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On the ground in Syria: 'For God's sake, this is too much'

By Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 2:42 PM EST, Tue February 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "Everyone's becoming used to death here," an activist in Homs says
  • Syrians endure a hellish existence amid government's crackdown
  • Images shot by activists paint a starkly different picture than official government accounts
  • "We are getting killed every moment," an activist says

(CNN) -- A low-slung skyline. A slate gray sky. Rumbling. Close your eyes. It could be the sound of rolling thunder.

Instead, it's another shell falling on a neighborhood in Homs.

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"You don't know if the rocket is going to come in your living room or in your kitchen," said an activist who is being identified only as Danny for his safety. "Everyone's becoming used to death here."

Blood, he says, has become almost as commonplace as water. Still, the scenes are almost unbelievable.

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"I saw really horrible things I've never seen in my life," he said. "Kids in the hospital, a kid with his whole jaw gone. a little girl, a kid, she's 4 years old, she's dead, her sister's 6 years old, she lost her left eye and her mother is in intensive care."

As the world talks about how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown on the uprising in his country, opposition activists in the country say his military and security services are engaged in a vicious campaign of destruction meant to wipe out the opposition. Almost nothing, it seems, is off limits, they say -- not shelling, not snipers, not torture.

To hear al-Assad tell it, the violence is the work of terrorists, and his troops are martyrs to the state's effort to secure peace. But eyewitness accounts and videos streaming out of Syria on the Internet paint a starkly different picture.

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Where state television shows the Syrian president surrounded by clerics in a peaceful prayer, opposition video shows an injured man being hustled into a makeshift medical clinic from the back of a bloody pickup truck, mothers crying in the street.

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Where official images depict a cheering crowd waving Syrian and Russian flags during a visit from the Russian foreign minister, opposition video shows crowds of apparently unarmed civilians running through the streets in terror from explosions that blacken and bloody the streets.

And where the state-run SANA news agency says armed terrorist gangs are to blame for the violence, activists point to images of children, their bodies studded by shrapnel, running fearfully in rubble-strewn streets or asking, from under thick bandages enveloping a tiny head, what they've done to deserve such violence.

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In one video shot by activists, a man cradles the lifeless body of a child.

Smoke rises from a shelled building. Gunfire and explosions echo through the streets.

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Activist: We are killed every moment

Not even the makeshift clinics where people try to help horribly injured civilians are safe.

"They hit one of our field hospitals yesterday," the activist identified as Danny told CNN on Monday. "The doctors died, the patients died."

Snipers and tanks from the Syrian armed forces -- at nearly 400,000 strong, according to the U.S. State Department, one of the largest in the Middle East -- stalk the streets. Barricades keep their quarry from freely moving, according to activists who say day-and-night shelling often hits residential neighborhoods.

Homs is not the only target. Troops raided Daraa in April, shortly after the uprising began, according to Syrian opposition groups. They shot indiscriminately, sometimes into homes, opposition activists have said.

Significant numbers of deaths have also been reported in Damascus and its suburbs, as well as Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, and Hama.

Throughout the country, government forces have taken over schools and hospitals to use as detention centers and sniper nests, Human Rights Watch reported this week. A father told investigators he stopped allowing his 10-year-old son attend school because of snipers targeting travelers on the road leading to school.

"We called it 'the street of death'," Human Rights Watch quoted the man as saying.

Human rights groups also say security forces have taken and tortured children.

"Children have not been spared the horror of Syria's crackdown. Syrian security forces have killed, arrested, and tortured children in their homes, their schools, or on the streets," said Lois Whitman, children's rights director at Human Rights Watch.

One former adult detainee said security forces seem to target children for special abuse.

"There is torture, but there is also rape for the boys," Human Rights Watch quoted the man as saying. "We would see them when the guards brought them back to the cell, it's indescribable, you can't talk about it."

While many suffer in detention centers, even more suffer in formerly peaceful neighborhoods.

In a video shot Monday, a man perched on an urban rooftop in Homs nervously chants Allāhu Akbar -- "God is great" -- as shells fall on buildings around him.

Activists say 128 people died in the attack.

"We are getting killed every moment," a Syrian resident identified only as Zaidoun for his safety told CNN. "We are not able even just to get some basic medicine to injured people. Children are really hungry. I swear, children are hungry. No power, no fuel. It's too cold."

CNN cannot independently confirm opposition or government reports from Syria because the government has restricted journalists' access to the country.

But Western governments and human rights groups say there's little doubt about the carnage being inflicted by Syrian forces.

The United Nations estimates that at least 6,000 people have died since the violence began nearly a year ago. So far, nothing has stopped the death and suffering.

"It's too much," Zaidoun said, his voice breaking. "For God's sake, this is too much."

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