Life and death in a terrified town near Homs preparing for a bloody onslaught by the Syrian army
Late afternoon in southern Syria and a night sky is fast descending on a dark and terrified town, down the valley from Homs. An iron door creaks open and a young trader, Mahmoud, bounds up the stairwell of his home carrying a video camera, which he has just used to film himself digging his own grave. The cemetery is just over the road, behind a shuttered row of shops that adjoin a sniper ally. Behind it, no more than 500 metres away, is the Syrian army.
“This gives me dignity,” said Mahmoud beaming proudly as he showed the footage of a shovel thudding time and again among white tomb stones into the hard red dirt of the graveyard. “That’s all I want from this life from now on,” he said. “Getting rich, or getting married doesn’t matter.”
He fumbled in the dark for a withered mandarin orange to offer as hospitality, then continued: “If I die as a martyr at least I will be dignified. Living like this I am not.”
All around this town, which the Guardian is not naming at the request of locals, there is a sense of the inevitable. People are preparing for an onslaught that they fear will soon pitch them against the large and vengeful military hidden on the outskirts. Each day and night, the regime’s snipers, perched in low set government buildings, remind residents that the might of the Syrian army is out there – and preparing to come after them.
The sniper rounds crack through the still mid-winter air like a stock whip. Little else breaks the silence in this besieged town, apart from the forlorn echoes of the muezzin, the odd rooster, and the splutter of clapped-out motorbikes. The shots are often followed minutes later by the familiar commotion of squealing tyres and frantic shouts as the dead and injured arrive at the town’s medical clinic.
For the seriously wounded, it’s a rush through regime-held land, sometimes under fire, to the Lebanese border. Or a short trip to a makeshift morgue. The rest face dedicated care in an under-equipped clinic. The main hospital is under regime military control and off limits.
The morning after Mahmoud showed the Guardian his preparations for mortality, speakers attached to the town’s mosque towers crackled to life announcing the deaths of three men who had been taken prisoner just near the graveyard two days earlier.
They had been returned to their families with bullet and knife wounds and were to be buried in the afternoon.
Around 12:30pm, desolate streets, lined with grey concrete houses, slowly started to fill with people. The men milled outside a mosque – the minaret of which had been splintered by a tank shell two weeks earlier. Women stood quietly on the pavement.
Some men wore a scarf in the colours of the Syrian flag that predated the revolution launched by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, when he started his clan’s rise to power more than four decades ago. Others carried white flags proclaiming the dead as martyrs.
The whole crowd seemed to be staring into the middle distance. Their mood shifted easily between defiance and fear. Funerals have become a regular get-together here; mourners were clearly used to the melancholy rituals that send yet more young men to their graves.
The three bodies were carried from the mosque in a procession through town. They neared the edge of sniper ally, where a giant poster of a smiling Assad had been placed at the end. Any sniper wanting to hit targets would first have to shoot a likeness of the Syrian leader. So far none had.
The crowd of mourners had swollen to about 2,000 and their collective rage was gathering steam. “One, one, one, Sunni blood is one,” a man screamed into a microphone. Another vented against the Alawite sect. Protesters here say they used to view the Alawites — a heterodox sect aligned to Shia Islam from which Syria’s power base is largely drawn — as a privileged elite.
Now many openly admit that they see the Alawites through a different prism – that of a persecutor; worse, a persecutor acting out both an ancient Islamic rivalry and a contemporary bid for control of the region on behalf of Iran.
Sectarianism is clearly beginning to bite in some quarters of the heartland of the Syrian revolution, the vast tract of land spreading north from Homs through Hama and Idlib, and south from the besieged city to the Lebanese border.
And according to some locals, it is a two-way trend. Ahmed, unemployed, who took part in all of the town’s weekly demonstrations after the uprising against Assad’s rule began last March, said he was detained last September shortly after a rally.
