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The perils of everyday life in volatile Syria

By Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 3:36 PM EST, Fri February 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Everyday life in Syria is a struggle
  • "Opening your door could be the last thing you do in your life," an activist says
  • One child has nightmares, draws picture of a tank, a fire and her family
  • People suffer from shortages of food and medications

(CNN) -- Basma Jandali spent days consumed with fear. Her brother was stranded in the Syrian city of Homs, where government forces have killed hundreds of people this week.

She didn't know he was alive until they spoke Friday.

"I feel relieved now," she said.

Her brother is one of the lucky ones.

Several hundred thousand people remain in Homs, a city suddenly peppered with snipers and surrounded by soldiers. Syrian forces unleashed an assault this week that has destroyed clinics and homes. It has dramatically altered the rhythm of everyday life.

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Parents keep their kids at home, afraid to send them to school. They get food from activists delivering flour and sugar at night. Those who do venture out use street smarts -- doctors make rounds at night, for example, jumping walls to avoid checkpoints.

People have a tough time getting soap, toothbrushes, shampoo, and medications.

"The simple act of opening your door could be the last thing you do in your life," said Dima Moussa, an attorney in Chicago and Syrian activist who opposes the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian government blames the 11-month-old nationwide uprising on terrorist groups. Video images from citizen journalists and accounts relayed to the outside world by phone suggest otherwise.

Mohamad al Homsy, an activist from Homs who fled to Turkey before coming to the United States, said he gets a sense of the danger and desperation in Homs in phone calls home.

His wife told him that their 6-year-old daughter in Homs has nightmares from the sounds of bombing. She told him the girl drew a picture with crayons of the family, a tank, and a fire.

"Can you imagine kids drawing this instead of the tree?" al Homsy said. "That made me so angry."

Malaz Alatassi, a doctor who lived in Homs before moving to Detroit, said friends and family tell him it's hard to go out and buy or find supplies, like bread or heating oil.

"If you look out the window, you risk being shot," he said.

Smugglers and activists wait until night to deliver flour, sugar and medicine to people huddled in fear at home, he and al Homsy said.

"That's risky," Alatassi said. "There are reports that many of those people are killed."

Businesses have closed. Government employees work on and off. Along with a breakdown of medical care, there's no psychiatric help for stress, Alatassi said.

Many people read the Quran or the Bible, Jandali said. Most Syrians are Muslim. About 1 in 10 are Christian.

"The only thing they do is pray," said Jandali, who lives in New Jersey "That is the only thing available to them."

Fear pervades life in other parts of Syria, too.

"We all have martyrs and injuries in our families," said Abu Omar, who lives in the southern Syrian province of Quneitra. Because of that, he said, "we can all relate to each other."

Gas and food are hard to find, he said. Medicine is scarce. Hospitals have little equipment -- and what they do have is old.

"People depend on each other and help each other with simple medicine," Omar said.

Relatives have lost track of each other in the chaos that has engulfed Syria for nearly a year.

"I haven't seen my mother for a month and a half even though she lives about seven or eight kilometers away," Omar said.

Yasmeen, an activist in the West, said most of her relatives in Syria dropped out of school and left their jobs.

She recounts tales of regime forces using violence to bring the opposition to its knees. Thugs attacked and pummeled a cousin involved in the protest movement, she said, and his dad was arrested and beaten, as well.

She's heard of people who died after burning wood at home to keep warm -- they had no other fuel to use. Aside from the shelling and gunfire, she said, a lack of money and health care is taking a toll, too.

"A lot of people die," she said.

CNN's Tracy Doueiry contributed to this report

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