We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk

Middle East

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.”