Syrian Army Drives Rebels From Embattled City

Mar 1, 2012
Originally published on March 1, 2012 11:17 pm

A key rebel stronghold in the central Syrian city of Homs has fallen to the Syrian army.

Residents fled as government forces bombarded the city's Baba Amr neighborhood for nearly a month. On Thursday, the rebels withdrew.

When the Syrian uprising began nearly a year ago, Baba Amr saw regular, daily protests. Then after months of being shot, detained and tortured, protesters began taking up arms. Those armed civilians were later joined by defectors from the Syrian military, and together, they called themselves the Free Syrian Army.

The rebels in Baba Amr had grown bold in recent months — so bold that they posted a video online showing a group calling itself the Farouq Brigade marching through the streets in a kind of parade. In Syria, merely showing your face at a protest could get you jailed or killed.

For the people of Baba Amr, it was a glimpse of the freedom they'd be chanting for. No longer could government forces or thugs enter the neighborhood and arrest people at random; the Farouq Brigade was in control.

The rebels manned checkpoints around the area and shot at any government soldier who got too close.

But last month, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Critics of the Syrian government said the U.N. vote would embolden Assad, and shortly afterword, government forces began pounding Baba Amr with tanks, mortars and rockets.

Spreading The Word

Activists inside Baba Amr set up their own media center, with generator-powered satellite modems that would allow them to post videos of damaged houses and injured and dead civilians.

Amid the heavy fighting, activists told part of the larger story. Now that Baba Amr has fallen, more details are emerging.

One man evacuated to nearby northern Lebanon said he's been fighting with the Farouq Brigade for two months. He was hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade as he battled government troops who were trying to enter Baba Amr a few days ago. He's now lying in a hospital bed with a shattered thigh.

Another man, Omar Shakir, was one of the main activists at the media center in Baba Amr. He left just a few days ago, and admits that he and his colleagues tailored their information to show as much of the civilian misery, and as little rebel activity, as possible.

"Sometimes you to have to hide some news," he says.

A few foreign journalists did manage to sneak into Baba Amr. Two of them were killed last week when a rocket hit the media center. Some believe the Syrian government was tracking satellite signals from the media center and hit it on purpose.

Two journalists have managed to escape, but several activists died getting them out. Shakir says the activists considered it their duty.

"It's those [journalists] who were helping us to show the world," he says. "We were caring for their lives more than anything."

Shakir says the Farouq Brigade's withdrawal from Baba Amr was a tactical retreat. He says the rebels managed to evacuate some civilians, but several thousand remain, and the conditions are dire.

The Syrian government has announced it will allow the Red Cross to enter Baba Amr as early as Friday now that the rebels have left the area.

Shakir says the few months of freedom that Baba Amr tasted were worth everything that has happened to the neighborhood.

After the government killed so many people, he says, the uprising cannot be peaceful any more.

"Either we win our dignity, our freedom, or we will die trying," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with the fall of a key rebel stronghold in Syria. After nearly a month-long siege by Syrian government forces, the district of Baba Amr in the city of Homs is battered and largely deserted. Civilians have fled and rebels from the so-called Free Syrian Army have withdrawn. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent the day with people who recently made it out and she sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's a place that was known as the eye of the Syrian revolution. First, when the uprising began nearly a year ago, Baba Amr saw regular, daily protests. Then after months of being shot, detained and tortured, protesters began taking up arms. Those armed civilians were later joined by defectors from the Syrian military. The rebels call themselves the Free Syrian Army.

At one point, the rebels in Baba Amr got so bold they posted videos like this online.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)

MCEVERS: It shows a group calling itself the Farouq Brigade marching through the streets of Baba Amr in a kind of parade. For the people of Baba Amr, it was a glimpse of the freedom they'd been chanting for for months. No longer could government forces or thugs just enter the neighborhood and arrest people at random. The Farouq Brigade was in control.

But then, last month, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Apparently emboldened by this support, Assad's forces began pounding Baba Amr with tanks, mortars and rockets. Activists inside Baba Amr set up their own media center, with generator-powered satellite modems that would send out live streams like this one and allow them to post videos of broken houses and injured and dead civilians.

But the activists only told one part of the story, how hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand civilians were killed. Now that Baba Amr has fallen, a clearer picture is starting to emerge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: This man was evacuated from Baba Amr to nearby northern Lebanon. He said he's been fighting with the Farouq Brigade for more than two months. He was hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade as he battled government troops who were trying to enter Baba Amr a few days ago. Omar Shakir was one of the main activists at the media center in Baba Amr.

He left just a few days ago, too. He admits that the story was tailored to show as much misery and as little rebel activity as possible.

OMAR SHAKIR: I become to know how to be like a citizen (unintelligible). And it's not about to give the news for the (unintelligible). Sometimes you to have to hide some news to - not for long time, but...

MCEVERS: But you have to pick and choose, he says. A few foreign journalists did manage to sneak into Baba Amr. Two of them were killed last week when a rocket hit the media center. Two other journalists managed to escape, but several activists died getting them out. Shakir says the activists considered it their duty.

SHAKIR: It's to those people who were helping us to show the world the truth and we were caring for their lives more than anything.

MCEVERS: Shakir says the Farouq Brigade's withdrawal from Baba Amr today was a tactical retreat. He says the rebels managed to evacuate some civilians, but several thousand remain and the situation could not be more dire. Shakir says the few months of freedom that Baba Amr tasted were worth all the deaths and destruction that was loosed on the neighborhood.

SHAKIR: Either we win our dignity, our freedom, or we will die trying.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.