In Baba Amr, Snipers Shoot At Everything That Moves
By Jess HillFebruary 28, 2012
The Syrian army has been shelling the tiny Homs suburb of Baba Amr for almost a month. Families are crammed into shelters as their wounded die beside them — and there is no end in sight.
In high buildings throughout Baba Amr, men fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crouch beside open windows, training their sights on the streets below.
Baba Amr, a suburb of Homs, is infested with snipers. They shoot at anything that moves: cars speeding the injured to field hospitals, young men sprinting across narrow roads. "These aren't just ordinary snipers - they have brought only the meanest snipers, and put them all around us," says Abo Emad, a resident of the Sunni Muslim district.
"They even shoot at cats. We have wounded cats as well as wounded people," he says. "They have something in their brains that just tells them to kill, kill everything. That's why we're trying to fight this regime, because, you can imagine, these people were controlling us for the past 40 years. How can we be safe anymore if they're shooting at cats?"
I'm speaking to Abo Emad via Skype, one of the only ways to communicate with people in Homs. He's one of a handful of Homsis who speaks English, so he spends most of his time giving information and interviews to Western journalists.
"I'd been behind my computer all day today, and I just needed to go outside to smell the air, just for an hour," he tells me. But the street outside offers little relief: It is a scene of total destruction - the result of 25 straight days of shelling. "You can see a lot of blood in the street," says Emad. "You look at that blood and you think, 'Whose blood is this? Is it for my brother, for cousin of mine, for friends of mine?'"
Baba Amr may be the most dangerous place in the world right now. Recently, Tom Malinowski from Human Rights Watch said what was happening in Homs was worse than the carnage unleashed on Sarajevo in the 1990s, and worse than Grozny, "the city in Russia that was levelled by Russian forces" in the 1990s. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.
Emad says that since the assault started on Baba Amr, on February 4, he has lost 15 friends and five cousins. "Literally, we're all losing someone every day. And still counting. Here is the problem - and still counting. Today my friend, yesterday my friend, the day before my cousin… Tomorrow - or today, maybe - it could be me. It's not far away from me, or anyone else here."
Twenty-eight thousand men, women and children are trapped in Baba Amr. Last week, before American journalist Marie Colvin was killed alongside French photographer Remi Ochlik, Colvin reported that the Syrian army had dug a trench around the neighbourhood, making it almost impossible for residents to escape. On Monday, activists reported that 64 people were killed at a checkpoint in Homs. They were trying to flee Baba Amr.
Medical supplies aren't just running low in the besieged suburb - they're practically nonexistent. "People come to you with a huge injury, and you can't do anything more than wrap their injury with a bandage," he says. "After you go to the field hospital, and take what you can from the two or three doctors, you can't do anything else. You have to go back home, or to the shelters we have, waiting for some miracle to happen."
Emad says that even the "aid" that was momentarily allowed into Baba Amr last week is dangerous. "The Syrian Red Crescent works with the regime," says Emad, referring to the local partner of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Le Figaro reporter Edith Bouvier and Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy - both injured in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik - refused to be evacuated by the Syrian Red Crescent. Local activists reported that the reporters didn't trust the organisation. At the time of writing, the aid agency had just re-entered Baba Amr and evacuated three Syrians but the journalists are still there, in need of urgent medical attention. They are holed up in a safe house.
Asked about this mistrust in their local partner, an ICRC spokesman told TheGuardian: "Unsurprisingly in a volatile and dangerous situation there may be instances of mistrust. We work closely with the Syria Arab Red Crescent volunteers who have risked their lives in the current crisis. However we have heard reports of instances of misuse of the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblems." Any aid agency working in Syria has little choice but to work with the Syrian regime. But Emad says that the aid workers who entered Baba Amr didn't even try to help those who most needed help. "When [the aid workers] came in, they only took around 27 people … and those people didn't even have serious injuries. We have more than 2,000 people who need urgent medical attention," he says. A spokesman for the ICRC has confirmed that seven Syrians wounded in shelling were evacuated, as well as 20 sick women and children. "The whole operation was just a joke by the regime," says Emad.
Suddenly, Emad goes quiet. "I'm so sorry, I have to go - this is urgent," he says, and he's gone.
IT'S PAST MIDNIGHT IN ANOTHER SAFEHOUSE in Baba Amr, and the sound of men's voices - urgent, lulled, then suddenly uproarious - almost drown out the voice of Tarek al-Sayed.
Tarek is still grieving his brother, 27-year-old Rami al-Sayed - Baba Amr's most celebrated, trusted and prolific citizen journalist. Rami was killed last week, after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the back of a pick-up truck he was travelling in, says Tarek. Shrapnel exploded into Rami's body - his stomach, his chest, his thigh. Over the next three hours, he slowly bled to death.
