Abdel Razaq family: Sunni or Shi'ite?

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Among the victims of the Houla massacre, one family in particular is at the center of great controversy. The Abdul Razaq clan reportedly lost at least 60 members on May 25, comprising a majority of the dead. On this there’s little disagreement. But who killed them and why is in dispute, with the biggest clue, their religion, equally contestedby the sides vying to blame each other. It’s agreed that at one point, the Abdul Razaqs were Sunni Muslim, but according to the non-rebel witnesses, they had converted to the Shi’ite faith, likely leading to their being targeted by extremists among the Sunni opposition.

Converts to Shi'ism?

According to German journalist Rainer Hermann in FAZ, three main families were targeted: one Sunni, one Alawite, and one Shi'ite. As translated, he explained the last: "several dozen members of one extended family, which had in recent years converted from Sunni to Shia [faith] were slaughtered." Hermann's information came from unspecified "opposition activists" who had gathered the information in unspecified ways. [1] As the only family to have lost "several dozen" members among the 108 total victims, this must refer to the Abdel Razaqs, as others have concluded (see below).

Interviewed by German author Jürgen Todenhöfer, a young man from Houla dubbed "Ahmed" (pseudonym), gave support for this family's conversion, allegedly from the inside.

"Friends from the neighboring villages, with whom Ahmed had recently demonstrated against Assad, have invaded into his house to kill him and his family. They accused him that he had converted to the Shiite faith. Somehow he managed it, to convince his old friends, that he is still a Sunni Muslim. Then the murderers rushed into the house next door, where his brother lived with his family. They have actually converted to the Shiite faith. They were murdered along with their children by the rebels." [2]

There is nothing further we know of to support this claim, directly, and much from activists and alleged survivors to contradict it (see next section). Syrian government sources initially declined to specify religion, thus failing to either support or confirm this detail accompanying a story otherwise like their own. Instead, their statements claimed the families were targeted due to not supporting the rebellion and remaining loyal to the Syrian government, irrespective of any religious motives. [3]

A Sunni Family? A Sunni City?

Rebel sources and alleged survivors disagree on this conversion, describing the Abdel Razaq family as Sunni Muslims. Anti-government activist Maysara al-Hilawi told Khaled Oweis of Reuters, after "the rebels withdrew," Shabiha entered Taldaou around 6 p.m. Hilawi "said 63 people from a single extended family of Sunnis called Abdelrazzaq were killed in their houses." [4]

The site "War in Context" reported on this discrepancy, and agreed with the opposition version after "Human Rights Watch confirmed to me that the Abdel Razzak family are indeed Sunnis and that after the massacre those members of the family who survived sought the protection of the Free Syrian Army.” [5]

Human Rights Watch's report itself didn't mention their religion but did say: "Houla’s towns, overwhelmingly Sunni, are surrounded by Alawite and Shia villages, and sectarian tensions have been high since last year." [6] Most early sources describe Houla/Taldou as around 90% Sunni, giving the impression the victims, by odds, were probablySunni. The UNHRC's Commission of Inquiry (CoI) said in its interim report of June 2012: [Al-Houla's three towns] have a population exceeding 100,000 of which the majority is Sunni Muslim. The towns are ringed by Shia villages to the southeast, and Alawi villages to the southwest and the north." [7]

There were shortly accusations that most of the victims were from that less than 10% minority of non-Sunnis. A later report from Der Spiegel, based on a visit to Houla, reported back for clarity that the town was 100% Sunni and always had been, so all victims by definition were Sunni. "According to survivors, all of them residents of Taldou and other parts of Houla, there are no Shiite or Alawite families in Houla, nor were there any there before -- just as there are no Sunni families in the surrounding Alawite villages. Although there were occasional marriages between Alawite and Sunni families in the past, the wife, say local residents, always moved to the husband's village and converted to his faith." [8] This same article makes much of how the Al-Sayed family was unlikely to have converted to Shi'ism, but no one has alleged that happening, so the argument is meaningless.

HRW: "Local activists provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 62 dead members from the Abdel Razzak family. According to survivors, their family owns the land and farms next to the national water company and the water dam of Taldou, and lives in eight or nine houses next to each other, two families to a house." HRW spoke to a 10-year-old boy, his mother, and an elderly woman of this family. [6]Two other alleged survivors of this family, Rasha Abdul Razaq and her mother, spoke to interviewers with the BBC, mentioning an infant survivor with them. [9] What sounds like the injured woman, other woman, and injured infant in a video we haven't yet seen, cited by Khaled Oweis. The main speaker there called the attackers "Alawite pigs. They attacked us and said 'die you pigs' and left." [4]

All of this refutation could only be so clear if it came, as it seemingly did, from surviving family members themselves. However, all things considered, there is reason to doubt the people claiming to be survivors really all are. The ten or so known and on the record are not universally encouraging in their fantastic and contradictory re-tellings.

A Made-Up Conversion?

