Inside Syria's Death Zone Assad's Regime Hunts People in Homs 

Part 2: Peaceful Protests Are Dead

Assad's regime speaks of foreign terrorists and a "global conspiracy." His thugs torture prisoners to extract confessions to support the claim that a Saudi-Israeli-American plot is at work in Syria -- although they themselves are the ones shooting at fellow Syrians and even at their own soldiers, and afterwards parading the bodies on government television as the victims of the alleged conspiracy.

The consensus of peaceful protests, which had lasted until the late summer, is literally dead. The fighters, most of them army defectors, have filled the vacuum. Under the nominal leadership of a colonel who fled to Turkey, they are trying to establish the so-called "Free Syrian Army," or FSA. It is unclear whether this FSA actually consists of more than 15,000 soldiers, as it claims, but its numbers are increasing by the day. In Homs, at any rate, it has managed to turn a drab, working-class suburb into a symbol of hope. Baba Amr, a poor district in the southwestern part of the city, is the first liberated zone in central Syria. Within these three square kilometers, everything is different.

On the way there, not far from the headquarters of the air force intelligence agency, the blood-covered corpses of two torture victims lie in the grass by the side of the road. Here, in the no-man's land between the opposing fronts, no one dares to recover the bodies.

At the first FSA checkpoint, the men salute and introduce themselves by stating their rank and the name of their unit. They have weapons, but only two uniform jackets, which they put on in turn to pose for photos. There are armed guards at almost every corner, and small units of a dozen men each are positioned behind sandbags and barricades at various points along the perimeter of the neighborhood, which is home to more than 50,000 people. Families from the neighborhood bring food to the men, who are armed with Kalashnikovs and a few RPGs. Baba Amr is protected by a total of 500 soldiers under the command of the defected Lieutenant Colonel Abdul-Razak Tlas, a distant nephew of the former defense minister.

On the day he disappeared, says Tlas, he received calls from generals in his neighborhood, who said: "Come back! We'll make sure you won't have any problems. You'll get money, a lot of money!"

He didn't return.

A few days later, he says, others called and said: "If you don't turn yourself in, we'll kill your wife and children!" But, by then, the family had already gone into hiding.

Life in the Liberated Zone

An eerie quiet hangs over Baba Amr at the moment. The army withdrew in November after heavy fighting. At the FSA checkpoint across from the university, a space of only 25 meters lies between the rebels and Assad's troops. It's been this way for six weeks. "As long as they don't attack, we don't shoot, either," says Tlas.

And what happens if the tanks come? "We'll stall them as long as possible." And then? "We'll withdraw, just as we did in October, the last time the army attacked Baba Amr," forcing thousands of residents to flee to nearby villages. "After all, we don't have any tanks."

But what about all the talk of foreign support? "You mean the global conspiracy? The one Bashar, that dog, is always mentioning?" one of the deserters interjects. "We could use it," Tlas says hoarsely. "We would be grateful for every round of ammunition! But what we really need is a no-fly zone!"

There is something desperate about calling for a no-fly zone when Assad has hardly used any aircraft yet. So far, guns and tanks have been enough to kill thousands. "Nevertheless," Tlas insists, "such a zone would encourage many officers to defect with their men and tanks."

In the relative calm of the moment, the neighborhood is doing its best to remain self-sufficient. Committees handle the distribution of food and water, as well as the electricity supply. Defectors from the army and doctors are coming from around the country. Couriers bring money and medications. Shepherds discreetly drive their herds along the edges of the neighborhood. Even Friday prayers at the largest local mosque have taken on a secular tone: "And if you still have diesel in your home, share it with the others! If you have food, share it! Open your houses to the refugees! God is with the charitable! Also, the hospital needs blood donors! Rh negative!"

A chain-smoking trio -- a greengrocer, the manager of a chain of perfume stores and a computer scientist -- coordinates Baba Amr's contact with the outside world. In the apartment the group uses as its headquarters, sheikhs stumble across the tangled cables coming from several computers, the phones ring all night long, students upload videos of the most recent protests and the shooting victims, and hand grenades, ashtrays and coffee cups are piled high on overloaded tables.

A Victim is Buried

Everyone talks nonstop. When one of the young activists receives a call, he suddenly falls silent and stares at his screen without moving. His cousin has been shot to death. He lived in Dar Kabira, a village outside Homs, and was just on his way home with neighbors when it happened.

The Shabiha at the checkpoint in the main road had apparently checked their identification cards, allowed them to pass and, seconds later, opened fire on the car. Two survived, but the cousin, a 20-year-old man named Malik, was killed. It isn't entirely clear what kinds of weapons the Shabiha were using, but half of Malik's head was blown off. He had worked as a baker in Homs and was supporting his younger siblings. His dream, says the uncle on the other end of the line, was to own his own bakery.

The next morning Malik's body, wrapped in a white shroud, is laid out in a wooden coffin in the small mosque in Dar Kabira. A plastic bag is wrapped around his neck where his head should be. One of the bystanders offers to remove the bag for the photographer, but Malik's uncle begs them not to: "No, don't, please!"

It is a powerful image: an entire village burying one of its own. The houses are empty on this morning. Almost everyone is in the street. The village dignitaries in their finest robes lead the funeral procession, followed by the farmers, children and women. It is a scene of stone-faced mourners, tears quickly brushed aside and muttered curses. Girls scatter flowers from the rooftops. The crowd chants that this is Malik's path to paradise. They force themselves to celebrate. This is their custom, but it isn't working well anymore. The people of Dar Kabira are too enraged to celebrate.

"They storm our village at night, they break into the houses, and they arrest and shoot people to death," one of the men says angrily, "just because they are demonstrating peacefully. What kind of a government does this? Bashar Assad says he is a legitimate president. Does a legitimate president do something like this? We may be farmers, but we will no longer bow our heads! Even if they massacre half of our village!"

A New Mood of Trust

The journey back into the city has become dangerous. A car that remains ahead of us reports new checkpoints, and the convoy leaves the road to continue on field paths. Farmers offer us tea and protection for the night. We continue on foot and on motorcycles until we reach the first guard posts at Baba Amr.

In the past, Syria was a country of paranoid suspicion. But in the months of the insurrection, an unprecedented mood of trust has developed. Strangers open their doors when deserters or the injured need a place to hide. Passersby warn drivers about new sniper positions and checkpoints. Doctors treat the injured in government hospitals, even though a single denunciation could be a death sentence for them.

The regime, which spied on and spread fear among its own population, is now being infiltrated itself. Informants in the military and intelligence services warn outsiders of arrests, pass on lists of people being sought and reveal the government's attack plans. But the system is still holding up.

"What does the world do?" an old man standing on the cemetery hill in Dar Kabira asks, without expecting an answer. When what was left of Malik was lowered into the grave, the old man gazed across the cold winter landscape, as if hoping to find an answer somewhere out there. And then he finds what was looking for, and says: "Back there at the creek, the people from intelligence sometimes drop off the bodies. It doesn't stop. Bashar will have them kill as many people as the world allows him to kill."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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