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Syrian Forces Targeting Children; Syria's Neighbors Concerned

Aired June 12, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

My brief tonight: the Syrian regime has painted a bull's eye on the backs of its children. Today, the U.N. made it official, releasing a report on children and armed conflict that charges Syria with brutal violations. Syrian children are killed, maimed, beaten, burned, whipped and also used as human shields, says the report.


MARK LYALL GRANT, U.K. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It is just yet another chapter in the barbarity that is being imposed by the Syrian regime on its own civilian population. So to be honest, we are not surprised by the report. But is it still abhorrent in another example of how far beyond the pale of humanity the Syrian regime has gone.


AMANPOUR: Indeed, children were the very first targets of the Assad regime. And to understand what's happening, it does help to go back to the beginning.

Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya, in February of 2011, somebody scribbled these words on the wall of a school in the southern Syrian of Dara'a. "The people want to topple the regime," it said. And Assad's henchmen then interrogated school children and arrested 15. They were beaten and tortured, their families begged for them to be released, but they were turned away. And all of this, of course, lit a fuse.

Dara'a became a rallying cry, a wave of protest spread throughout the country and the government crackdown became increasingly vicious while the resistant eventually took up arms. With civilians, especially children as targets, we know examine the hard evidence that could lead to international criminal prosecutions. We'll do that in a moment. But first a look at what's coming up later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): As Israel's defense minister Shimon Peres was the enemy of Syria's army, now as president, he cries for Syria's children.

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES, ISRAEL: We, as human being, cannot stand and watch the small coffins with the bodies of the babies.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And transforming the world with words, it happened in Berlin 25 years ago.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Today in Syria, the children are waiting for another American president to walk the talk.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to all of that in a moment. But first, to photojournalist Robert King. He's just traveled to the most dangerous parts of Syria to get the all-important documentation, the pictures of the atrocities committed against children there. And now he's showing the world what he's seen.

I spoke to King just a few moments ago from Beirut.


AMANPOUR: Robert King, thank you very much for joining me.

ROBERT KING, PHOTOJOURNALIST: Thank you so much, Christiane, for having me on your show.

AMANPOUR: We have seen these amazing pictures that you have sent out of Syria, and you've been filming for more than a month there. Some of them, to be frank, we can barely look at, and we can hardly air because they are so grim. What must it be like to actually witness that yourself and try to do the job that you're doing?

KING: It was hard, it was discouraging, like you said, there was very little footage that I made that could get aired. But I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't make art out of this -- the suffering. And I tried to compose it in a humanistic way. It was -- it was tough, you know, I wasn't going to break down inside the hospital, but I -- it was hard to keep your wits.

AMANPOUR: You've seen the worst of the worst, how they can possibly be targeting these children. How does this compare with other places that you've been, that I've been, Bosnia and other such places?

KING: I've never seen anything like it. It's the butcher of Syria. He's targeting civilians. I've never photographed so many wounded kids. In one small village that would, you know, really, I think, represents what's going on all across the country. In 20 years, I've not photographed so many wounded kids and the -- it seems like that a lot of the world is indifferent about these horrific crimes.

AMANPOUR: They've sat up and taken notice, your pictures have done it. The U.N. report has done it. They've now come out and said officially that this is targeting of children in a wholly inappropriate and illegal manner. What did you hear from the doctors who you followed as well, not only are there these terrible attacks on children, but is there the medical wherewithal to treat them?

KING: They do the best they can with what little supplies they have. And no, I mean, they learn as they go.

AMANPOUR: You spent a long time in that village of Kasir (ph). Why did they think that they were being targeted? What did the doctors tell you, the families tell you about why the civilians, why the children were being so badly injured?

KING: They assumed it was collective punishment. Then they were -- believe that it was because of their religious beliefs, that they were Sunni that they were being targeted. Not only -- and also because they were supporting the revolution. So you have this regime that's trying to kill the revolutionaries and they're trying to kill the offspring of the revolutionary and it's ethnic genocide.

AMANPOUR: And what else did you see when you were traveling for that month that you spent inside?

