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Syria town's residents grow accustomed to violence

Residents of Qusair, Syria, have adjusted to closed schools and half-empty store shelves. Shelling and sniper fire may break out at any time, but life goes on.

June 13, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • Nurses at the field hospital in Qusair, Syria, treat a man who had just been shot twice in the leg by a sniper.
Nurses at the field hospital in Qusair, Syria, treat a man who had just been… (Los Angeles Times )

QUSAIR, Syria — The sky above the mosque is pastel blue, but in the distance is the sound of threatening thunder.

But it's not stormy weather. It's shelling, the same kind of shelling that already slammed into the Rahman mosque almost a dozen times, leaving the facade agape with holes that look like extra windows.

For more than two months, no one prayed in the mosque, fearing it would be struck again by government tanks positioned around this mostly opposition-run town near the border with Lebanon.

But as the shelling continues unabated and U.N. efforts to broker a meaningful cease-fire are paid no more than lip service, residents have returned to the mosque.

In the main prayer hall, men and boys have swept up the broken glass and crumbled concrete and wiped off a thick layer of dust that had entered through the shattered windows. One man dusted while carrying a handgun in his belt.

"This conflict is prolonged and prayer is mandatory," said Abu Saeed, who heads a local religious council formed after street protests against President Bashar Assad began more than a year ago. "We had said we would wait till things calm down but they are remaining the same, so we don't want to wait anymore. There is still fear, but whatever God wills will happen."

Ordinary life has slipped away in this mostly Sunni Muslim town of more than 30,000. But in its place has emerged at least a semblance of daily routine, a sort of new normal as Syrians are accepting the fact that the conflict that has roiled the country for 15 months is likely to continue indefinitely, despite international diplomatic efforts to restore peace and an armed rebellion's attempt to oust Assad.

Schools here did not open this year, and most men no longer go to work, either because they fear driving through army checkpoints or because they have enlisted in the Free Syrian Army. In the groves and orchards that surround Qusair, apples, apricots and blackberries ripen with no hands to harvest them.

Everyday conversations are punctuated by the sounds of shelling or sniper fire, followed by a lingering pause as residents wonder whether the rounds found their targets. Government snipers are stationed at the town's hospital and City Hall, and the random shelling comes from the outskirts.

Combat in the streets is rare, but clashes erupt with some regularity on the edge of town. Residents say snipers appear to target people at random, and sometimes even shoot at garbage bins or birds, apparently out of boredom.

So, in some neighborhoods, crossing the street has become fraught with danger. Residents map out alternative routes to avoid roads they have traversed their entire lives.

Qusair, less than 20 miles from the battered city of Homs, rose up against Assad last year and as a result has been a frequent target of the government offensive against dissent. When rebels with the Farouq Brigade fled the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr in late February, many found their way here. Residents still come out in daily antigovernment protests, but it is often someone walking or driving along the main road out of town who becomes the next victim.

Even with the risk, though, some residents who had fled to the capital, Damascus, or Lebanon have begun to trickle back, saying they would rather die in their hometown than elsewhere.

"They have gotten used to it because the most important thing now is to remain defiant," said Dr. Qassim Al-Zein, squinting sleepily through his glasses. "Because if the people don't remain so, they have been broken and the uprising is done."

Al-Zein, a specialist in internal medicine, heads a four-bed field hospital in Qusair and oversees surgeries performed by nurses.

Victims of the conflict from the town and surrounding villages are being treated, but most of the 150 or so patients a day are children suffering from illnesses like colds or stomach flu. Al-Zein and the nurses prescribe medicines that are smuggled into the country.

The National Hospital in Qusair has been taken over by the army and no other doctors are practicing in the town.

After the swiftness of the"Arab Spring"revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and evenLibya'snine-month armed uprising, Syrians harbored hope that theirs too would succeed quickly. Just a few months ago, some Syrians continued to maintain that Assad's days were numbered even as the situation indicated otherwise.

Now those Syrians ask one another, "What do you think, is this conflict going to last a long time?"

People here have been surprised by the brutality of Assad and the international community's unwillingness to get involved beyond sending observers and brokering failed peace plans.

"We've grown accustomed, you can say. We have submitted our fate to God and we are trying to live," said Khawla, 26, a mother of two who asked to be identified by only her first name. "Despite the shelling, life is continuing. The people are creating hope for themselves."

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