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
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links