KING: It was terrible. You know, I would do stories on artists, and then he died. So a lot of the stories of, you know, the -- one day the one of the media center cameramen were killed.

That same day, two members of the media center had their brothers killed, just constant death and pain and suffering and, you know, and everyone's walking around with bloodstained shirts, you know, sleeping when you can, trying to not let the shells that are exploding intimidate you.

AMANPOUR: Did you get to talk to any government soldiers or government types? Did you get to ask them what they were doing and why there were doing it?

KING: Unfortunately not, you know, I wasn't able to speak to the Assad regime. I did photograph the Assad army that has taken over the main hospital in al-Kasir (ph), that may use it as a staging ground and a snipers' nest. But other than that, you know, I wasn't able to -- it's too dangerous.

AMANPOUR: So if they've taken over the main hospital, where did the doctor do his work?

KING: He works in a bombed-out house. It's a home that was -- where the -- a lot of it was destroyed by tank fire. So he's basically converted a couple bedrooms into a recovery center and operation center.

They use a 2" x 4" for, you know, to strap the arms down, to -- when they stick in their morphine or plasma bags or IVs. It's pretty grim and pretty gruesome. You know, I don't even know -- and they use a desk lamp to illuminate the operating room. They have some type of tool that heats up and cuts through skin, but they have to plug it in and sometimes the electricity goes off, so they have to run it on a generator.

AMANPOUR: Well, your pictures really do paint the horrific image of what's happening inside Syria. Thank you very much for being with me today, Robert.

KING: Well, thank you so much, Christiane. I enjoyed it --

AMANPOUR: You take care.

KING: -- being on your show.


AMANPOUR: And of course there were so imaged -- so many images that we couldn't show.

And now to someone who's also been documenting atrocities in Syria, but from a legal perspective. Nadim Houry is a former corporate lawyer at one of New York's most prestigious law firms. He's now, though, working for Human Rights Watch, gathering legal evidence for what one day may be a war crimes prosecution of the Assad regime. And he joined me a short time ago, also from Beirut.


AMANPOUR: Nadim Houry, thank you for joining me from Beirut.

NADIM HOURY, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: I recall the beginning of this conflict, almost starting with children, what outraged so many people was that children in Dara'a were tortured, abducted, held. Tell me what happened back then and the pattern of the use of children.

HOURY: What started the whole uprising was a dissension (ph) of a group of young teenagers, who had been inspired by the Arab Spring and went and scribbled on some walls on their school, you know, "Down with the regime."

And it was the subsequent torture of these children and the way the head of one of the security agencies dealt with their parents when they came asking for the, you know, for their children, to see them, that sparked the whole thing.

And that pattern of sort of detaining anyone, be it a child who's 12 years old, detaining an elderly man who's 70 -- one case was documented -- and torturing them, we've continued to see it. And this incredible violence is what's been the fuel of the protest movement, particularly in the first six months.

And unfortunately, you know, the man who was responsible allegedly for ordering the torture of these children, who is reported to be a relative of Bashar al-Assad, so far has not been held to account. The Syrian government, up until now, has not prosecuted one person as far as we know, as far as their media has said, for the crimes that they have committed against protesters, many of them who are children.

You know, we've documented -- we've interviewed children who were detained with adults for weeks, sometimes held in solitary confinement, subjected to horrible torture. Some of these kids, some of them are 14, 15, find themselves today peeing on themselves at night because they still cannot control their anxiety. I mean, the toll, the toll on the future generations of Syria cannot be underestimated.

AMANPOUR: How do you go about gathering and documenting your evidence, because of course Human Rights Watch put out a similar report much earlier than the U.N. report. How do you do the actual evidence gathering?

HOURY: Sure. In three key manners, one, we've got teams deployed at Syria's borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, and we're there waiting for people who've escaped, people who've been detained and released and make it to a neighboring country, to interview them in-depth.

Secondly, in areas, particularly in northern Syria, that are de facto under the control of the opposition, we were able to send some people who were able to cross over and visit some of these villages in Idlib and other parts.