“They took me to prison, they spat on me and accused me of being a terrorist,” he said this week, cursing Assad and his jailers, all of whom he said were Alawite. “They tied me to a wall, they electrocuted me here [he pointed at his groin] and now nothing works. I’m finished. They are pushing this country into a religious war that they will certainly get.”
Next to him on the floor of the barren and frigid room sat a young conscript soldier, named Jalal, who fled from his Damascus-based unit to his hometown a month ago when he finally saw a chance to run.
“Those explosions you saw in Damascus in December [an apparent twin car bombing], we were told to avoid the area for two hours before,” he claimed. “It was the same with the suicide bombing in Midan [an explosion one month later in the centre of Damascus].
“We could not leave our barracks because cameras were watching us all the time. I have at least 20 colleagues who would defect now if they could.”
Four houses down, a Free Syria Army position was guarding the town’s northern entrance. The defensive position consisted of a 50 calibre machine gun, around a dozen Kalashnikovs and several rocket-propelled grenades. Not far away were Syrian military tanks and artillery pieces.
Between the two sides was a no-man’s land of sorts – fields of green orchards that the rebels use to test Syrian positions and where some brave farmers still tentatively till their land ahead of the spring.
Two kilometres north of town, a giant pile of red earth sits incongruously on top of the grass. In the bottom of the two-metre deep pit below, four bodies jut from the soil. Several have been eaten by animals and two more were bound by their hands and feet before they were killed.
Nobody has gathered these bodies. And, according to clearly uncomfortable rebels and town elders, no one is planning to. “They don’t come from here,” said a local leader, Dr Abbas. “Nobody knows what happened to them.”
Any dead local men would have been claimed by their relatives. Whether they were regime defectors killed by their former side or regime soldiers killed by the opposition is not clear.
Many of the soldiers at the nearby checkpoint were recent defectors who had joined the ranks of the local rebel unit, which is now estimated to be 800-strong. Several were unemployed local men wearing beards and clothing worn by followers of the Salafist sect of Sunni Islam — who follow a radical interpretation of the Qur’an and want to re-establish the seventh century utopia that they believe existed during the Prophet Muhammad’s time.
Salafists have been blamed by the regime for being behind the uprising, which it says is part of a conspiracy aimed at breaking Syria’s alliance with Iran, with the help of western state plotters.
This week, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Muslims to travel to Syria to fight the regime – a plea seized on by Assad’s supporters as evidence of a plot – but widely denounced here as unhelpful, even by the Free Syria Army who are in desperate need of more men, guns and money.
“You in the west get too upset by Salafists,” said one local man, Muhammad. “Just because they believe in the old ways does not mean they hate you because of who or what you are.”
“This started as a true revolution and it will finish as one,” said Nassir, a local man who had offered us refuge. “We will not let it be hijacked by anyone. I don’t accept any intervention, Nato or otherwise. And not from al-Qa’ida. We will finish by ourselves what we started.”
The means to do that seem limited at this point, nearly 12 months on from a protest in the southern Syrian city of Deraa that sparked the nationwide chaos now crippling the country.
“We need more weapons,” said one smuggler who claimed the supply line from Lebanon had close to dried up over the past week. “We don’t have a lot of ammunition either.”
Even if the guerillas could get new weapons, the chances of moving them towards Homs, where they are most needed, have been greatly diminished during the past 10 days, when the Syrian military has cut off the main supply lines to the country’s third city as its rockets and shells have relentlessly pounded rebel areas. Electricity is often switched off for days. Petrol is in desperately short supply and phone lines and the internet don’t work.
“Impossible,” said a rebel driver, who threw his hands up when asked about reaching the embattled districts of Bab al-Amr and al-Khalidiya. “It will take at least a week to find new ways in there.”
Despite its lack of firepower, the Free Syria Army has seized — and held — some land near the Lebanese border, which it is now trying to secure against a widely expected regime advance.
It is classic insurgent territory, rich green farmland, rugged treelines and coarse citrus trees, stark and devoid of fruit in the winter chill.
