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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Children Fall Victim as the Battle Rages for Syria’s Gateway City

The following was published in the Telegraph on 26-5-11 under my pseudonym Hussein al Haqq

A critical battle is under way in one of Syria’s gateway cities with forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad launching full scale attacks on civilian neighbourhoods, killing and injuring children and protesters by the dozen.

The Daily Telegraph has witnessed devastating scenes from the key city of Al Rastan – a city which bridges the country’s north-south divide – in which tanks and other heavy weapons are being used against schools and homes.

Armed opposition groups have taken to building barricades against the onslaught. And according to residents many parts of Al Rastan have become no-go zones with skirmishes and military raids a daily occurrence.

The much feared ‘shabiha’ – pro-Assad militias- storm houses, hunting defected soldiers and arresting suspected dissidents as they go – ‘looking for reasons to kill’ one resident said. Government snipers sit atop local security headquarters during the day, picking off those who venture too close, whilst at night more random shootings follow.

All public services in Rastan have been cut – including the vitally important schools. With nowhere to go during the day, children have in some cases become helpless targets.

One father wept as he recounted how a bullet meant for him had passed through his shoulder and into the head of his five-year-old son.

‘I was running from a gunfight near my house and was holding my son against my chest,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I felt the bullet hit me from behind, but I didn’t realise he’d been hit until I got inside the house, and I was covered in his blood.’

Surrounded by family in his small living room, he held up photographs of the child victim as proof of the event – the lifeless body and bloodied face offering an awful glimpse into the reality of Assad’s cruel regime. The boy had been killed the previous day, and still clearly in shock from his loss, he was unable to keep back the tears.

The boy’s uncle spoke up: “The world took notice of Hamza Khatip,” he said speaking of the 13yr old who’s mangled body was returned to his parents a full month after his arrest in April and who has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution. “Well our children are dying too.”

He continued: “How can the government accuse such small children of being terrorists? There are hundreds more Hamzas.”

He told of another death – a seven-year-old killed by a bullet to the heart as he sat in his parent’s car. ‘The problem is that after these children are killed, State TV airs interviews with people it says are the parents, and they blame ‘armed gangs.’ It’s all lies. Its disgusting – this man’s son died in his arms, and the government calls us violent! How many more children are going to die before someone helps us?’

Reports of the dead come almost daily, and those whose injuries have not killed them must brave the hospitals which security forces often raid. The National Hospital in Homs is the nearest major hospital, but locals have learnt not to go there for help with reports of attacks on patients and brutal treatment.

‘These people are animals,’ one dissident exclaimed. ‘I went with my friend to a funeral for 13 people the government had killed, but rather than let us mourn our dead, they killed even more. I came home without my friend that day.’

But the battle in Al Rastan is not totally one sided. Despite facing such force – 60 tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to be on the city’s fringes yesterday – man people refuse to run from the gunfire.

A mid week evening protest last week was free from government interference such is the level of security the opposition has managed to establish in some areas. ‘They know not to come here,’ one member asserted as he observed the crowd. ‘We have hundreds of fighters coming from all over Syria to help us.

The government keeps talking about armed gangs. Well we do have weapons, but we use them to protect ourselves. The army has launched a war against its own people – even more tanks lie in wait outside the city. We know its going to be hard but we can’t give up now – we’ve come too far.’

Rastan has become a focal point in the country’s ongoing protest movement because of its strategic and symbolic importance. The largely Sunni city is 20km north of the provincial capital Homs, and sits on the vital access route to the cities of Latakia and Hama. Without Rastan, the country is essentially divided in two, and the regime would be unable to continue quelling unrest in the north. The city also has a long history of political activism, where the regime once found willing Sunni allies to bolster its minority rule; the recently retired Prime Minister Mustafa Tlas is from Rastan, as are over 1,000 army officers. For such an important city with these strong military ties to have become an opposition heartland is seen as being of consequence to the regime, and as such its response has been fierce.

The city’s mounting opposition and continued resilience in the face of such brutal violence is encouraging for those who oppose the regime in other parts of the country. The dead are held up as martyrs, and as stories filter though to other cities and towns across Syria.

Many believe the image of city in revolt is one the government will find increasingly difficult to combat with stories about terrorists and ‘western agents’.

In Damascus one opposition member expressed his delight: ‘This is a whole city of 100,000 who oppose the government. It’s unbelievable! They may have tanks and heavy weapons, but the people fight on.’

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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo

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