Under siege, a Syrian town struggles to keep going

Syrian troops have blockaded the town of Qusair for about six months. The conflict between local fighters and Assad's forces surrounding the town is taking a  growing toll.

When the fighting stops, Qusair feels empty. An odd motorbike rumbles to life and buzzes away. Men sit by shuttered storefronts, talking in hushed voices. A child laughs and ducks into an alley, gravel crackling under her feet.

But when the artillery and rifle fire begins, the din of war consumes the town. The men pack up their chairs. The children disappear indoors. Black smoke rises on the horizon.

For nearly six months, Syrian troops and tanks have blockaded this town of about 40,000 people, cutting its normal supplies of food and fuel. Medicine is smuggled in from neighbouring Lebanon, about seven miles to the south.

Qusair provides a glimpse of how what began as a peaceful protest movement in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad has turned more violent, sectarian, and costly in human terms.

Bread, a Syrian staple, is becoming ever scarcer in Qusair. Heating oil, needed to ward off the winter cold, is even harder to come by. Government offices are shut, paralyzing life in a town where many used to work for the state bureaucracy.

"You can say in Qusair now, a rich man and a poor man are the same. They eat the same food and wear the same clothes," said a well-known businessman who gave his name as Doctor Abbas.

"There's no banking, no salaries. No hospital, no schools. Everything is stopped," he said, sitting on the low brown cushions of a traditional mafraj sitting room.

The center of Qusair is largely off-limits to residents. Hundreds of troops have occupied the main hospital. Snipers are perched on nearby schools, shooting at anyone who wanders too close. Checkpoints manned by soldiers and tanks ring the town.

Each morning, men line up outside the only bakery still open, huddling under a concrete overhang to escape winter sleet.

"We can't live in these jackets. What are these children going to do?" a 25-year-old car mechanic who gave his name as Wael said, pointing to children in thick wool caps, hands thrust into their coats. "Bashar al-Assad took the petrol and diesel and put in the tanks. None of it comes to the people."

An older man interrupted him. "I had to burn my old boots in the stove to keep my children warm!" he shouted.

Down the street, most shops were closed. There was nothing much to sell and few people had money to spend.

Abu Ali, a shopkeeper, said the Army blockade had cut him off from local suppliers, sending sent his costs soaring. Rice now costs 75 Syrian pounds a kilo, up from 50. Prices of goods from lentils to baby diapers have risen at a similar rate.

"Everything used to be made around here," he said, gesturing around his dark store stocked with biscuits, canned tuna, and packets of noodles.

Outside, an elderly carpenter smiled sadly when asked about his work. "There's no work," he said, pouring a cup of thick coffee for his visitor. "We're living from hour to hour."

 Efforts to keep the town running

In the absence of police, hospitals, schools or any other sign of formal government, Qusair is depending more and more on people like Abbas, the businessman, who often chairs community meetings to discuss how to keep the town running.

Abbas also works on sectarian relations in a town which, like the rest of Syria, has minority Alawites and Christians among a Sunni Muslim majority. Many Sunnis reckon those minorities have benefited more from Assad's Baath Party rule.

So far, residents say, Sunni-Christian ties have held steady, while Qusair's few hundred Alawites - members of Assad's Shiite-rooted sect - keep mostly to themselves.

But tension soared last month when Christians of the Hanna family, known as Assad loyalists, captured half a dozen Sunnis, apparently in reprisal for the killing of one of their own by rebels who suspected him of firing on protesters. Sunnis then abducted several Christians, prompting town elders to intervene.

Accounts vary, but Abbas insists it was a misunderstanding, compounded by rumours. Activists like him portray such problems as personal, not sectarian, and accuse the government of exploiting communal differences to split the opposition.

"If they were Sunni and working for the government, we'd kill them immediately, but because they are Christian, it's sensitive," a 26-year-old activist nicknamed Abu Saud said.

He pointed across the room to another Sunni activist, whose cousin had been killed by rebels who accused him of working with the feared pro-Assad shabbiha militia.

"I'm not angry," the second activist said, when he overheard the conversation. "Everyone who is with Bashar al-Assad needs to go. Sunni, Christian, Alawite - they need to go."

Yet sectarian suspicions lurk close to the surface. Visitors from Lebanon and Iraq are swiftly asked if they are Sunni or Shiite. Many in Qusair believe foreign Shiites are fighting for Assad, including deadly snipers they say come from Iran.

Abbas said he is confident that Christians and Muslims can coexist. "Here in Qusair, we have been living together since the olden days," he said. "They [Christians] understand if the regime goes, we will stay and live as brothers."

He said local Alawites had not misbehaved since the anti-Assad revolt began a year ago. "Maybe they are shabbiha [pro-Assad militia] outside of Qusair, we don't know," he said.

Conflict takes its toll

The conflict between local fighters and Assad's forces surrounding the town has taken a toll.

On one clear morning, Abu Ayhem's mother kneeled by her son's body and wept. The dead man's brother stood by, wiping away tears. "We want weapons, the men and the women," the mother cried. "We will fight."

Mourners crammed into the bright green hall, standing around the body, which was covered with a purple blanket and orange flowers. "God is greatest, God is greatest," they chanted. "God is greater than the tyrant, God is greater than you, Bashar."

Shrapnel from a tank shell hit Abu Ayhem in the head while he was supporting Free Syrian Army fighters who were attacking a checkpoint on the town's outskirts a week earlier, they said.

He survived at first, mourners said, and so they sent him to Lebanon, as they do with everyone whose wounds are too serious to be treated at Qusair's improvised field hospital. Like most others, he died on the way. He was 35.

The mourners bore his body on a wooden bier through the town's gray dirt and gravel roads, past unfinished breezeblock houses, and buried it in a makeshift cemetery used since soldiers cut off the route to the main burial site. Women and children threw confetti from their balconies as the procession passed.

The arrival of the Free Army fighters in Qusair late last year has given the town some respite from the shabbiha, allowing them to hold funerals and demonstrations in relative peace.

But few expect that to last. Once Assad's forces have eliminated rebel strongholds in Homs, Syria's third-largest city about 13 miles to the northeast, residents believe they will move to Qusair to sever the smuggling routes that bring in weapons and medicine.

"We are waiting, because we think they will come after they finish with Homs," Abbas said. "Every day we are waiting."

To keep spirits high, dozens of women and young men gather at night in a small house to make banners, balloons, and green, white, and black independence-era flags for the anti-Assad protests that still draw a few hundred people every evening.

Half a dozen women sit on cushions against the wall, knitting scarves in the old flag's colors, as well as camouflage jackets and black balaclava masks for rebel fighters.

"We asked the women why they don't make masks with the flag," one man said. "They told us they tried once, but it's not a good idea. The black hides in the dark, but the green and white gives the snipers a target."

As he spoke, a balloon burst. "Oh, a bomb," he said, drawing laughter from the group.

Earlier that day, the Syrian Free Army left its former bastion in the Baba Amr district of Homs, increasing the chances of an attack on Qusair and its lightly-armed defenders.

As visiting journalists turned to leave the room, the men and women started to chant. "God is greatest, God is greater than Bashar. We will not bow. Except to God, we will not bow."

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