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Syrian rebels, but not residents, have returned to contested area

When the Syrian government stepped up its offensive against anti-government rebels ahead of the cease-fire that went into effect a week ago, the villages and towns south of Homs, including this one, were hit especially hard. Residents say 400 mortar rounds slammed into this town from March 26 to April 10, killing 12 civilians and forcing most of the residents to flee, but rarely touching the rebel fighters who were operating here.

Now, as the cease-fire sputters, the rebels have returned, but not many civilians or any semblance of normal life.

“The schools have stopped. Work has stopped. You can’t drive at night because of snipers and tanks,” said Taysir al Wazir, a former police officer.

Al Buwayda lies in a particularly sensitive area between the Lebanese border and Homs, Syria’s third largest city. For months, government troops have shelled parts of Homs heavily in an effort to dislodge the rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army. They’ve also targeted this town and other nearby villages in hopes of cutting rebel supply lines to Homs.

That’s left the rebel fighters, mostly local men, able to move freely in Al Buwayda but forced to take back roads and drive through farmers’ fields to reach other nearby settlements and to avoid the growing number of checkpoints that the military has installed on main roads.

Wazir left his job with the police shortly after the uprising against President Bashar Assad began last year. As three months of peaceful protests gave way to armed rebellion in the face of a violent government campaign against demonstrators and activists, the area around Al Buwayda became a war zone.

Most of the mortar rounds the government forces fired were ineffective, Wazir said, landing in open fields, though others destroyed houses. In any case, the people of Al Buwayda fled.

“The people had heard what happened in Baba Amr,” Wazir said, referring to a neighborhood in Homs that Syrian troops shelled for a month before they entered it at the end of February, allegedly executing civilians and fighters they found there.

Now, with the cease-fire in place, the area presents a mixed picture, with a trickle of residents returning to the nearby village of Abl, where government shelling had damaged or destroyed several homes, while smoke could be seen rising from continued shelling in the nearby village of Kfar Aya, the closest village to the south side of Homs.

Just down the road from Abl, the village of Embarkiyeh remains a no-go zone for the rebels. The military remains in control there after ejecting the rebels in March. Rebels from Embarkiyeh said the army had bulldozed and burned homes after taking over the village and was refusing to let residents return.

A cemetery on the outskirts of Al Buwayda hints at the death toll the rebellion has taken here. In addition to 50 marked graves that belong to civilians and fighters, 66 unnamed bodies fill a mass grave, residents said.

The bodies in the mass grave were interred there, Wazir and other residents said, after an agreement between the government and tribal leaders. Residents said they didn’t know whom the bodies belonged to, but they think that most of them are those of people the Syrian government killed while they were in prison or of soldiers who were shot for attempting to defect or being suspected of it.

“The government came to the sheikhs in this area and asked them to take the bodies for burial,” Wazir said. “Others are buried in other places.”

Wazir and others said the government initially had asked sheikhs in Al Buwayda to receive 260 bodies, but it stopped the return of the bodies when the people in the town broke an agreement with the government not to document or publicize the event and sent footage of the burials to Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned satellite TV channel.

Wazir said there were other mass graves in Kfar Aya and in Arjoun, another nearby village.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the group that’s documented deaths across the country most extensively, says more than 10,000 people have died since the rebellion began. The numbered markers above the mass grave in al Buwayda start at 900, suggesting that they were part of a larger group.

“Those were the numbers on the bodies when the government gave them to the sheikhs,” said Mohammed Wazir, a Free Syrian Army fighter who’s one of Taysir Wazir’s cousins. Extended families dominate the villages in this area, and the region’s close-knit nature seems to have fueled the spirit of rebellion as casualties mounted.

“If we run out of weapons, we will fight with rocks,” said a fighter from Jusey, a village south of Al Buwayda that also was largely empty. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity for his own safety.

For the moment, the rebels appear to be respecting the cease-fire, but they said they were waiting for permission from their leadership in Turkey to continue operations. In the meantime, they were prepared to defend themselves.

“The Syrian army is just around that bend in the road,” said a rebel fighter in Jusey, one of a half dozen who were standing ready at a checkpoint at one entrance to the town. Other fighters in Jusey said mines had been laid at entrances to the town as a further deterrent.

The army raided Jusey in August and October, according to residents who remained in the town.

“They arrested my father, my uncle and my cousin,” said Ahmed, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “It was because I was filming the demonstrations here.”

They’re among the thousands of Syrians missing since the demonstrations against Assad began more than a year ago.

“The first two months they were in the military security prison in Homs,” Ahmed said. “Someone I know who works there told me this. But now we don’t know where they are.”

Nineteen people have died since the beginning of the revolution in Jusey, according to activists there who’d recorded the names. Twelve were civilians and soldiers who were attempting to defect; seven were soldiers who’d defected and volunteers who were fighting with the rebels.

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