HAMA, Syria – Scarred by months of shelling, the street in the Syrian city of Hama was deserted until a handful of children emerged warily from their homes to greet visiting United Nations monitors.
“Down with the traitor of Syria” read graffiti in the northern Hama district of Arbaeen, a centre of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and scene of heavy bombardment by his forces trying to crush an uprising that is now 14 months old.
Gradually the empty street showed signs of life as the children were joined by women in long black abayas and finally a few men joined the small crowd, emboldened by the U.N. presence in the ghostly neighbourhood.
In a city still raw from the memory of Assad’s late father’s suppression of an armed Islamist uprising 30 years ago, when many thousands were killed, all those in Arbaeen who spoke to this reporter said they lived in fear of security forces. Three decades on, many had fresh tales of suffering.
A young girl of about eight, who did not give her name, said the army had killed 10 of her cousins just a few days ago. She said soldiers lined them up against a wall and shot them. “Now the army scares me,” she said.
“Every night we hear shooting and shelling, and we are scared,” said her friend standing next to her.
A nearby alley was dug up and blocked – a deliberate move, residents said, by security forces to make it impassable.
Women appeared from nearby houses, carrying a few clothes in bags and holding their children by the hand, saying they wanted to leave before the upsurge in shelling and security raids that takes place on Thursdays and Fridays.
One woman said she was taking her two daughters and her eight-year-old son, but leaving behind a 15-year-old son because she feared soldiers would stop him at a checkpoint because he appeared old enough to be a rebel fighter. “So I left him here with my mother,” she said.
Others spoke of missing husbands and sons. “We don’t know if they are alive or dead. Each one of us who has a young boy has already sent him out of the city,” said one woman.
A man called Abdullah said that every couple of days security forces ordered people to collect bodies dumped outside the neighbourhood. “Some of the bodies we pick up are covered in worms,” he said.
From across the wide street, another group of people stood and watched, saying they would not cross over for fear of being shot by snipers.
Twelve-year-old Mustafa said Hama residents heard constant shooting and lived in fear. “There are no schools and we are scared of the army – they have detained my two brothers and my cousins and we don’t know where they are”.
Another man, called Hamza, showed U.N. monitors a wound in his thigh, saying he had been shot while attending a peaceful demonstration a few days ago.
“We’ve been suffering from this regime since the 1980s,” he said. “The people of Hama have suffered a lot and we, of all Syrians, know what this regime is capable of. It is willing to kill all Syrians to remain in power.”
The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed 9,000 people since protests first broke out against Assad in March 2011, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world against autocratic rule. Syrian authorities say armed groups have killed more than 2,600 police and soldiers.
A three-week-old ceasefire agreement, brokered by the United Nations, has contained some of the worst violence but failed to halt the daily killings.
The head of the monitoring mission overseeing the truce, Major General Robert Mood, told reporters in Hama that U.N. observers were having a “calming affect” and that government forces appeared willing to cooperate with the ceasefire.
“There have been steps taken by the government forces on the ground that indicate a better willingness to live up to the commitments made in the agreement,” he said, giving no details.
“We still have a good chance and opportunity to break the growing cycle of violence and turn it around to a positive cycle,” Mood said.
In Hama, signs of that violence were widespread. In the Al-Sabil neighbourhood, Mood’s convoy passed a school which Syrian security forces said they had seized back from “terrorist groups”, the term officials use to describe anti-Assad rebels.
“The army liberated it a month ago and are staying temporarily. When things get better they will leave,” one officer told Reuters.
New windows had been installed but parts of the school walls were still charred. Surrounding buildings had gaping holes from shells or rocket-propelled grenades and many houses were bullet-marked. Sandbags surrounded craters in the road.
“WE LOVE OUR PRESIDENT”
Not all of Hama resembled a war zone. Further south in the centre of the city streets were crowded with people and traffic, shops were open and election banners ahead of Monday’s parliamentary vote lent an air of normality.
In Orontes Square, scene of protests against Assad last summer which drew many tens of thousands of demonstrators, anti-Assad graffiti had been painted over and a large picture of the president dominated the centre of the square.
People who spoke to Reuters on the street, away from security forces and cameras, were divided. Some said the Syrian army had saved their city from “terrorists’. Others refused to talk, saying they would be killed for speaking out.
Ghadir, a 30-year-old woman, said: “The army protect us. The army is my brother, my cousin and the men of my country. This is what the army is and the others are just terrorists.”
“We know what you people think of us, but we love our president,” said her friend.
But a man in Orontes Square, dressed in sports gear, said that even speaking to foreign reporters was a risk. “We’re scared. We can’t talk to you. Even if you can’t see them, they are here and when you leave they will arrest us and kill us,” he said.
Back in Arbaeen, as the monitors were preparing to move on, residents echoed those fears. “After you leave they will come back and kill us,” a woman said. Vanishing back into houses and side streets, they left their neighbourhood deserted again.