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Anti-Government Syrians Defend Themselves With Suicide Bombs and Grenades

September 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to a small town in Syria that has been turned upside-down by the civil war. Large numbers of civilian deaths have hardened and even radicalized much of the population.

French photojournalist Mani shot this story last week when he was embedded with an elite brigade of the Free Syrian Army in the western part of the country.

It’s narrated by Jon Snow of Independent Television News.

JON SNOW: A chill wind blows through the ruins of Latamneh, a town whose people feel abandoned by the world.

Locals say that, in April, a vast extended family of men, women and children were slaughtered by Syrian forces in two separate attacks, this child one of the survivors.

QUESTION (through translator): Did you witness the massacre?

CHILD (through translator): Yes, I was there.

QUESTION (through translator): Were you injured?

CHILD (through translator): I had an operation here.

QUESTION (through translator): Why?

CHILD (through translator): My belly was pierced by shrapnel. There were 26 people in the house when it blew up.

QUESTION (through translator): Did they kill your relatives?

CHILD (through translator): Two cousins, my aunt’s daughter, her three brothers, my granddad and my uncle. Who else? That’s it. Oh, yes, my uncle’s wife and his three daughters.

QUESTION (through translator): All on the same day?

CHILD (through translator): Yes. All of them were killed on the same day. But, in the first massacre, they killed my brother.

QUESTION (through translator): How do you feel about it?

CHILD (through translator): I hope God will curse them, paralyze and blind them.

QUESTION (through translator): Do you understand what is going on in Syria?

CHILD (through translator): I know Assad’s regime and militia are killing people.

QUESTION (through translator): Why?

CHILD (through translator): I don’t know. So he can remain the president.

JON SNOW: Here, then, lie the bodies of 26 members of the Saleh family. This is what happens to the relatives of a Syrian army defector.

The U.N. visited, took photos, and left. That was the last the town saw of the outside world.

ABU ZAHAR, Syria (through translator): These are the graves of the massacred. These graves will bear witness to history. Here lies a 9-year-old child.

JON SNOW: Abu Zahar has been a farmer all his working life. But what happened here has changed him forever.

ABU ZAHAR (through translator): These people were murdered in front of their homes. Some were shot at point-blank range. Some had their throats slashed.

JON SNOW: In all, he says, 65 people lost their lives in an orgy of killing that lasted just half-an-hour.

Abu Zahar and his neighbors have taken up arms against the regime. Inasmuch as anyone controls the town, they do.

This makeshift local group is part of the Free Syrian Army. But they only have basic weapons. They have to make the rest themselves, even, should it come to it, suicide belts.

MAN (through translator): This is used around the waist, under the clothes. You hold this in your hand, and you put it like this. It’s for self-defense.

JON SNOW: These men say they would rather kill themselves than be captured by the regime.

MAN (through translator): First, you defend yourself with the grenade. If it doesn’t work, then you use the pistol. If that fails, this is the final option. That would be the last moment of your life.

JON SNOW: Amongst the goats and chickens, a DIY munitions workshop has been set up in the backyard. A year ago, none of these men had ever carried a gun or a bomb.

Today, they are making them.

For them, recycling is a life-threatening business.

MAN (through translator): This is from the tip of a shell. We take this powder from it.

JON SNOW: With little money or support from outside, they have to rely on their own ingenuity.

MAN (through translator): I have a certain amount of this. Every time a missile doesn’t explode, I take it to my mines and IEDs, which we place on roads. In case they launch an attack, that’s how we defend ourselves.

JON SNOW: The community in this area mirrors so much of what is happening across Syria, lots of farmers, peasants, workers, above all defending themselves and hoping against hope that someone somewhere will come and help them.

Some are coming, men like these Libyans, foreign fighters who see this war as part of a wider cause. But their presence is not always welcome.

Most Syrian rebels are bonded by longstanding ties of community and history. Syria’s government claims they are terrorists. They say they are fighting for freedom from persecution and attack.

But some do fear an influx of foreign fighters with their own agendas who could radically change the nature of this war.

MAN (through translator): Bringing foreigners to Syria is wrong. We have a lot of them right now, a lot. That’s the problem.

MAN (through translator): He is right. We will have big problems after Assad falls.

MAN (through translator): I won’t allow any foreign fighters in this area. Their growing numbers are frightening. They have the same mentality as al-Qaida. We don’t think like that. I can see them using car bombs. In Syria, we don’t have that mentality.

JON SNOW: Assad may represent the common enemy to these people, but amid the ferocious competing currents, even in so remote a terrain as this, what kind of Syria will emerge?

At Abu Zahar’s home, scouts report the army troops surrounding the town are moving. They fear another massacre may be imminent. This is a community living in fear and rage, an emotional cocktail driving a simple farmer to extreme measures.

ABU ZAHAR (through translator): If the international community doesn’t intervene, I will give my son to al-Qaida, this young son. We will join al-Qaida and become human bombs. We will put on suicide belts.

We will make bombs and IEDs and let them off everywhere, but only against our oppressors. We only have God. We only have God. But we will be victorious.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Monday, a United Nations panel reported a rise in the number of foreign Islamist fighters in Syria. The U.N. group warned that the foreign jihadists could radicalize the rebellion against Syrian government forces.