear the armed men knocking on his brother’s door, shouting insults and calling the family “dogs”.
Ahmad’s sister-in-law said the gunmen told her husband to “bow to your god, Bashar” -- the Syrian president. She and her husband and their two teenage sons were dragged towards the village square.
“She told me her son’s knees were bloodied as they kicked and dragged him,” Ahmad said.
When the violence was over, Ahmad ventured out from his hiding place in an attic. In less than two hours, Baida, his picturesque village near the Mediterranean, had become the scene of one of the worst mass killings in Syria’s two-year-old war.
As the country fragments under the weight of civil strife, troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad have made gains against rebel fighters in a counteroffensive to secure a corridor linking the capital Damascus with the president’s clan heartland on the coast. Baida, a tiny pocket of rebel sympathizers surrounded by pro-Assad villages, was an ideal place for the government to deliver a harsh message.
International peace talks are expected to be held in Geneva next month, but there is little hope of a breakthrough to end a war that has already killed 80,000 -- and left Baida a shell.
A few steps from his home, somewhere near the main village square, Ahmad discovered his brother’s body.
“He had been stripped of his clothes,” he said, reading from his own record of what he saw. He paused and composed himself. “He had been shot in the head, and the bullet left a gaping hole the size of a hand. His blood had been shed on the ground.”
For almost 90 minutes, Ahmad described how he found torched bodies and evidence of mass killings: in one case 30 men, and in another, 20 women and children who had hidden in a small room.
He read out the names of the dead, their occupations, ages and relations to each other, and the positions of their bodies. The attack left dozens of his relatives and neighbors dead. Ahmad recorded every detail so that history might judge.
It was May 2, a Thursday and the start of a six-day holiday. Many students had come home, and the men of the village had no plans to venture down to the coast to sell their vegetable crops, as many usually do. Children had no school that day.
The roosters had already crowed when armed men entered Baida, a close-knit village of narrow alleyways that was home to 5,000 mostly Sunni Muslims. Baida, visible from surrounding Alawite villages with whose inhabitants it had coexisted well enough before the war, sits just outside the small town of Banias, which overlooks Syria’s coastline from the hills.
According to opposition activists, what came later was a sectarian bloodbath followed by another in Ras al-Nabaa, the next village along.
The attack on Baida came shortly after rebels had attacked a bus carrying pro-Assad militiamen, killing six.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, says at least 300 were killed in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa. Victims were buried in mass graves, activists say, and thousands fled.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, which deals with war crimes, cannot investigate in Syria unless it receives a referral from the United Nations Security Council - something Russia and China have blocked.
The Syrian government has kept silent about Baida. But a Syrian intelligence officer, speaking anonymously, acknowledged that the perpetrators were government loyalists, including some from the surrounding Alawite villages.
The mainly Sunni Muslim villages of Baida and Ras al-Nabaa had aligned themselves with the rebels, putting them in a precarious position amidst the mainly Alawite, staunchly government loyalist villages that surround them.
Baida and Ras al-Nabaa became havens for army defectors, and many young men also joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Today, like Ras al-Nabaa, Baida is a ghost town. Houses have been torched and hardly any women and only a few men remain. Except for a few chickens, most livestock has disappeared.
Tightly controlled by government security, the only way for a stranger to enter Baida is through a dirt back road that snakes through the hills. Reuters made the journey to gather eye-witness testimony.
“I woke up to the sound of bullets before 7 a.m.,” Ahmad said in his modest but immaculately tidy home. He fetched from another room his notebook, where he had meticulously recorded in neat handwriting everything he saw.
Ahmad withheld his full name and exact occupation in the public sector for fear of reprisal.
“None of us knew what was happening. We couldn’t tell where the shells were falling,” he said, reading from his account.
His wife and children hid in the basement, and Ahmad went to his brother’s home, located on the first floor of the family’s two-storey building. When the sound of gunfire kept getting closer, Ahmad’s mother urged her sons to hide.
Over the past two years, whenever government security forces raided the village, usually only men with suspected ties to rebels were arrested. Women and children were left alone.