There was nothing Dr Mohammed al-Mohammed, one of the few doctors left in Baba Amr, could do. There was no way to evacuate him, and little else but bandages with which to treat him. Standing over Rami's body, a visibly exhausted Dr al-Mohammed wept as he spoke. "Rami was killed because he was broadcasting real footage from Baba Amr," he said. "But we will have one thousand Ramis... Our revolution will prevail."
Now, for the first time, Rami's brother Tarek al-Sayed has decided to reveal his real name. "I promised myself I would continue what my brother was doing," he says through a translator. "Rami was the one in charge of filming [from our group] - now I will be. I'll be filming on my own - I don't have anyone else to go out with me."
He and his friends will have to move house soon; they change location almost every day. "Almost all the families open their doors to us - they welcome us wherever we go," he says.
I ask him if he is frightened. "I'm not scared," he says, "and the people around me aren't either. We are only sorry to have to depart from each other when we die."
The Skype connection drops out again; it has cut out every few minutes since we began talking. The connection revives just long enough for Tarek to finish what he was saying. "Making videos is the only way to show the world what atrocities are happening here," says Tarek, "the only way we can put the international community in a shameful position.
"Every single last person in Baba Amr has a story that needs to be told."
ABO EMAD IS BACK ONLINE.
"I'm going to tell you something - you won't believe it," he says. "We're buying ammunition from the regime's soldiers - from Assad's men," he says. "One week ago, we even bought a video showing artillery fire being shot at Baba Amr, from the soldier who was actually bombing the neighbourhood! How can you imagine that the one who is killing you is selling the video proving that he is killing you! There is something that doesn't make sense."
There's no way to independently verify what Emad is saying, but veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has said that increasingly, soldiers are hedging their bets both ways. Last week, Fisk told Four Corners, "I was talking to a friend of mine who came out of Homs just five days ago, and he said that half the Free Syrian Army - the armed opposition - are also working for the government, and half of the government army are also working for the Free Syrian Army."
When Fisk's friend approached a government checkpoint, he was waved through; government troops were acting on instructions from their supposed enemy, the Free Syrian Army, to let foreigners through. "There's so much doubt in the government forces about whether Bashar will hold on," Fisk said, "that they're collaborating with the opposition."
Emad suspects the motivation may be more base than that: low-ranking soldiers in the Syrian army are poorly paid, and it's possible, he says, that they are selling videos and information simply to make extra money.
Suddenly there is a long pause. I wait, thinking the internet connection must have dropped out again. Then Emad speaks again, his voice low and audibly shocked.
"I've just received the news of my friend… he got killed today," he says. "Actually, I can't believe it. We were together two months ago, at demonstrations… He was climbing up to yell loudly, and now… now…"
Emad's friend, Abu Shadi, a volunteer with the Free Syrian Army, has just been killed at the funeral for another defected soldier. "They [the regime's army] were bombing and shelling at the funeral. My friend, he died today. He got a few bullets in his body and he, he passed away.
"You go to the funeral to say bye to your friend, and suddenly you just lie down beside your friend," Emad continues, his voice trembling. "So it's like that now in Syria - especially in Homs.
"You know, now, at this moment, it's not about democracy or freedom here in Syria. It's about staying alive," he says imploringly. "Now we're fighting to stay alive, not to get our freedom, because the freedom is nothing against your life. We're not asking for freedom right now. We're asking the regime, OK, stop shelling at us! We're asking for our life!"
I ask Emad how he thinks the conflict in Baba Amr will end.
"It's not going to end easily," he says, and then pauses. "We really need real support for the Free Syrian Army. I wasn't talking about that before today, actually, and you're the first one I say that to." Local activist Abu Bakr told Agence France-Presse that more than 700 people had been killed in Baba Amr since February 4. "Don't I have the right to protect myself, and my family?" Emad asks. "I think we do. So we're asking to arm, with heavy weapons, the Free Syrian Army. It's the only way to end what is happening right now. For sure, it's the only way."
Beyond the trenches surrounding Baba Amr, Syrians who still support the Assad regime voted for a new constitution that proposes to end the Baath party's near-five-decade stranglehold on power. Not entirely, of course: Assad would still have the right to appoint the prime minister and the government, and veto certain legislation. Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told MSNBC that the referendum made a "mockery of the aspirations of the Syrian people".
In Baba Amr, they made a mockery of their own: Locals created a fake polling station and dropped broken pieces of spent rockets they found on the streets into ballot boxes.