Story of a massacre tells of the Alawites caught in the middle

The massacre in Aqrab in western Syria has grim lessons for minority groups and the area as a whole. The area represents an explosive sectarian mix that needs special attention after Assad.

On December 9, nearly 200 people were killed in the small Syrian village of Aqrab, which is about 40 kilometres west of Hama. The village has a population of 13,000 people, most of whom are Sunnis, with a minority of about 3,000 Alawites.

The causes of this massacre still need to be independently investigated, but what evidence exists has grim lessons for minority groups and the area as a whole.

The region around the village - a triangle between Hama, Homs and Tartus - represents an explosive sectarian mix. This is where Alawites, Sunnis and Ismailis have lived side by side for hundreds of years, but the regime has successfully pitted groups against each other since the start of the uprising, recruiting thousands of Alawite villagers into the Shabbiha militias.

There are a variety of reports, sometimes conflicting, emerging out of the area. One of the most telling videos shows an old Alawite woman speaking to the camera. In the video, she is talking to a group of armed young men who were from the nearby village of Houla - where in May, 108 civilians were killed by regime forces, most of whom were summarily executed at close range.

The woman, who identifies herself as Umm Ayham, speaks for over 14 minutes in great detail, some of which has been corroborated by a report by Alex Thomson, of the British broadcaster Channel 4. The news report was released three days after the Umm Ayham's video was uploaded to YouTube.

By all accounts, anti-regime rebels had surrounded a building in Aqrab in which 500 people, including men, women and children, were trapped. It is unclear who had rounded up the civilians.

A day before the massacre, the rebels let go about 125 people, who fled to the nearby village of Taouna. The rebels assured the remaining hostages that they would not be hurt and - after mediation from two Sunni religious leaders from Aqrab, Sheikh Ali Sara and Sheikh Saadu Hammash - there was an agreement that more would be released.

Umm Ayham relates that two young men in the building refused to let any more people be released. She identifies the names of the men, who are cousins and both Alawites. The former told the other trapped Alawites that they would be tortured and killed by the rebel forces if they left the building.

Umm Ayham's two daughters had already been released, and she pleaded with the cousins to let her go. By her account, the two Sunni sheikhs told the hostages they would travel with them for safety.

"I told him [one of the cousins] this is an opportunity that cannot be missed," Umm Ayham tells the camera. "He said: those who were released had escaped, we will die here, I will not allow anyone to leave." She adds that the cousins and other men in the building had guns and grenades, and threatened to kill everyone if rebels came in.

At some point, there was an exchange of shooting. One of the men inside, identified as Farzat, then shot several girls because, he said, they would be raped by rebels.

There appear to be two main questions that are still in dispute. How did the 500 people become trapped in the building in the first place, and who was threatening them? And after the violence described by Umm Ayham, what events then led to 200 people being killed?

If the people inside the building were hostages, why did the rebels allow some to leave? Did the men inside, such as the cousins, fear the rebels were after them and use the civilians as human shields? Alternatively, according to Thomson's report, there has been speculation that the rebels planned to take the civilians to Houla, where they would be used as human shields.

An independent investigation could clear up a number of points, in particular whether those girls had been shot at close range, which might corroborate the charges against "Farzat". Without that proof, the witness account remains open to dispute.

But Umm Ayham's video also sends another important message to the Syrian opposition. Alawites are often portrayed as invariably sticking with the regime for survival. This is not accurate. Many Alawites are caught in the middle, just as are so many others in Syrian society. Twenty-one months into the violence, Alawites were still living alongside Sunnis in Aqrab - something worth considering. The mediators were also from the village.

In the video, Umm Ayham pleads with rebels to protect her from the pro-regime men, yet at the same time she fears the same men with whom she is pleading.

There have been other videos released documenting events after the massacre, mostly showing women and children taken to a field hospital, and rebels reassuring Alawites that they are all "brothers" equally victimised by the regime.

In one video recorded almost immediately after the massacre, another old woman and a young girl are taken by rebels to a field hospital. Although the rebels keep reassuring them, the old woman continues to plead with a bearded man to rescue her. The woman then seems scared as rebels shout "Allahu Akbar", God is great.

It is noteworthy that neither the regime nor the political opposition has come forward to speak for the victims.

On Twitter: @hhassan140