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.

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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