And finally, we've been working on Syria for years, so we have an extensive network of activists, human rights activists, whom we know personally, whom we trust, who are key in helping us identifying cases and interviewing these victims inside Syria.

AMANPOUR: And is the pattern the same as you've been documenting since this struggle began? Or is it different now? Is it more complicated?

HOURY: The violation (inaudible) patterns are still the same. The arbitrary detention, the torture, the indiscriminate shelling that we just saw yesterday in Hama (ph), that is still the same. But there's another part of the story that is more complicated.

This is the sort of increase in armed resistance. This is the slide of Syria into a sectarian conflict. And it's particularly complicated in places where you've got Alawite villages, Sunni villages next to each other. This is harder to document, because in addition to the regular security forces and the armed opposition, you have now the shabiha, these pro-government militias increasingly active.

AMANPOUR: When you look at what happened in Houla, for instance, are you sure of who did what to whom?

HOURY: No, we're not sure, and this is why we called on the U.N. to investigate and to make that report public. And we told the Russians, you say you care about the truth? So make sure there's an independent international investigation on the ground, and guess what?

There's one that was appointed last year by the Human Rights Council, but the Syrian government doesn't want to let them in. But what we can say is we spoke to three survivors from the Abdaraza (ph) family, whom had 60 members killed in Houla. But what they told us, the surviving witnesses, was that there were armed gunmen, who came and shot them, and that these armed gunmen were pro-government.

And when we asked, well, how do you know they were pro-government, they said, because of the slogans they were shouting and because of the way they were talking to us. You know, is this enough to indict them? No. Is it enough to push for an investigation? Definitely. There's also a second element. If it was the opposition that committed these massacres, at least in Houla, why are most of these surviving members now, you know, sheltering with the opposition?

AMANPOUR: And what about the current situation that seems so worrying, al-Haifa (ph), I believe it is, where the U.N. is still trying to get in to investigate what seems to be a big government sweep of that area.

HOURY: Definitely, you know, we just heard a spokesperson for the U.N. special representative talk about today about the escalation that we've seen over the last week, particularly worrying are areas, you know, what I call the emerging fault line in Syria.

There's a geographic line running from north to south, going through places like Haifa, Houla, all these areas, where you've got, you know, Sunni towns, Alawite towns, very close; the army's deployed and increasingly armed civilians on both sides. It's a powder keg. It's the result of government policies over the last year.

But now the genie's out of the bottle and we've seen the sectarian killings. And as for the international community to act fast to try to contain the situation. And the only way to contain the situation at this point is for the Security Council to start speaking in one voice.

Russia says they're concerned about Syria sliding into a civil war, but actually their obstruction in the Security Council has pushed Syria exactly into that direction.

AMANPOUR: And, finally, what do you think is going to be the pattern as this struggle continues, this fight?

HOURY: I think we're going to see -- there are going to be multiple conflicts inside Syria. There's going to be a pattern of what we've seen, sort of an armed conflict between armed guerillas for the opposition and an overwhelming military for the Syrian side.

These are things that we continue to see in the north. And areas that I talked about, this sort of the fault line in the -- in Hama's government and other places, it's going to start looking increasingly like a sectarian civil war.

And in the main cities, where the regime still can contain, you know, still have strong control on the ground, it's going to look like what it looked a year ago, activists trying to come out and protest through forms of civil resistance and basically security forces arresting them, disappearing them, and in many cases, beating and torturing them in detention.

AMANPOUR: Nadim Houry, thank you very much for joining me.

HOURY: Thank you for having me.


AMANPOUR: And this Syrian nightmare is keeping its anxious neighbors up at night. Israel is one of them, and I'll talk to its president, Shimon Peres.

But first, take a look at this picture. That is Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, reviewing the troops at the height of his power. Today, he is a shadow of his former self, a sick man clinging to life in an Egyptian jail. But guess who respects him as a peacekeeper? When we return.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. In 1994, Israel's president, Shimon Peres, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. Tomorrow, President Obama will award Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. After 60 years of many positions in power, Peres is witnessing revolutionary change in the Arab world.

I sat down with him here in New York, and started by asking him about Syria, Israel's neighbor.


