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Syrians here worry about family; Assad's crackdown raises their concerns about torture, death

It's difficult for the small community of Syrians in Buffalo to see the latest "Arab Spring" revolution unfold in their native country.

They watch Al-Jazeera, scour Facebook and try to speak to loved ones back home to stay abreast of the uprising and President Bashar Assad's internationally condemned efforts to crush the youth-led rebellion through widespread torture and murder.

"It is really hard. I'm always worried because it can happen to my family. I'm always trying to stay in touch with them," said a woman who asked not to be identified.

She and others interviewed for this story told The Buffalo News they cannot use their real names because the government routinely punishes family members -- sometimes with torture or death -- for actions or even statements critical of the regime.

Omar shares the same fears -- and knows the brutality of the regime firsthand. A few months ago, he was beaten in a major Syrian city for having been in a mosque where anti-Assad actions broke out. Although Omar didn't participate, he was assaulted by government-backed vigilantes who broke one of his limbs with batons and left him with facial bruises.

"When I was being beaten, I felt like I was dying," he said.

Omar said he wanted to protest against the regime but feared for his family: "Everyone is at risk -- brothers and sisters, mother and father. If they want you and don't have a chance to take you, they will go to your family."

That has made it hard for him to sit on the sidelines as his countrymen are engaged in a life-or-death struggle.

Omar was among more than 250 people who turned out Saturday for a fundraising dinner at the Islamic Society of Niagara Frontier in Getzville, where $51,800 was pledged to help Syrians with medicine and food through a humanitarian organization.

Dr. Othman Shibly of the University at Buffalo helped organize and spoke at the event, which included a number of the 100 or so Syrians and Syrian-Americans -- many in the medical and dental fields -- who he estimated live in Western New York.

Shibly, 51, left Syria in 1991 but visits frequently, most recently last April, one month after the uprising began.

"Nobody thought when we heard about Arab Spring that this could ever, ever happen in Syria. Because we know what kind of regime we have," he said.

"It is a youth revolution looking for a better future, for democracy. They are giving their life for this and deserve a lot of respect and admiration."

It has come at a steep cost.

The United Nations estimates 7,500 people have been killed, with tens of thousands more imprisoned and subject to torture and death, which human rights agencies and former detainees say is commonplace in Syrian detention.

Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Assad fit the definition of a war criminal. The Independent International Commission on Syria, a U.N.-backed panel, has accused Syria of ordering mass atrocities, including the killing and torturing of children.

"The torture that is happening in Syrian prisons cannot be imagined," Shibly said. "My friends tell me they would rather die than go to the jail. The Syrian people know what they might go through, and they still demonstrate, still say no to Assad."

Syria stands to be the fifth country -- after Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen -- where decades-old dictatorships have been toppled since the improbable Arab Spring began Dec. 18, 2010, in Tunisia.

The uprisings have been a reaction to poverty, injustice and inequality.

Syria, though, has proved to be the most brutally resistant government -- as many observers predicted.

There was precedent. In 1982, Assad's father, Hafez Assad, crushed dissent in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, by sending in armed forces led by his brother, Rifaat Assad. They used tanks and artillery, followed by ground troops, to quell the uprising. Tens of thousands of prisoners and civilians were believed to have been executed.

A similar scenario appears to be developing in Homs, in western Syria. The protest hot spot has been under a bloody, around-the-clock siege by government troops for more than three weeks, especially the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which Shibly compared in size to Amherst or Kenmore.

Abdul Siameh, who lives in Toronto, was in Homs in October during a trip to bring his wife back.

"I saw some things I thought you'd only see in movies. There were a lot of dead bodies in the street, but the most shocking sight I saw was a human body as dog food," Siameh said.

"A dog was actually chewing on a human body. That's because if anybody came close to rescue it, [a sniper] would shoot them."

He said that while walking down an alley, he heard gunshots and covered his head. "A little boy, who was probably 6, 7-years-old, said, 'What are you scared of?' I was the only person there to react to the bullets. They're so numb to it," he said.

Homs weighs heavily on the mind of Abdul Sattah. "Assad's father killed 40,000 20 years ago, and now he is repeating that story in slow motion," he said.

Because his parents are dead, Sattah, whose father is believed to have been killed after being detained by police when Sattah was a boy, said it was important that his full name be used.

"I think people are inside dying for their freedom, and I should show them that there are people supporting them with their real name," said Sattah, who is married with a daughter and is here for a dental residency at UB.

Sattah has friends who have been tortured. He said one was taken into custody for participating in a peaceful demonstration and tortured, then arrested and tortured again.

"They did everything you can imagine to him," he said.

He said people faced imprisonment before the uprising just for helping needy children and orphans. "This is the regime we are living under," he said.

Fatima Abbas, Shibly's mother, was last in Syria in December. She, too, has terrible stories to tell. A man released from detainment who was paralyzed from torture. A 16-year-old girl taken by six men who raped her for three days. Four children who were shot while in their beds by intelligence officers for demonstrating.

Ghasan, another local man, said he is left to wonder what happened to his brother, who was arrested and released with broken bones and bruises only to be snatched off the street two weeks ago.

For every story of sorrow, though, there seems to be another of bravery, like the doctor who volunteers to help the Syrian people at the risk of death.

"I ask him, 'Why are you here now? Just leave, and you will get very good salary, and have high living,' " Mohammed said. "He told me, 'I will not leave the country for them. It is our country. I will leave the country only in one situation, if they kill me.' "

Shibly said he is confident of the future. It's the present he worries so much about.

"Syria will not go back to what it was before. Never. Assad will not survive it. My worry is, at what cost?"

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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The Syrian Revolution

*The Arab Spring began in December 2010 as a reaction against injustice, poverty and inequality.

*Protests have toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

*The Syrian uprising began in March 2011. An estimated 7,500 people have been killed, with tens of thousands imprisoned who are subject to torture and death.

*The city of Homs, a center of rebellion, has been under a deadly, three-month assault by government troops backed by tanks.

*The United Nations has been blocked from intervening by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council.

Source: United Nations