Winter 2013

What Happened in Qubair

Deborah Amos, NF ’92, on covering a massacre in a central Syrian farming village

By Deborah Amos
In January, Deborah Amos, NF '92, and her colleague Kelly McEvers were honored with a DuPont-Columbia Award for excellence in broadcast and digital journalism for "intelligent and resourceful coverage of the bloody uprising in Syria." In an e-mail to Nieman Reports, she explains how she got into a country most other journalists haven't been able to visit:

"I was finally inside Syria with a legal visa in my passport. A 300-member United Nations monitoring team was in the capital. President Bashar Al Assad had agreed to the mission and one of the provisions was opening the country to international journalists. I arrived in June, 2012. When the UN monitors got word of a massacre in Qubair, a small farming village in central Syria, we followed the investigators to the scene. The monitors had been prevented from entering the village a day earlier. There was no guarantee we would be allowed to enter. As we drove the highway out of Damascus, we got our first look at a country at war. Burned out tanks littered the highway, cities smoldered as we sped past. The convoy was stopped for hours outside the village as the UN monitors negotiated with a Syrian army commander. A man approached us on the side of the road, wild-eyed and agitated. 'They killed every one in my family' he wailed. He followed us into Qubair and then sped off on his motorcycle. We stayed in Qubair for a few hours as the UN investigators took pictures and interviewed a few nervous young men who had arrived, faces covered, from a near by village. What happened in Qubair? Something terrible."

She described the scene to NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday" host Scott Simon, opening with audio of a man from a neighboring village:


AMOS: Scott, you can hear the wind whipping through this empty village, and what he's saying is they left no one alive in this village, no one alive. The people who killed here are with the government. Now, activists charge that pro-government militias killed at least 78 people in this village, including women and children. Certainly something terrible did happen in the village. There was the smell of burned flesh everywhere and dried blood; pieces of flesh, a blood-soaked carpet and bullet holes low on the wall where we were told that the children were shot. We were told there are about seven survivors out of a village of about 100 people.

SIMON: Who were you able to talk with? Eyewitnesses, anybody who said they were a survivor?

AMOS: What happened as we arrived is young men approached and they said they were from the neighboring village, and they said that the people killed here were their relatives. They were very nervous and the trip almost didn't happen. When the U.N. goes into one of these villages, they negotiate with the government and the opposition. So they approached us, faces wrapped, sunglasses on. Nobody would give their names or telephone numbers, but they were familiar with this village. They took us to the mosque where there were 17 fresh graves. And they said that yesterday, they were forced to bury the bodies. That the army came in and said that they had to be buried, this place had to be cleaned up before the U.N. arrived.

Some of them cried, some of them showed where their particular relative was killed. This massacre has a sectarian component to it. This is a Sunni Muslim village. That community is anti-government. They are surrounded by villages that are Alawite villages. These people are pro-government.
Now, the Syrian government says that this atrocity was committed by terrorists, and that they were called in to protect the village, and they killed all the people who were the terrorists. They've shown us no evidence. It's going to be the U.N.'s job to try to figure out what happened. They may be able to figure out what happened. I'm not sure they can figure out why it happened.

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