A Syrian Village Surrounded By Civil War
Before Syria's civil war, Al Houleh was a small, quiet farming region to the north of Homs. But a massacre last year, blamed on government loyalists, left several dozen villagers dead.
Since then, the Al Houleh region has become rebel-held territory, and government troops are choking it. Trapped in the siege are several hundred civilians, all of them related to the rebels.
As I spoke inside a home with some women and children from the village of Taldo, a fighter jet pierced the sky. The reaction was a contrast to what you'd see in Damascus where hardly anyone looks up when he hears a sonic boom.
But in Taldo, within an instant everyone went from gregarious to panic-stricken. I was no exception.
"Sshhh," said Um Ahmad when I asked if we should perhaps move to the basement for shelter.
"We have to listen closely," she said. "If the plane starts to get louder like it's descending, then it means he's about to bomb us."
The bombs can fall anywhere at anytime, and kill anyone. And they do.
In the past couple of weeks, there was the 18-year-old who was washing up at home as he planned to head over to the mosque for Friday prayer. A shell fell on his home and killed him instantly.
There was the middle-aged father of six who was smuggling bags of wheat flour across Houleh Lake.
"He's still in the lake," Um Ahmad said. His body has not yet been found.
There was the family who was spared death when a shell fell on their vegetable garden, just in front of their home.
"They came out and found all their cows in pieces," she recalled. "And they had to clean it all up bit by bit."
Life is difficult in these besieged villages even when the bombs aren't falling. Food is scarce.
Al Houleh used to provide a major portion of Syria's wheat, with enough left over to export. But Syria now imports wheat.
Acres of farmland sit unattended because owners have fled, mostly to refugee camps in Turkey. Acres have been burned. Locals blame government troops for deliberately setting fire to crops, and for shooting at farmers who venture near them.
The villagers tend to personal vegetable plots, but everything else must be smuggled in. Basics like cooking gas and heating oil sell for exorbitant prices, so people go without it. Toothpaste and shampoo have become luxuries.
In Damascus, pro-government graffiti make promises. "Assad or no one!" one ubiquitous slogan goes. "Assad or we burn the land," reads another.
But in Taldo, a different narrative unfolds.
You can see it in the once-main road that goes through the village. You can feel it in the school that sits in ruins, overlooking the road. The building is now silent — except for the writing on the wall: "Death and not Assad."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And another dubious legacy of the Arab Spring is the bloody civil war in Syria. Intense fighting continues in several parts of the country where civilians are trapped by the violence. Reporter Rasha Elass traveled into rebel territory to a besieged village in central Homs Province. She sent this report.
RASHA ELASS, BYLINE: Taldo is a village in a rebel-held rural area north of the Homs provincial capital. The village has been under siege by government troops for months. Nothing gets in or out unless it's smuggled. This includes food and weapons, cattle and people. To get here, you have to cross a lake, then drive over a rough road. And the journey is dangerous.
Jalal Abu Suleiman is a media activist with the rebel Free Syrian Army in Taldo.
JALAL ABU SULEIMAN: (Through Translator) We get shelled from these villages around us and the fighter jets bomb the lake and this road all the time.
ELASS: After a 20-minute drive, we arrive safely at the village. Taldo is in ruins and largely abandoned except for a few hundred men who've taken up arms to fight the government. Some of these rebels still have their families here - Parents, wives, children. Several months ago there were fierce battles here. The rebels now control Taldo, along with a string of other Sunni villages north of Homs City.
The FSA says they have over 10,000 fighters spread out through the region, along with hundreds of civilians but life here is like living in an open prison. Almost everyday Taldo and the other Sunni villages are shelled or bombed by warplanes.
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ELASS: Every household has a story about how a bomb fell on their home or in their yard, how it killed a loved one or dismembered a cow. Most villagers cannot leave Taldo. The men are wanted by the government for joining the rebellion. Abu Omar is a rebel fighter who defected from the Syrian army last year and returned to Taldo, as he puts it, to defend his home.
ABU OMAR: (Through Translator) If I pass through any government checkpoint, they'll take me in right away. But I would rather die than be captured by the regime.
ELASS: Many of the women who remain don't want to leave either. They've heard horror stories about life in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey where many of their relatives and neighbors have already gone. Um Ahmad has five sons and six daughters. Three of her sons are fighting in the rebellion.
UM AHMAD: (Through Translator) I hear there's humiliation in the refugee camps. I don't want to go to Turkey. I'm comfortable here at home with my family. If we die, we die.
ELASS: Her daughter, Noor is a newlywed and two months pregnant. Noor dreads the future, yet she still cannot imagine leaving this village.
NOOR: (Through Translator) My child's life will definitely be worse than mine, but maybe that's still better than going to a refugee camp.
ELASS: A short drive to the next Sunni village highlights the sectarian fault line in this part of the country. Alawite and Shia villages sit atop most of the hills overlooking the Sunni villages. Government forces have positioned their snipers, tanks and missile batteries on the high ground with their weapons trained on the Sunni communities below.
Abu Ahmad cocks his Glock pistol and holds it up while driving. He explains that he wants his weapon to be visible, a warning to any snipers in the hills above. Another rebel who goes by the nom du guerre El Muntasir says that despite the brutal sectarian bloodshed here he's not seeking revenge.
EL MUNTASIR: (Through Translator) We lived peacefully with the Alawites and the Shia and everyone else all our lives, and now, despite the bloodshed, we still say we are not after the Alawites.
ELASS: We're only after the individuals who carried out the massacres against us, he says. For NPR News, I'm Rasha Elass.
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.