In a small farmhouse, not far from a still-functional Roman-era water mill, a group of tired guerillas are taking stock after a night of patrolling. A second world war Lee Enfield rifle leans against a chipped grey wall and four rusting rocket tubes have been discarded next to a litter of puppies. “They don’t work,” complained one man. “Lebanon is full of weapons and they keep sending us ones like this. Six out of ten of them are useless.”
Alongside the defunct rockets was at least one new rocket in a plastic sheath. It was very much a prized possession, along with the new machine gun that was being fixed to the back of a utility truck.
Farm houses between here and Homs house dozens, if not hundreds of similar arsenals; enough weaponry to keep the Syrian Army guessing, but not enough to defeat it.
Amid the regular distant thunder of artillery strikes, insurgent tactics are starting to bite. An armoured Syrian vehicle burned on the horizon throughout one morning. Later the same day, a rebel leader arrived back in town with a triumphant smile.
“Allahu Akbar,” the uniformed captain shouted as he jumped from his car. “The men got the general on the highway.” Rebels had just attacked a regime convoy on the road from Homs and a senior military figure is believed to have been killed. The retaliatory sniper fire was more intensive that afternoon than on any other day this past week.
Three men were rushed into the medical clinic; two of them Christian milkmen and the third an Alawite. All had been shot. The Alawite man had a gaping wound to the back of his skull and was immediately piled into the back of a car, two nurses performing compressions on him and ventilating him with a handheld pump all the way to the border.
Back in the clinic, one of the two Christian men shook uncontrollably on the floor from the impact of the bullet lodged in his back. The second, with an abdomen wound, was thrown onto an operating table. The bullet had passed through him and hit his friend, who was riding pillion passenger on his motorbike.
“They talk about sectarianism yet we will help anyone who comes to us, even if they are not with the revolution,” said one of the physicians, Dr Qassem. “We will fix these men, although the Alawite is in a very bad situation. I don’t think he’ll survive.”
On the carpeted floor of a meeting hall, Dr Abbas explained how he had mediated recent disputes between some of the towns Christian families and its Sunni majority residents. “It is not about these families being Christians,” he said. “It is about members of their families joining the Shabiha [a pro-Assad militia] and attacking us.
“Two members of that family were caught by the Free Syria Army and as a result they captured some Sunnis. The Sunnis then captured some Christians and after negotiations they were all let go. It is not a difference of religions. The Christians, most of them support the regime.”
Further up the road in Homs, tit for tat kidnappings have led to sectarian mass killings — a phenomenon that has deeply divided the city and alarmed people in the hinterland. “That’s what the regime wants,” said Dr Abbas. “Us against them.”
For now, another issue has split this town — one that demonstrates that while a revolution can stir hopes and dreams, it can also bury others. A town elder last week accepted a senior administrative position, which he said he would use for the benefit of all its residents, despite the fact that it meant he was answerable to the government.
“He had dreamt about this position all his life, tried three times to get it and failed,” said one interlocutor. “Now he had the chance, because nobody else wanted it, and he took it, despite the cost to the revolution in this town and to the family.
“The Free Syrian Army now want to kill him. We told him last night that if he doesn’t leave town, we will kill him first.”
On Wednesday morning, the old man sipped his coffee among his chickens and cats, then started his car and drove to Homs — along the checkpoint-lined highway. His journey casts him as a potential regime man and now means he faces life in exile, or death on return.
“Revolutions are messy,” said the man’s distraught son. “It takes bad things to get to good places. We need to focus on the outcomes.”
At the graveyard, grieving female relatives of the latest casualties were placing flowers. More graves were being dug nearby. Mahmoud’s hole in the ground remained neat and empty — for now.
The wounded Alawite man will not be buried here. He survived the journey to Lebanon — a glimmer of good news in a despairing week in Syria. But the cemetery seems sure to remain the focal point of life in this town that fought back.
“Yes there will be more martyrs,” said Mahmoud. “They give us dignity and they are our destiny.”
Some names have been changed.
from Martin Chulov