A grisly look at the Syrian massacre site

Residents of Qubeir, Syria show evidence of violence in the town where some 78 people were massacred, according to witnesses, and the Syrian government tried to clean up evidence of the killings.

(CBS News) DAMASCUS - There is an unspeakable tragedy unfolding Friday night as the year-long conflict in Syria rapidly descends toward civil war marked by the wholesale massacre of civilians. Women and children are being executed in their homes. The United States and others have condemned the barbarity, but nothing seems to slow the killing.

Now we have the first evidence of an atrocity that the Syrian dictatorship didn't want you to see. For a couple of days, we've been hearing of a massacre of women and children in a town called Qubeir. United Nations observers tried to get there Thursday, but the Syrian army opened fire on them. When CBS news tried to reach the town, the army turned us around too. But on Friday, CBS News and the U.N. tried again and they got through.

It appears the Syrian government worked to clean up the evidence -- but there's just no cleaning up what happened in Qubeir.

Even from a distance, it was clear something terrible had happened in Qubeir, but what?

A local farmer named Majid was anxious to tell his story -- his first chance to explain what he'd seen. "I was at the far end of the village watching," he said. "I couldn't come any closer because of the bombing."

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When it was all over there were lots of bodies -- 78 in total, according to witnesses. One house alone had 20 burned corpses piled up in its rooms.

A cell phone video posted online Wednesday -- the day of the massacre -- showed the grisly scene before it was cleaned up. On Friday, though, the stench of death still hung everywhere.

The people who helped to bury the bodies say 17 of the victims are buried here, the rest in neighboring villages. They say security forces told them all the bodies had to be buried before anybody from the outside world was allowed in.

The account we heard here Friday matches the pattern of another massacre in the area just two weeks ago. First, men in military uniform bombarded these houses with heavy weapons. And then, local people told the U.N., came the men without uniforms -- enforcers known here as Shabiha -- who went house to house killing everyone they could find.

One family of four escaped, we were told, to what they thought was the safety of this mosque, only to be hunted down and killed.

Showing the burned holy books, this local man said, "This is completely inhuman. How can defend ourselves against this?"

So much evidence had been destroyed or removed that it may be impossible to verify the accounts or ever prove who the killers were. In this room, we were told, seven children were gunned down. The bodies were gone Friday, but the blood stains and the bullet holes remained.

On why these people were targeted, we never got a straight answer about that. There was one member of the anti-regime Free Syrian Army in the town when we were there. So it's possible that the village was known for anti-regime sympathies. Everybody who died was Sunni. They tend to be anti-regime, and they blamed the killing on people from neighboring villages, which are Alawite villages -- they tend to support the regime. Whether the regime ordered or orchestrated these killings, it's impossible to say.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."