Ge. Madani, from video interview, Nov. 4, 2012

That the Abdulrazaq conversion is a work of fiction is implied in the above refutations by alleged survivors. Besides these, and the supposed rule that as Al-Houla residents they had to be Sunni, and couldn't convert without moving, there's at least one alleged witness to the actual fabrication of this "myth." Former French diplomat Ignace Laverrier, writing for Le Monde’s Syria blog, Nov. 16, explained how "a new first-hand testimony has confirmed" that the Houla massacre "was the work of supporters of the regime." [10] The testimony is from General Ziyad Madani, at the time director of the district police in neighboring, and rebel-dominated, Rastan. Gen. Madani says some officers under his command died in the massacre in Houla, killed by the Shabiha, but he only summoned the courage to defect to the rebel side in mid-September. Then he told Al Jazeera what he allegedly witnessed. See the cited Arabic video here: لقاء العميد المنشق زياد المدني شاهد على مجزرة الحولة (To meet Brigadier General Ziad dissident civil witness to the massacre of Hula) 27:27, Published on Nov 5, 2012 by norasaman5.

As if any more proof was needed for most observers, Laverrier explained how Gen. Madani says he witnessed the invention of the Shi'ite victims. (Google translated):

[the interview] reveals that the victims belonging to the Shia community had been invented from scratch, in his presence, by the head of a local information. Considered useful and immediately circulated at the request of the responsible official propaganda, this story had established itself as THE truth. No one is surprised that there was inconsistency in toddlers run a few months ... for having "converted to Shi'ism." When he expressed his displeasure to what he heard, General Madani was nearly liquidated by an Alawite officer, fortunately stopped in his business by his colleagues.[10]

Shi'ite killers?

One of the Abdul Razaq crime scenes

Accounts of the Shabiha killers are heavy with allegations they thought of themselves as Shia engaged in the ancient battle against their Sunni enemies. (details forthcoming) This allegation would be most ironic if the main batch of Sunnis they picked - the Abdulrazaqs - had recently converted to Shi'ism, as the other witnesses allege.

Perhaps the most dramatic point on this list of claimed signs is at least one knife they say was left behind. The BBC Interviewed Akrama Bakour of the Free Syrian Army in Houla. He gave a detailed recounting of the families attacked, especially numerous households of the Abdul Razaq family.

"The next house they entered was the house of Qutayba Abdul Razaq, he survived and his one-year-old daughter was injured. He lost his wife and five of his children. All of those I'm counting died by gunshots, direct fire. They were gathered in one room and shot. There was one kid however whose head was skinned with a knife. The knife was found among the bodies and we have its picture."

That may not be the same one mentioned by the UN commission of Inquiry found, per their late-June report:

"Accounts collected from those who told the CoI they were among the first to arrive at the scene described the use of sharp objects in the killing of the Abdulrazzak family. Multiple interviewees described stab wounds and the apparent use of axes or similar (satour). One person early on the scene described to the CoI a bloody knife allegedly found in one house. Another described multiple knives found, one knife bearing the inscription “We will sacrifice ourselves for you Hussein” - which is a Shia slogan. The CoI viewed a video of a knife with such an inscription, although it could not verify its authenticity." (UN commission of Inquiry, oral update, p 9)

(note: as an unconfirmed find, the knife was apparently not there when the UN monitors made their visits to some of these homes on May 27, as seen in activist videos compiled here.

By this strange evidence discovered by the Sunni freedom fighters, not only was this family Sunni instead of Shia, they were apparently killed by Shi'ites of some stripe, who left their signs like this behind. They also chose to spare the vast numbers of other Sunnis in the 90% Sunni area, many of whom lived right around this one family of contested religion that provided more than half the total victims.

ACLOS was unaware of available video of this blade until recently. A scene of what's most likely it is included at the end of this long 48:00 compilation video. Most of that is lots of alleged survivors telling their stories, then graphic footage of the victims and finally this larger folding pocket knife (full composite view below - it's show too close-up for a single full view). Perhaps we can get the engraving translated to verify if says "we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Hussein."

Houla Hussein Blade.png

References (partial)

  1. "Prime German Paper: Syrian Rebels Committed Houla Massacre" Moon Of Alabama, translation June 9, 2012.
  2. Syria: German Author Todenhöfer met with Eyewitness from al-Houla Jürgen Todenhöfer, originally published in the German magazine Bild as Mein Treffen mit Assad, 9 July, 2012
  3. "Initial Report of Judicial Investigation Committee on al-Houla Massacre: Victims belonged to Peaceful Families who Refused to Stand up against State" SANA, June 1, 2012.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Families herded "like sheep" to die in Houla massacre" Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, May 30, 2012.
  5. "Reconsidering the Houla massacre" Paul Woodward, War in Context, June 10, 2012.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Syria: UN Inquiry Should Investigate Houla Killings" Human Rights Watch, May 27, 2012.
  7. UN Investigation "Oral Update", Jun 27, 2012, last page of pdf
  8. Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun for DER SPIEGEL, "Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre", published July 23, 2012, video interviews
  9. "Houla Eyewitness: 'They had no mercy.'" BBC News. May 28, 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 NouveauTemoignage sur le Massacre de Houla en SyrieIgnace Laverrier, Le Monde, Syria Blog, November 16, 2012