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

The regime in Damascus is using snipers to hunt down its own people. Rebels on the ground in besieged Homs, the site of some of the most extreme brutality, say the international community is hesitating to help Syrians out of fear that it will trigger a civil war. But the threat is merely propaganda from ruler Bashar Assad, they claim.

When the haze dissipates in the late afternoon light, and when the last unfortunate souls hurry across the open space, running in a zigzag pattern, hunting season begins on Cairo Street. There is random shooting all day long at this spot, but from this moment on the shooting becomes targeted. A few people make it to the other side on this day, but one does not. He screams and falls to the ground as he is hit. He was carrying a loaf of bread, something that was no longer available on his side of Cairo Street.

Pedestrians are rarely targeted in the morning. But beginning in the afternoon and continuing throughout the night, the wide, straight street that separates the Khalidiya and Bayada neighborhoods becomes a death zone. That's when they -- the snipers working for Syrian intelligence, who are nothing more than death squads, and the Shabiha killers, known as "the ghosts," mercenaries who are paid daily wages and often earn a little extra income by robbing their victims -- shoot at anything that moves.

The map of Homs is a topography of terror these days. Entire sections of Syria's third-largest city are besieged. Hundreds of thousands have become the hostages of a regime whose president, Bashar Assad, insisted with a chuckle in an interview with America's ABC News, that only a madman would order his forces to shoot at his own people.

What began nine months ago as a peaceful protest against the dictatorship of the Assad dynasty has since become a campaign against the people by the regime -- a regime that, for 41 years, was accustomed to using brutality to enforce submission. Since it realized that this brutality was no longer sufficient, it decided to use even more -- and then even more when the resistance continued to grow. There are no negotiations. In the heavily guarded downtown section of Homs, where the regime feigns an eerie mood of normality for foreign visitors, it has put up signs that read: "The continuation of dialogue guarantees stability."

Random Targets

On Monday, the regime officially yielded to demands by the Arab League, announcing that it would now allow independent observers into the country. But Assad had already promised an end to the violence months ago, and nothing changed. On Tuesday, his forces bombarded Homs with rockets.

Many cities in Syria have become combat zones, and now the uprising has even reached the suburbs of Damascus. But, in Homs, anywhere from five to 15 people die every day, most as the victims of snipers. The insurgents have counted more than 200 sniper positions in Homs, from which people are being shot arbitrarily and without warning -- not because they are protesting, but merely because they are there.

One was the man who crossed the street to buy bread, who a few courageous bystanders pulled out of the line of fire and took to a field hospital the insurgents had set up in Khalidiya. But the victim was removed from the hospital within minutes. "He was shot in the head," a pale doctor says tersely. "We could do nothing for him and we need the space." A young teacher, now filling in as a nurse, says: "Help us! We need medication, weapons, everything!"

In the next room, a doctor is using a thin, folded prayer rug to teach five women how to suture deep wounds. In another room, a man is doubled over in pain as doctors amputate part of his foot after a gunshot wound became infected there. According to an announcement coming from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque, the pedestrian with the bread has just died.

Outside, in the bluish light of dusk, a vegetable truck drives by loaded with his corpse and the body of another person who was shot earlier in the day. A couple stands in front of their house, shaking in anger and despair, watching the truck disappear down the street. The woman, who is veiled, says: "Why can we simply be killed like this? Why is no one helping us? Where is the Arab League, and where are France, Germany, America?" She screams in exasperation. She tells us about an old man around 70 years old who was hit by two bullets in front of her house. "We couldn't get him out for an entire hour. When we had finally moved him into the house, we were so afraid that we tried to rinse away the blood, so that the Shabiha wouldn't attack us. Under these conditions, what does it matter whether we live or die? I'm going to the checkpoint! I'm going to put on an explosive belt, so that at least I can take them with me!"

