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.