PERES: I know Americans are really asking themselves what can happen if Bashar will disappear, and what will be the alternative. My answer is Bashar is no longer an alternative. He is not an alternative.

We, as human beings, cannot stand and watch the small coffins with the bodies of the babies. Not everything is politics in life. He stopped being an alternative for his people, for his children, for his babies. So what sort of a question is it?

AMANPOUR: There is, as you know, a big debate about whether there should be intervention to help the uprising against him. Some have talked about the moral dimension that you've just mentioned; others have talked about the strategic dimension that, if Assad goes, that greatly impacts Iran's influence in that area. Do you agree?

PERES: I don't believe in a strategy that doesn't have moral foundations. Simply as that. An amoral strategy is not an alternative in my eyes. Whoever thinks so is a fool.

AMANPOUR: If Bashar Assad goes, and that weakens Iran, do you think that makes it less urgent for Israel to consider military action against Iran's nuclear program?

PERES: I think we have to make it a little bit clearer situation, Israel fully agrees with the policies of the President of the United States that fails to have to start with economic sanctions and other than military options. But many of us do think -- and the people in Israel will think, many of them, that if you say only economic sanctions, they won't work because Iran says, OK, let them finish economically and then (we shall return.

AMANPOUR: What would you say to President Obama when you meet him this week? Should there be force against Iran now?

PERES: I will tell him the best thing he can do is to increase a little bit more the sanctions. So I think he went a very long way. I don't think anybody before him did such an effort to bring a -- to build a coalition and build the pressure up on Iran as he did. Maybe it's already effective, maybe not. But I know he intends to increase it because better to increase the sanctions before anything else.

AMANPOUR: So you see military action further away than (inaudible)?


PERES: I think it should be on the table. It should be in the Iranian minds. I don't think they have to give them dates. Let them guess. There's nothing wrong with it.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you a different question now. I want you to focus on President Mubarak in Egypt. There are reports that his health is very, very bad and, as you know, he's been transferred to a prison. What are your thoughts about Hosni Mubarak?

PERES: You know, that's probably (inaudible) objective. We are not talking about his future, you know, that the -- unfortunately. His future is short-lived. We have to talk about his past, how do we estimate his 30 years heading Egypt?

From my standpoint I have great respect for him, for as simple as -- and I shall never forget it. It is very much because of him that, for the last 30 years there wasn't actually a war in the Middle East and he do it conscientiously.

He says, I'm not going to risk the life of my young people, of others' young people, and on that issue he stood like a rock. So I have respect for him. Unfortunately, none of us can give him another life, another chance. But historically I think for that point, he should be credited and nobody should ignore (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: And finally, we started talking about all the changes in your region. In general, do you believe that the Arab Spring, the Islamic awakening, whatever you want to call it, the rebellion against dictatorship in that region is a positive thing for the region and a positive thing for Israel?

PERES: It's a must for the region and it's a positive thing for the whole region. I don't share the view of Huntington (ph) that the world is in a clash of cultures. I think the world is in a clash of generations.

There is a young generation all over the world, who tell their parents, thank you very much that you gave us life. Thank you very much that you behaved so nicely to others. But, please, stop imposing upon us your experiences, your great stories. You weren't so great.

AMANPOUR: So you feel good about what you're seeing?

PERES: I feel they are right.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, thank you very much.

PERES: You're welcome.


AMANPOUR: Shimon Peres has known his share of saints and scoundrels on the world stage, including an American president, who launched a world of change with a few well-chosen words. That's when we return.


AMANPOUR: And now for our final thought, imagine a world transformed without firing a shot. It happened on this day 25 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of the divided Berlin and challenged the might of the Communist dictatorship.


REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.



AMANPOUR: There followed other voices, younger voices of change, to drown out the old voices of repression and the wall and the Communist dictatorship it represented came tumbling down. Today, young voices are still being heard in the Arab Spring, another transformative moment, and they've succeeded in bringing down dictatorships all around. They're still struggling against the odds in Syria.

Another American president, Obama, can be an instrument of change. The question is: will he?

That is it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always follow us at Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.