Syria: 'True freedom is without fear'
Martin Chulov near Homs
A Syrian woman is masked in the colours of the revolutionary flag during a protest march. Photograph: Anonymous/AP
There were small groups of men at first, emerging silently from mosques, homes and alleyways, then converging like a shoal of fish as they neared the main square. The gathering masses chanted as they walked. Each taunt towards Assad and the Syrian power they so despise seemed to empower the crowd, by now more than 1,000 strong and bellowing to the heavens.
The people were keen to note that the Syrian army, only a few kilometres away, did not dare come after them. And they were just as eager to stress that things are very different up the road in Homs, where Syrian troops on Friday closed in on the rebel-held areas they had bombarded for the past week.
"I called my family in Baba Amr [in the south-east of Homs] now," one man said. The network had come to life minutes earlier after not working for more than a fortnight. "The situation there is terrible," he said. "There are tanks near Baba Amr in places that they had never reached before."
Another man said the situation was even more bleak. "They have entered Baba Amr, my brother told me from his house there."
The people in this town believe their fate is closely linked to that of their families and friends across the valley in Syria's third city. For now life is better here; the onslaught of rockets and mortars is not as savage or relentless as in Homs and people freely walk the streets in all but two areas.
But there is still widespread unease that the regime's military might is somewhere out there on the town's verges, and also a sense that their hard-won freedoms may soon be lost.
"Yes, it's true that we are free here, to a point," said one doctor who joined Friday's rally. "But true freedom is without fear, and everyone walking with you today is very afraid of the Assad army. They just won't admit it."
Syria's sectarian divide is also on display here. No one was prepared to take the Guardian to any of the five Allawite families – the powerful sect of which Assad is a member, and who run the elite institutions of the country – who are believed to remain in town. "They're too scared to talk," said one man at the demonstration. Another interrupted: "If they did talk to you, they wouldn't tell you the truth because the regime will target them." A third man offered his view, which promptly ended the argument. "They're not loyal, they would tell the regime that you are here." Everyone listening seemed to agree.
Sectarianism clearly touches a nerve with the almost exclusively Sunni population of this town. Despite that, the people play to prejudices, which they seem unable to set aside. A self-fulfilling prophecy seems well on the way to being realised, if this forsaken corner of the Sunni heartland is any guide.
"Assad is trying to incite a sectarian war," said one man after being assured his identity would be protected. "There has never been talk [among the Syrian people] of Sunni, Shia, Allawite or Christian. Assad is setting the people against each other."
In a bid to prove his claim of cross-sectarian tolerance, he reached through the throng around us to a grieving man whom he identified as a Christian.
"This Christian lost his nephew last night," the man said." He was fighting with us." Indeed, a dead Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldier had been taken to the town's medical clinic in the evening. His colleagues identified him as a Christian, and said he was one of the few in town to have joined the opposition.
The dead man's uncle could barely speak, and was too terrified to talk for fear of retribution. Syria's Christian community remains largely behind Assad, many buying into the official narrative that only the status quo can stop them being persecuted by an aggressive foreign-backed Sunni majority.
The killed rebel was lined up along with four dead colleagues in a dank concrete room at the back of a bullet-pocked house, which had been used to store food. Blood stained the mouldy floor of this makeshift morgue where a sack of rotting vegetables sat in the corner. On the other side of the wall, an aspiring artist seemed oblivious to the deaths. He was putting the finishing touches to a giant sheet painting that he called his "Guernica" – a nod to the Picasso work that came to define the Spanish civil war. This was his weekly contribution to the uprising and one of only a few pieces in the town's scant collection of revolutionary artworks.
Friday's painting depicted Assad as an elephant menacing Baba Amr, and that other besieged area of Homs, Khalidiya. Russia and China, which both vetoed a UN resolution condemning the regime, were also featured along with a plea to world leaders. The painting was hung at the rally, billowing in a bitter breeze, less than half a mile from the scene of a fierce battle that had drawn to a close 12 hours before.
Late afternoon on Thursday the FSA attacked two government buildings in the centre of town, a police base and an intelligence headquarters. Eleven government employees were killed, along with at least four opposition fighters. Syrian tanks entered town at 1am on Friday to rescue the survivors, an incursion which proved they can still hold territory when they want to.
The thunderous clamour of shells had been the soundtrack to the battle all day and night on Thursday. Shelling was irregular on Friday, though mortars still studded into buildings with enough frequency to keep residents on edge and the FSA guessing.
"It was like all this in Hama in 1982," said a woman who called herself Umm Zaharedine. "I was there and so was my husband. Assad the father killed 30,000, maybe 40,000 people, and it made the news outside Syria for maybe two minutes. But it's different now, there are cameras, reporters, witnesses and voices. This is part of freedom and is something that even an old woman like me can taste. For too long we have been a society that is not truthful."
She grabbed me by the arm and said: "Let me tell you a story: there was a wolf that adopted a newborn sheep that had lost its mother. The wolf gave the sheep milk from her breasts and cared for her until she grew up. Then one day the wolf bit her by the neck, and ate her. Someone dared to ask the wolf: 'What gives [you] the right to do that?' The wolf replied: 'The sheep was only there at my indulgence. I decide whether it eats and I decided whether it lives or dies.' That has been our lives here," the old woman said, "and that is what is changing now."