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Syria Crisis: Civilians Pay Devastating Price

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In this Saturday, June 16, 2012 photo, Umm Moussa holds a photo of her husband Mohammed Tilawi, who showed up dead in a morgue in October, in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. (AP Photo/Ben Hubbard) | AP

KHAN SHEIKHOUN, Syria — Her daughter, 8, often hides in a closet, terrified of flying bullets. Her son, 6, still asks for his father months after he turned up in a morgue. And the family has little income because her brother-in-law was killed too.

Umm Moussa's extended family is smaller now. They live day to day in a house of simply furnished concrete rooms around an empty courtyard in this dusty city in northern Syria.

"I'm always worried that after all I've lost, I'll lose something else," said the thin, shy 27-year-old, leafing through photos of her dead husband.

As Syria's 15-month-old uprising has morphed from a popular call for reform into an armed insurgency, the country's civilians have paid the highest price.

Most of the more than 14,000 people activists say have been killed are civilians. Countless others have watched their livelihoods collapse, their neighborhoods turn to battlegrounds and their friends and relatives die or disappear.


EDITOR'S NOTE – Journalist Ben Hubbard was part of a three-member Associated Press team that spent two weeks with rebels in northern Syria, collecting on-the-ground information on the revolt against President Bashar Assad – the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.


During two weeks in northern Syria, three Associated Press journalists met scores of civilians whose lives have been altered by the conflict: students who cannot cross army checkpoints to reach schools and universities; merchants whose suppliers have stopped delivering; and farmers who left land fallow because they can no longer afford diesel for irrigation pumps.

The international community has harshly condemned President Bashar Assad's regime for its role in the violence, endorsing a plan by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to try to end it.

But that plan has fallen far short – as is obvious here in Khan Sheikhoun, a city of 80,000 people surrounded by wheat fields and orchards on the country's main north-south highway.

Six military checkpoints ring the city, housing snipers who fire on civilians and rebels alike. Troops block roads to the fields and sometimes set them ablaze, meaning farmers can smell the smoke of their crops burning but cannot fight the flames.

Regime forces have also seized the state hospital and other downtown buildings, parking armored vehicles out front and piling sandbags on the roofs. Residents call the shuttered central boulevard the "street of death" because so many people have been shot there.

Rebels run the rest of the city and have mined its entries. They blast army vehicles passing on the highway with rocket-propelled grenades, and patrol in two armored SUVs that they captured.

They also run a clinic and hang out in a former security building. A bust of the former president, Assad's late father Hafez, is positioned near the entrance, defaced with devilish horns sprouting from the head.

The regime shells occasionally, and the rebels clash with those manning the checkpoints daily.

One sweltering afternoon, rebels blasted machine guns around the corners of buildings while sniper fire chipped at the streets and walls around them.

Standing at the door to his house, Mohammed al-Safa, 24, listed neighbors struck by those snipers: the family across the street who'd abandoned their home; the 10-year-old girl paralyzed by a bullet in the back; the elderly man shot dead on his roof while adjusting his satellite dish.

"May God protect you!" al-Safa's mother yelled as rebels rushed down their alley.

"The Free Army is all we have to protect us," al-Safa said. "No one else can."

The media team for the city's rebels, now based in a former office of Assad's ruling Baath party, says the numbers show the regime's disregard for civilians: Of the more than 130 people killed in the uprising, only 31 were fighters, said activist Hisham Nijim.

When asked about the Annan plan and the nearly 300 observers sent to monitor it, residents recall "the massacre."

On May 15, U.N. observers left a security building, walked past a number of sand berms and through a rowdy anti-regime protest about 100 meters (yards) away. Apparently feeling protected by the observers, the crowd inched toward the soldiers guarding the building, chanting, "The people want to execute Bashar!" and "Traitors! The Syrian army are traitors!" according to a video of the event.

Minutes later, the soldiers opened fire in a deafening roar, and protesters dropped in the street as the crowd scrambled for cover.

Nijim said 44 people were killed. Photos of 32 of them, including young children and old men, hang in the media office.

"Annan's plan is worthless," Nijim said. "It is impossible that this regime will give up power peacefully. It will only go under force of arms."

The Syrian government rarely comments on its military's actions. It has never acknowledged popular calls for reform and blames the uprising on foreign-backed gangs and terrorists seeking to weaken the country.

The troubles for Umm Moussa's family began in February 2011, when her husband's youngest brother was arrested in a cafe for chatting online about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. When those uprisings inspired Syrians to protest a month later, his arrest pushed the two older brothers to join.

Umm Moussa's husband, Mohammed Tilawi, became a leader, drawing banners and outfitting a pickup truck with huge speakers to blast anti-regime chants, she said.

Security forces attacked the protests and raided activist homes, killing four people on one day in June. More people joined, and some sought arms.

"Anyone who had a weapon – a hunting rifle, a Kalashnikov, even a club – came out to defend the city," activist Osama Abu Homam said.

That month, Mohammed's other brother, Mukhlis, was shot and killed while manning a rebel checkpoint. The family never found out who shot him.

Mohammed sold his brother's car to buy a rifle. Umm Moussa and their four children saw him less and less as the clashes grew more frequent.

"We often fled the house because we were afraid they'd arrest us to get him to turn himself in," Umm Moussa said. She last saw him alive in September: Gunfire broke out near a protest, and he took his gun and left.

They found his body days later in a morgue in Hama, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. The handwritten hospital report she keeps in her pocket said he'd been shot through the gut and that state security had delivered the body.

It didn't explain his broken jaw, nor the large bruises on his face and around his groin. The family suspects he was tortured.

The younger brother was finally released without trial in February 2012. He was shocked when he got home.

"I was surprised to learn how many people had been killed, and I had to get used to life without my brothers," said Abdel-Razaq, 32.

Since then, he has become a cameraman, filming protests and violence to post on the Internet. In April, shrapnel from a shell attack sliced through his stomach. He has a pink, four-inch scar over his navel from the operation to remove the shrapnel.

The family struggles without his brothers' incomes. Before the uprising, Mohammed had a fiberglass workshop that made sinks. Muklis was a blacksmith. Now both shops are closed, and Abdel-Razaq cannot go back to Dubai, where he worked as a cook before the uprising. His mother, 65, wears black daily and cries when she mentions her sons.

Umm Moussa struggles to comfort her children when gunfire breaks out. She worries when her 12-year-old boy, Moussa, sneaks out to attend protests. She chose to give only her nickname, Arabic for "Mother of Moussa," fearing retribution by Assad's regime.

But she also hopes the uprising will give them better lives.

"There is no way this regime can stay after all the people it has killed," she said. "That would be the biggest crime."

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syria car bomb Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)

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U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:

@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.

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Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.


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The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.

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How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.

Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.

Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.

Read the full report here.

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syria This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)

syria This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)

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According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."

Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.


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Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.

@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria

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@ Reuters : At least 100 killed in Syrian village: opposition activists

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