Syrian civil war: The day I met the organ eating cannibal rebel Abu Sakkar's fearsome followers

Kim Sengupta hears how a group he saw as moderates has been pushed to extremes

Even by the standards of a particularly murderous war, a fighter eating the freshly cut out lungs of a dead enemy soldier reached a new depth of savagery; the images on the Internet were, to the outside world, gruesome evidence of a depraved and barbaric conflict.

Yet Abu Sakkar, the man who has introduced cannibalism into the Syrian civil war, was, until quite recently, seen as someone in the mainstream of the revolutionaries trying to overthrow Basher al-Assad; something of a hero even for his part in the defence of Baba Amr when the district in Homs came under onslaught from regime forces.

Indeed his khatiba, or brigade, Omar Al-Farouq, had won praise for taking a stand against the Islamist extremists in rebel ranks who are becoming more of a worry to Western governments than the Damascus regime. They had arrested and executed a commander, Mohammed al-Absi, leader of a group of foreign jihadists, who was suspected over the kidnapping of a British photographer and was affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization since prescribed as a terrorist organization by the Obama administration.

I had spent some time with members of Al-Farouq in Syria. What was clear was that they were not among the more wild eyes, calling for the a medieval caliphate or prepared to pledge allegiance to al-Qa'ida, as alp-Nusra has done. On a number of occasions they talked earnestly at length about the problems the country will face post-Assad and how difficult it would be to repair the fractures between warring communities.

What was also clear was that they, like most other khatibas on the ground, have little regard for the Free Syrian Army, the supposed umbrella group for rebels. The declaration of its 'Supreme Military Council', after the widespread opprobrium for the opposition over the cannibal footage, that they will Abu Sakkar “dead or alive” is highly unlikely to come to anything.

Khalid al-Hamad (Abu Sakkar is his nom de guerre) was not always a bloodthirsty man of violence. People in Baba Amr remember him taking part in marches in the very early days of protests which declaimed sectarianism among the opposition and urged the need for an united front to achieve the reforms being denied by the regime.

The question remains what turned al-Hammad into Abu Sakkar, the man who proudly  appears in a video mutilating a corpse, shouting “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog ….” and then sink his teeth into a body part in his hand?  What made someone who had once cautioned against blaming the Alawites - the minority community from which the ruling elite are drawn - for the regime's actions into their virulent hater? His address to camera ends “We will eat your heart and livers! Oh my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!”

In his public pronouncements since the video appeared Abu Sakkar, while correcting early reports that he ate a piece of heart, pointing out it was lungs, also claimed that the dead soldier's cellphone contained a film clip “ of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them and sticking a stick here and there…. You are not seeing what we are seeing and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighbourhood who were raped? May God bless them all.”

Haitham Mohammed Nassr, a former al-Farouq fighter, who is currently in Turkey, acknowledged that the video footage was extremely damaging to the cause of the opposition, but insisted it should be put in the context of the crimes being committed by the Shabiha, the Alawite pro-regime militia.

There have been reports that members of Abu Sakkar's own family were raped by regime forces. “I do not know any family who has not suffered. We do not want to add to the dishonor of our women by publicizing this. He (Abu Sakkar) should not have done what he did, doing that was haram (wrong in religion) and unwise. But it was a message to the Shabiha. They film young men and women being tortured to try and frighten the people and this was meant as a warning to them.”

There is little doubt that brutality with which the regime responded to peaceful protests in Baba Amr and elsewhere in Syria was the catalyst for the armed uprising which followed. But surely that does not explain such levels of viciousness from both sides? “Everyone has been changed by this war; when you are there, when all you are seeing are fires, bombs, bodies it is very difficult to remain normal” said Mr Nassr. “We all want Basher to go, the longer this goes on the more violent people become, it will be difficult to have a normal society after all this, whatever happens.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
Sport
Sean Abbott
cricketSean Abbott is named Australia's young cricketer of the year
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Partnership Sales Executive - TV

competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global multi-media...

Sauce Recruitment: Account Director

£26017.21 - £32521.19 per annum + OTE $90,000: Sauce Recruitment: My client is...

Recruitment Genius: Linux Systems Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of UK Magento hosting so...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Development Manager - North Kent - OTE £19K

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea