On Saturday, May 11, as French journalist Sofia Amara was surfing the web, she chanced upon a video clip that left her shocked, sickened, angry, and ultimately so despairing, the seasoned war reporter collapsed crying.
The gruesome video appeared to feature a Syrian rebel commander, dressed in camouflage trousers, cutting open the corpse of what appeared to be a soldier loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
The rebel then proceeds to carve out the heart and liver out of the corpse.
“I swear to God, soldiers of Bashar, you dogs – we will eat your hearts and livers,” he says, looking into the camera. At the end of the 30-second clip, the rebel commander puts the corpse’s heart in his mouth, as if he’s about to eat it.
“The second I played the video, I recognised him,” said Amara in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Lebanese capital of Beirut. “I recognized him because of his voice, his mannerisms, his clothes – he was always wearing those clothes.”
FRANCE 24 has decided not to post the disturbing footage of the rebel mutilating the corpse although the clip is available on the Internet.
Amara was reporting in the Baba Amr district of the western Syrian city of Homs in December 2011, when she said she met the rebel, who she identified by the nom de guerre, Abu Sakkar.
In her documentary, “At the heart of the Free Syrian Army” - which was aired on a French TV station last year – Amara says Abu Sakkar features in the second part of the two-and-a-half hour documentary.
“He was always with me. He was charming and adorable,” said Amara. “He was not a savage. This crackdown has killed humanity.”
A war crime by a breakaway brigade
The video clip, which first appeared on pro-Syrian regime websites over the weekend, is one of the most gruesome to emerge from the Syrian conflict, which has killed an estimated 80,000 people, according to opposition figures.
In a statement released on Monday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also identified the rebel as Abu Sakkar and said his actions were a war crime.
“The laws of war prohibit any mutilation of dead bodies,” said the Human Rights Watch statement. “Under the Rome Statute of the ICC (International Criminal Court), ‘outrage upon personal dignity’ is a war crime, which includes humiliating, degrading, or otherwise violating the dignity of a dead body.”
Amara was one of a handful of journalists who say they encountered Abu Sakkar during or after the battle of Homs in 2011 and 2012.
According to the freelance journalist, in December 2011, Abu Sakkar was fighting with the Al Farouq Brigade, one of the oldest brigades that emerged from Homs just months after the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011.
But last October, Abu Sakkar broke away from the mainstream Al Farouq brigade, and formed his own group, according to a report on the Foreign Policy website.
Human Rights Watch identified Abu Sakkar’s breakaway group as the Independent Omar al Farouq Brigade and said it was not known whether the unit operated under the command of the Free Syrian Army.
Responding to the video, Maj. Gen. Salim Idriss, Chief of Staff for the Supreme Military Council of the opposition, told TIME Magazine that “such violence is unacceptable, and no soldier under the council’s command would be allowed to get away with such actions.”
But Nadim Houry, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch, noted that opposition forces have not set up proper accountability mechanisms for abuses committed by their members.
“It is not enough for Syria’s opposition to condemn such behaviour or blame it on violence by the government,” Houry said. “The opposition forces need to act firmly to stop such abuse.”