Syrian Army Drives Rebels From Embattled City

Syrian mourners in Qusayr, a few miles outside Homs, carry the body of a man killed by shrapnel, during his funeral on Tuesday. After a month-long assault by the Syrian army, rebels were forced to retreat from Homs on Thursday. i i

Syrian mourners in Qusayr, a few miles outside Homs, carry the body of a man killed by shrapnel, during his funeral on Tuesday. After a month-long assault by the Syrian army, rebels were forced to retreat from Homs on Thursday. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian mourners in Qusayr, a few miles outside Homs, carry the body of a man killed by shrapnel, during his funeral on Tuesday. After a month-long assault by the Syrian army, rebels were forced to retreat from Homs on Thursday.

Syrian mourners in Qusayr, a few miles outside Homs, carry the body of a man killed by shrapnel, during his funeral on Tuesday. After a month-long assault by the Syrian army, rebels were forced to retreat from Homs on Thursday.

Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

A key rebel stronghold in the central Syrian city of Homs has fallen to the Syrian army.

Residents fled as government forces bombarded the city's Baba Amr neighborhood for nearly a month. On Thursday, the rebels withdrew.

When the Syrian uprising began nearly a year ago, Baba Amr saw regular, daily protests. Then after months of being shot, detained and tortured, protesters began taking up arms. Those armed civilians were later joined by defectors from the Syrian military, and together, they called themselves the Free Syrian Army.

The rebels in Baba Amr had grown bold in recent months — so bold that they posted a video online showing a group calling itself the Farouq Brigade marching through the streets in a kind of parade. In Syria, merely showing your face at a protest could get you jailed or killed.

For the people of Baba Amr, it was a glimpse of the freedom they'd be chanting for. No longer could government forces or thugs enter the neighborhood and arrest people at random; the Farouq Brigade was in control.

The rebels manned checkpoints around the area and shot at any government soldier who got too close.

But last month, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Critics of the Syrian government said the U.N. vote would embolden Assad, and shortly afterword, government forces began pounding Baba Amr with tanks, mortars and rockets.

Spreading The Word

Activists inside Baba Amr set up their own media center, with generator-powered satellite modems that would allow them to post videos of damaged houses and injured and dead civilians.

Amid the heavy fighting, activists told part of the larger story. Now that Baba Amr has fallen, more details are emerging.

One man evacuated to nearby northern Lebanon said he's been fighting with the Farouq Brigade for two months. He was hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade as he battled government troops who were trying to enter Baba Amr a few days ago. He's now lying in a hospital bed with a shattered thigh.

Another man, Omar Shakir, was one of the main activists at the media center in Baba Amr. He left just a few days ago, and admits that he and his colleagues tailored their information to show as much of the civilian misery, and as little rebel activity, as possible.

Syrians line up for bread outside a bakery in Qusayr on Thursday. After a month of heavy fighting in parts of Homs, civilians describe the conditions as miserable. i i

Syrians line up for bread outside a bakery in Qusayr on Thursday. After a month of heavy fighting in parts of Homs, civilians describe the conditions as miserable. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Syrians line up for bread outside a bakery in Qusayr on Thursday. After a month of heavy fighting in parts of Homs, civilians describe the conditions as miserable.

Syrians line up for bread outside a bakery in Qusayr on Thursday. After a month of heavy fighting in parts of Homs, civilians describe the conditions as miserable.

Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes you to have to hide some news," he says.

A few foreign journalists did manage to sneak into Baba Amr. Two of them were killed last week when a rocket hit the media center. Some believe the Syrian government was tracking satellite signals from the media center and hit it on purpose.

Two journalists have managed to escape, but several activists died getting them out. Shakir says the activists considered it their duty.

"It's those [journalists] who were helping us to show the world," he says. "We were caring for their lives more than anything."

Shakir says the Farouq Brigade's withdrawal from Baba Amr was a tactical retreat. He says the rebels managed to evacuate some civilians, but several thousand remain, and the conditions are dire.

The Syrian government has announced it will allow the Red Cross to enter Baba Amr as early as Friday now that the rebels have left the area.

Shakir says the few months of freedom that Baba Amr tasted were worth everything that has happened to the neighborhood.

After the government killed so many people, he says, the uprising cannot be peaceful any more.

"Either we win our dignity, our freedom, or we will die trying," he says.

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