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Syria 1st-Hand: Life with the Protesters (Rosen)

Homs Protester: "Arrest Me"Nir Rosen spent seven weeks this summer moving around Syria. This is the third of his three reports for Al Jazeera English, drawing on his experiences before the recent surge of conflict in Rastan, where military forces occupied the town after five days of fighting, and Homs:

Syrian protesters have been denied access to public spaces, such as the squares that have become famous in Yemen and Egypt. This has led to mosques playing an even greater role than they already would have.

With the number of dead from the uprising reaching possibly five thousand, funerals have also provided an opportunity for communities to gather and express their ire.

Funerals are a convenient place to express opposition to the regime because attendance in a funeral does not imply active opposition, and mourners are protected by the crowds. One of the few times a portrait of President Bashar was destroyed in Aleppo was during the funeral of Mufit Ibrahim al-Salqini. Often Saturday funerals have had greater crowds than the Friday demonstrations that preceded them. And while security forces have certainly shot at protesters during funerals they have been more reluctant to do so.

On August 19, a friend named Abu Salah drove me to a daytime funeral and demonstration in the eastern Homs slum of Bab Assiba.

Abu Salah was a businessman who lived in the western neighbourhood of Waer and helped the opposition. He drove a car with fake license plates and delivered aid from wealthy areas such as Ghota, Inshaat and Hamra to the poorer neighbourhoods across town - such as Bab Assiba. We stopped to pick up a friend of his, a man with a beard but no moustache, a sign of conservatism.

As we drove, he received a call letting him know that his cousin, Nawar Nawriz, had died from injuries received the previous night - when attackers had shot at the Fatima mosque while he was praying. After being wounded he was taken to a "field hospital" - a safe house used as a clinic.

Abu Salah told me that opposition supporters donated blood themselves, but they lacked the packs to hold the blood and they needed morphine and medicine to prevent infections and to meet medical needs.

We continued to driving to the Muhata area and passed the Military Security department. A white Peugeot station wagon was parked on the road leading to it, inside and outside the car sat men with rifles.

We entered the Karm Ashami district, passing the Bisman security checkpoint. Abu Salah told me it was known as a very cruel checkpoint because it was between a Sunni area and the Alawite areas of Hadara and Akrama. We entered Bab Hud and continued through Bab Turkman and on to Safsafi. The narrow and rough streets had old houses made of large stones. Many shops and buildings were damaged by automatic weapon fire, including large gashes from heavy calibre rounds.

We left the car parked in the Zaafaran neighbourhood, and walked through alleys pocked with bullet holes, crossing the main road to Bab Assiba.

Every wall, from top to bottom, was ravaged with bullet holes from seemingly every angle. There had been fierce battles here between Syrian security forces and armed opposition fighters. Down the road, at its entrance, was a tank by the checkpoint we bypassed by walking in. Parts of the barrier on the road between the two neighbourhoods had been broken to make space for cars to sneak through at night. Most of the shops in Bab Assiba were closed. There were old signs on the walls calling for a general strike.

We walked to the Mreiji mosque where a large crowd was gathering, waiting. The mosque was full of mourners praying. I asked Abu Salah if people would be concerned that we were strangers. He told me not to worry; if anybody stopped him, there were code words he could use that would reassure them.

Men emerged from the mosque shouting "God is great!" over and over, led by one man, sitting on someone’s shoulders, holding a loudspeaker. The crowds carried a stretcher with a body wrapped in white cloth, with the head exposed. He had been killed the previous night in the mosque when a bullet allegedly ricocheted off a wall in the mosque, hitting the back of his head and coming out of his eye.

His body was followed by that of an eight-month-old girl. Locals told me she was the daughter of the mosque’s sheikh, Anas. The procession marched down a road taking both to the newly named "Martyrs Cemetery".

The mosque’s walls and windows were riddled with bullet holes. Many of the young men standing outside looked hardened and tough, even thuggish. I stuck close to my local guides. Many men had beards, but shaved their moustaches - a sign that they were religiously conservative.

When it was over, we crossed the road back in to Zaafaran. Its Saad ibn Ali Waqas mosque was also full of bullet holes. As we departed, my friend said to himself: "Rise, oh Assi River, rise. Every day we have a martyr." It was an opposition slogan that rhymes in Arabic, referring to the symbolic Assi River that runs through Homs. Three days later my friend would be arrested after a demonstration in Homs’ Clock Square.

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