The day anger turned to violence

Less than five months ago, a poor rural town on the outskirts of Homs was a passive place; its residents vented their anger at ­Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at weekly rallies — but never through the barrel of a gun.

An army attack on September 23 changed all that. Now the town is a stronghold of armed resistance in Syria’s west. The Free Syrian Army has a stronger presence here than in most other towns and villages stretching south to Lebanon or north to the Turkish border.

The insurgents’ ranks swelled further last week with the defection of 15 Syrian troops, including an officer. The group gave up to a local commander and its members were grilled aggressively all day by rebels who feared a trap.

Not far away from the Soviet-style schoolyard that served as the defectors’ interrogation centre, a town elder was holding court. Calling himself Abu Qassem, he is known locally as the “father of the two martyrs”.

The deaths last September of Abu Qassem’s sons, Ashraf and Yathreb, seemed to electrify an uprising here that had, until that point, been not much more than intermittent outbreaks of open defiance, followed in turn by regime security sweeps.

“I was in my field with my three sons,” Abu Qassem said. “My land is about 600m long and I left them at the end of the field. People started running towards me and the army started shooting in all directions.”

Abu Qassem could not reach his sons and could not contact them on their cellphones. The following day his daughter called Ashraf’s phone. This time somebody answered. Nobody spoke but in the background she could hear soldiers cursing Ashraf, said Abu Qassem. “She heard one of them say [to an officer]: ‘Sir, he is wounded.’ Then came a reply: ‘Kill him.’ She heard three shots and the phone went dead.”

The following day a relative formally identified the bodies of the two men at the hospital and took them to their father. At first, he celebrated his sons’ martyrdom and refused condolences.

Then, in January, his third son, Gharedin, who had been captured with his brothers, returned from four months in prison. That was when Abu Qassem learned what had happened to his sons after they were captured.

“Ashraf was on the ground,” Abu Qassem said. “He’d been wounded and they were hitting him with their rifles. He turned to Gharedin and said: ‘Please tell my father I send him peace and my regards, please tell the same to my mother and my brother’s daughter.'”

With that the 73-year-old father and elder broke down, sobbing tears of a still unfathomable loss.

“He died three times, once when they beat him, once when he sent his family his regards and once when they killed him.”

Abu Qassem was a career military man under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. He retired 22 years ago and does not like to talk about his service.

Many in the slowly swelling ranks of the Free Syrian Army appear to be dealing with similar demons.

“We did what we had to do,” said one soldier who defected a month ago. “It’s nothing to talk about with you.”

A kilometre past the last checkpoint on the town’s western outskirts is a place with which the collective band of rebels is clearly uncomfortable. We were taken to a large hole in a pasture that looked like an airstrike, but was more likely a purpose-dug mass grave.

The bodies of four men were decaying at the bottom of the hole. Animals had torn one corpse to pieces. At least one was bound at his hands and feet. None had been given a proper burial or seemed likely to be.

The indifference of the opposition fighters seemed to suggest that the dead men might be connected to the regime. But like so much else in this opaque and sinister war, the reality of what happened in the middle of a lush green field outside Homs is unlikely ever to be known.

The same group of fighters early in the morning ambushed a Syrian government convoy, destroying what they described as a tank and killing an unknown number of men. Insurgent attacks have become a daily feature of life around here.

But the rebels have not been able to open a supply line to Homs. Every road, goat trail and mountain path has been blocked by government forces. “It’s very difficult and very dangerous to go there,” one opposition soldier said. “There has been so much killing.”

Abu Qassem does not want vengeance. He said that if he ever found his sons’ killers, he would send them to a court and ask that they be freed.

“The regime put in our lives a system of killing people,” he said. “They kill like they kill animals. In our parents’ days, anybody that killed somebody would say sorry and ask the parents for forgiveness and he would be let go. Now the regime kills a young boy in the street and people around him keep shooting him and shooting him.”

A medic, Dr Abbas, interrupted. “We are carrying guns now, but it is not our habit to do so. When Assad is gone we will try to get back to our normal lives.” —

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