Homs is a complicated city, a microcosm of the country. More than half of its 1.5 million inhabitants are Sunnis, a little more than 10 percent, respectively, are Christians and Alawites, and the rest of the population is distributed among smaller minorities. The protests against the regime have inevitably developed their own dynamic. President Assad, the highest-ranking generals and the heads of the intelligence agencies are Alawites, as are most of the men in the death squads and the Shabiha militias. Their victims are almost exclusively Sunnis. Soldiers and members of the intelligence agencies who have defected say that the regime has also deployed forces dressed in civilian clothes to attack Alawites in the name of the Sunnis and Sunnis in the name of the Alawites. Peaceful protesters are being painted as Islamist fanatics who have come to rape Christian women.

'They Kill Everyone'

There have been unsolved kidnappings and murders in Homs, and there are reports of beheadings. And even though life is still relatively normal in the Alawite neighborhoods, the tension is building. "The fear of a civil war is prompting other countries to hesitate before helping us," says one of the young coordinators of the Revolutionary Committee in Homs, who says we should call him Ahmed. "But the longer it takes, the greater the risk of civil war."

Ahmed guides us to a meeting of Alawite activists in the Bayada neighborhood. He wants to show us how they are trying to prevent the tension from escalating. The route takes us across Cairo Street, which is still quiet on this morning. It passes through houses where walls have been broken down to create new paths out of the snipers' range of fire. And it leads past knee-high piles of garbage and families fleeing with their suitcases, hoping to make it to other cities, where the situation is hardly any better. We finally arrive on Wadi-al-Arab Street in Bayada.

Different rules apply here than only a few blocks away. The shooting is constant. People gather on both sides of the street, where bullets whip across the asphalt every few minutes on this morning. To get food and medication into the neighborhood, a few brave souls summon up their strength and throw bread, noodles, cigarettes and diapers across the street. Then, using wire snares, ropes and hooks, they try to pull to safety whatever has been left lying in the street.

An old woman stands weeping in front of a building wall. "It's been like this for two months now. This is a prison. Even worse. I live over there (on the other side of the street). But I can't run so fast anymore. They'll kill me if I try to go home. They kill everyone. Katl, katl," she says, repeating the Arabic word for "kill." As the tears run down her cheeks, she sobs for a moment, then rubs her eyes with the back of her hand and says: "Excuse me."

Waiting for an Attack

After half an hour, a small, white delivery van arrives -- the taxi of madness. Those who wish to ride in the makeshift taxi say goodbye to the others and whisper quiet prayers. A man shouts: "And if we die, we die -- for a piece of bread!" Then they get in, first the old woman, her eyes shut, mumbling her prayers. An old man, carrying heavy bags, follows suit, then a few boys who try to lie down between the others, making themselves as small as possible.

The people standing around the van step back. The driver puts it into reverse, gets a 30-meter (98-foot) running start, floors the accelerator and rushes across the street. He almost hits a parked car on the other side before coming to a stop amid cheers from the crowd. No shots were fired this time. Three other cars perform the same daring stunt, and everyone makes it.

Prominent Alawites and a Christian from different cities have gathered in the house of a Sunni sheikh on the other side. They are planning demonstrations in relatively safe neighborhoods to protest the government's attempts to incite religious violence. "The world should know that the civil war is Assad's propaganda," one man says to murmured assent from the others.

The problem, Ahmed explains, is that both of the sniper positions at the two ends of Wadi-al-Arab Street are in Alawite neighborhoods and are flanked by militias from the neighborhood. "The Alawites are the last bastion of the regime," he says. "The Sunnis are the victims, no matter what we say."

But this, he adds, is a rather theoretical debate, since it is questionable whether they will even be alive in a few days. Some 200 to 300 tanks of the "Assad army" have been posted outside Homs for weeks. Residents anticipate an attack any day now. Everyone wonders what is making Assad hesitate, hoping that it is the mistrust of generals in his own army. The highest-ranking officers may be Alawites, but most of the soldiers, non-commissioned officers and lower-ranking officers are Sunnis. If they are forced to attack, men from the militias and the intelligence services will be standing at their backs to force them to shoot -- by threatening to shoot anyone who refuses to kill.

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