But this time, something urged Ahmad to hide, even though he had done nothing wrong. He went up to the attic, but his brother stayed put, arguing with their mother.
“He kept telling her ‘Why should I run away? I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s best I stay put at home. They have nothing on me,'” Ahmad recalled.
The list of victims included women and toddlers, the elderly and community leaders. Mohammad Taha, 90, was for decades the village shoemaker, even after he lost a leg in a car accident.
There was Sheikh Omar Biyasi, 62, whose body Ahmad found alongside the Sheikh’s slain wife and son, Hamzah, a medical student.
Sheikh Biyasi had been the village imam for 30 years. He was a government loyalist who alienated local people with his political views before resigning two years ago.
“Even though he always opposed the protests, they still killed him,” said Ahmad.
The Biyasi family suffered some of the worst losses, with 36 documented deaths. Ahmad found bodies belonging to the family in one small room; a mother and her three daughters and young son, who was at the local school with Ahmad’s children.
“They were leaning on each other,” Ahmad recalled.
Before dark set in, Ahmad stumbled upon another chilling sight. Three charred bodies lay one on top of the other.
“Smoke was still rising from one of them,” he said.
They were identified the next day, when the Red Crescent came in with a government official. One of the charred victims was Ibrahim al Shoghri, 69, who was mentally disabled.
The bloodshed has left many Syrians wondering if the Syrian government is preparing for an Alawite state along the coast.
The coast is home to the majority of the country’s Alawites, a Shi‘ite offshoot sect to which Assad and his clan belong.
One Alawite anti-government activist, who goes by the nom de guerre Sadeq, said it was unlikely Assad would establish a separate Alawite state, or that he would homogenize it ethnically. But an autonomous Alawite region, something like Kurdistan, might be viable.
So far, there have been no direct clashes between rebels and government forces along the coast. Many Alawite villagers did not believe the rebels could make it to the mountains.
So when the rebels started to make verbal threats against the coast over the past few weeks, alarms went off, explained Sadeq. The sectarian killings in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa were a message from the Assad government to the rebels.
“It’s a reminder that the coast is a red line. That if they so much as think they can attack the coast, this is what will happen to the pockets of Sunni Muslims here,” he said. “It was ethnic cleansing, and the objective is to frighten.”
Ahead of the killings, tensions had been rising in Alawite villages, where many serve in the Syrian army and security forces. Alawites have mourned hundreds of their dead. During a drive through some of the Alawite villages, larger-than-life posters of the town’s fallen hung on lampposts along main roads.
The few men remaining in Baida agreed that the massacre was something of a payback for the village’s pro-uprising stance.
“Let us speak the truth. We support the uprising, and they don‘t,” said one young man.
It was not clear to what extent news of what had happened in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa traveled along the coast. In the town of Banias, people were too nervous to discuss the topic. In Latakia, the news traveled only in hushed conversation among the Sunni Muslims. Sadeq, the Alawite activist, said the Alawite community was “in denial about it”.
“They believe it was a fight against terrorists from Chechnya or something like that,” he said.
But there is little doubt that details of the massacre are known among the ranks of Syrian intelligence.
In Tartous, a hefty, tattooed man who works for state intelligence, “in the cyber security branch”, and is a member of the pro-government Shabbiha militia, said his chain of command knew exactly what had unfolded in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa.
“It was the regime loyalists who did it, from the surrounding Alawite villages,” said the official, who did not want to give his name. “But they were not acting under orders. They carried it out on their own accord.”
“The leadership has all the names of the perpetrators, but now is not the time to punish them for the crime.”
Asked if the idea of an Alawite state sounded viable to the intelligence community, he said the idea is often discussed.
“But the leadership definitely rejects it. It would be the absolute worst case scenario, an independent Alawite-loyalist state,” he said.
“We’ll have Homs, Damascus and the coast. (The rebels) can have Aleppo and Deir al-Zor, Qamishli and the north. Sure, let them have it.”
Editing by Giles Elgood