Syrian civilians hit hard by spreading violence

Associated Press Modified: June 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm •  Published: June 23, 2012
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KHAN SHEIKHOUN, Syria (AP) — Her daughter, 8, often hides in a closet, terrified of flying bullets. Her son, 6, still asks for his father months after he turned up in a morgue. And the family has little income because her brother-in-law was killed too.

Umm Moussa's extended family is smaller now. They live day to day in a house of simply furnished concrete rooms around an empty courtyard in this dusty city in northern Syria.

"I'm always worried that after all I've lost, I'll lose something else," said the thin, shy 27-year-old, leafing through photos of her dead husband.

As Syria's 15-month-old uprising has morphed from a popular call for reform into an armed insurgency, the country's civilians have paid the highest price.

Most of the more than 14,000 people activists say have been killed are civilians. Countless others have watched their livelihoods collapse, their neighborhoods turn to battlegrounds and their friends and relatives die or disappear.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Journalist Ben Hubbard was part of a three-member Associated Press team that spent two weeks with rebels in northern Syria, collecting on-the-ground information on the revolt against President Bashar Assad — the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.

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During two weeks in northern Syria, three Associated Press journalists met scores of civilians whose lives have been altered by the conflict: students who cannot cross army checkpoints to reach schools and universities; merchants whose suppliers have stopped delivering; and farmers who left land fallow because they can no longer afford diesel for irrigation pumps.

The international community has harshly condemned President Bashar Assad's regime for its role in the violence, endorsing a plan by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to try to end it.

But that plan has fallen far short — as is obvious here in Khan Sheikhoun, a city of 80,000 people surrounded by wheat fields and orchards on the country's main north-south highway.

Six military checkpoints ring the city, housing snipers who fire on civilians and rebels alike. Troops block roads to the fields and sometimes set them ablaze, meaning farmers can smell the smoke of their crops burning but cannot fight the flames.

Regime forces have also seized the state hospital and other downtown buildings, parking armored vehicles out front and piling sandbags on the roofs. Residents call the shuttered central boulevard the "street of death" because so many people have been shot there.

Rebels run the rest of the city and have mined its entries. They blast army vehicles passing on the highway with rocket-propelled grenades, and patrol in two armored SUVs that they captured.

They also run a clinic and hang out in a former security building. A bust of the former president, Assad's late father Hafez, is positioned near the entrance, defaced with devilish horns sprouting from the head.

The regime shells occasionally, and the rebels clash with those manning the checkpoints daily.

One sweltering afternoon, rebels blasted machine guns around the corners of buildings while sniper fire chipped at the streets and walls around them.

Standing at the door to his house, Mohammed al-Safa, 24, listed neighbors struck by those snipers: the family across the street who'd abandoned their home; the 10-year-old girl paralyzed by a bullet in the back; the elderly man shot dead on his roof while adjusting his satellite dish.

"May God protect you!" al-Safa's mother yelled as rebels rushed down their alley.

"The Free Army is all we have to protect us," al-Safa said. "No one else can."

The media team for the city's rebels, now based in a former office of Assad's ruling Baath party, says the numbers show the regime's disregard for civilians: Of the more than 130 people killed in the uprising, only 31 were fighters, said activist Hisham Nijim.

When asked about the Annan plan and the nearly 300 observers sent to monitor it, residents recall "the massacre."

On May 15, U.N. observers left a security building, walked past a number of sand berms and through a rowdy anti-regime protest about 100 meters (yards) away. Apparently feeling protected by the observers, the crowd inched toward the soldiers guarding the building, chanting, "The people want to execute Bashar!" and "Traitors! The Syrian army are traitors!" according to a video of the event.

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