Anxiety Spreads In Hama Amid Violence, Isolation

Residents of the Syrian city of Hama are bracing for another day of shelling and shooting as the regime continues its military crackdown on the first Friday of Ramadan. Hama residents say they're trapped in their houses, often without electricity or water.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, political protests have peaked on Fridays as people stream out of mosques. On this first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, there's more bloodshed in Syria.

Several Syrian cities came under heavy attack again yesterday with the sharpest escalation in violence coming in the central city of Hama. Human rights groups quoted local doctors who say more than a hundred people were killed there. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Beirut, and has this report.

(Soundbite of protesters)

PETER KENYON: The public defiance of the regime is growing, activists say, and amateur videos appear to show large crowds defying security forces. But in key cities, the military assault is having an effect, driving people indoors or forcing them to flee. As the tanks moved closer to Hama's city center, getting information out became harder.

Phone and internet services were cut, along with the power, water and food supplies. Salwa, a 40-year-old mother of three, escaped from Hama yesterday, along with 15 to 20 other women and children in her building.

Reached by phone at her sister's, Salwa said the men in the building had all gone out to look for transportation to get them out of the city, but while they were gone, the building was shelled.

SALWA: (Through translator) The men were gone, so we just scrambled out. It was chaos. There was shooting all around, tanks everywhere. I don't know how we made it out of the city. We wound up walking along the main highway. We still don't know where the men are.

KENYON: Another Hama resident who was reached after fleeing the city asked that his name not be used, to protect his family. He confirmed the growing humanitarian crisis in the city.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign Language Spoken)

KENYON: The bread is gone. All the food in the refrigerator is rotten because there's no electricity, he says. People are surviving on dry goods and canned food. He said it's especially desperate for the young children. He said most families in Hama now were thinking mainly of survival.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: But elsewhere in Syria, the anger at the regime seemed to be growing. Amateur videos showed crowds defying the army in the cities of Homs and Latakia, while in Deir el-Zour to the east, pro-government gunmen known as Shabiha forced three private hospitals to close, according to an activist reached by phone.

Mohammad Ali, the name chosen by an activist from Zabadani, just outside Damascus, said his town is now surrounded, by the regime's use of force is only guaranteeing more demonstrations to come.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ALI: And after this bloody invade by the army around Syria in Daraa, in Homs, in Deir el-Zour, in Hama in recent day this bloody waterfall in Hama is helping us to be much stronger.

KENYON: International anger at the bloodshed is growing, but the resolve to act remains weak. Russia issued a strong warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying he would face a sad fate if he didn't quickly pursue peace and reform.

But Russia is also blocking a Security Council resolution against the regime. For activist Ali, who was arrested and tortured early in the uprising, international silence in the face of what he calls this government slaughter, makes him wonder if anyone has the will to stop Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. ALI: He will kill all the Syrian people, and no one will punish him. Till when they will stay silent? Till when? Till they - all the Syrian people killed?

KENYON: For Salwa, the Hama resident who fled with her children, the overwhelming impression she had yesterday as she ran from her city was a familiar fear dredged up from her childhood when she watched Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad's troops destroy much of Hama and kill thousands.

SALWA: (Through translator) I was there in 1982. I was 10 years old. This felt exactly the same. I could hear the same screams. I felt the same atmosphere as back then.

KENYON: Activists say in the world of instant communication, another massacre like the one in Hama in 1982 is unlikely. But as Hama in 2011 becomes ever more cut off from the outside world, anxiety is spreading.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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