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Last of five parts
The most striking thing you see when you drive into the Syrian town of Derat Azza is that it's devoid of ordinary people. Shops are closed, shuttered.
The only people you see seem to be rebels.
It seems like the only difference between this town and others in the area is that the regime made up its mind to target it. And once the regime did, there was nothing the people could do.
The shelling started about a month ago. Rebel fighters say the Syrian army was trying to force the rebels to give up control of a strategic hill that rebels took last month.
People say the shelling usually starts at night and can strike anywhere.
The rebels take us on a tour of civilian houses that have been hit. One room has a big hole in the wall. The stuffing from exploded pillows is scattered about.
A husband and wife were sleeping in the room when the attack happened. They survived and are now receiving treatment in Turkey.
At another house, a pile of rubble sits out front. A store looks as if it's just been torched.
Rebels' Heavily Managed Message
As we walk around town, we try to talk to the few people we see in the streets but it's clear the rebels want us to stick to the tour.
In some ways, it feels like the same kind of tours the government gives.
In the 17 months since the Syrian uprising started, the message has always been heavily managed. Because it's so difficult for Western journalists to get into Syria, we rely on amateur videos shot by activists and rebels and interviews conducted over Skype. Any news from the regime comes through state-controlled media.
Both sides are notorious for leaving out key details.
But in Derat Azza, it's not just about how the world perceives the rebel movement. It's about how its own people perceive it. The more the people in these towns think the rebels are their only hope, the more they are likely to support the rebels.
The next stop on the tour is to see women cooking over a fire because gas is too scarce and expensive these days. It's 100 degrees outside, but they're bent over hot coals, simmering eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in a kind of stew.
We try to shoo the rebels away so I can ask the women a question. I have to come in close and whisper my question: Do you ever blame the rebels for this? Do you feel that the regime is shelling your town because the rebels are here?
Maybe, the elder one says. I don't know.
The Dilemma Of The Uprising
We convince the rebels to let us speak to one of the few families that has come back to Derat Azza. By now, though, we're being followed by a whole posse of rebel fighters.
We ask the family the same question we asked the women cooking over the fire: When the shelling first started, who did you blame?
As one woman tries to answer, a rebel in the background tells her not to blame the fighters.
It's message control — even at the village level.
Then another woman chimes in. We protested against the regime, she says. The regime detained us, tortured us and shot us. So then the rebels came to protect us.
It's a summary of the Syrian uprising in a nutshell. And it explains the Catch-22 these towns are in now: Who would protect people if the rebels weren't here?
But, another line of inquiry goes, if the rebels weren't here, would the government even shell the people at all?