Hama residents reveal city's brutal crackdown
Published 07/08/2011 | 05:00
It was the start of Ramadan, a period of Muslim fast and prayer to reinforce the virtues of patience, humility and submission to God.
But for residents of the Syrian city of Hama, last week there was little opportunity for such peaceful devotion.
Isolated for weeks by tanks and President Bashar al-Assad's army, from last Sunday onwards Hama was subjected to a vicious onslaught.
"The regime is killing us, and no one will stop Assad," one desperate health worker said. "This is our message: stop the killing. We want freedom, only freedom."
The attack finally persuaded the United Nations Security Council to approve a statement deploring the regime's use of force against civilians, after long prevarication by Russia and China.
But the decision has no legal force, and -- after a week in which at least 100 people are believed to have been killed in Hama alone -- the health worker was blunt: "They only give us words, and words are not enough".
Hama has been singled out for a clampdown because of its people's growing defiance. Up to 25,000 civilians were massacred here in 1982 on the orders of Mr Assad's father, then president, after an attempted uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
With protests swelling weekly until half the population were on the streets, the government decided to act.
It is almost impossible for outside observers to access to the city and almost all communications have been cut, along with water and electricity.
Yet in clandestine satellite phone conversations with residents, it is possible to gather a frightening picture of life -- and death -- inside Hama.
Saleh, 32, a computer programmer, told how tanks entered the city of 800,000 people early last Sunday.
"I was at home when I heard the cries of 'Allah Akbar' in the street below. I ran out with a friend and joined the crowd heading towards the city gates. People told me that tanks were approaching and we wanted to stop them. Our plan was to become a human shield, and protect our city. But the tanks opened fire. I was shocked, they were shooting randomly at people, houses, mosques."
There is no doubt that all the mainstream protesters are peaceful but elements of Syria's opposition now admit armed insurgents could push the situation towards civil war.
Activists at the forefront of the protest movement confirmed that an attack on government troops in Hama last week was almost certainly the work of fighters previously involved in the insurgency against US forces in Iraq.
Protests continued in the capital Damascus, in Dera'a, Homs and in Qamishli.
But in Hama -- for the first time in more than a dozen Fridays -- there were no reports of protests.
Residents were furious at reports of extremist groups.
"We refuse those people," one said. "I am a Muslim, but they are killers -- they are not part of our movement."