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Thousands displaced as Syrian authorities demolish Hama neighborhood

By Amir Ahmed, CNN
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Forces go door to door in Hama telling people to evacuate before demolition begins, residents say
  • Bulldozers have razed 120 buildings and remain active in the area, a resident says
  • The district, which once had 30,000 people, was a hotbed for "peaceful and militant" opposition
  • The razings and intimidation of residents have "only fueled more anger," the resident adds

(CNN) -- Syrian forces are uprooting thousands of people and then demolishing their homes in part of a flashpoint city that has been the center of an anti-government rebellion, according to residents there.

Tanks and bulldozers have been tearing down houses in the Mesha Alarbeen district of the city of Hama, the site of intense fighting during an uprising against the Syrian government.

The displacement and demolition has conjured fears of something that happened in the western city 30 years ago.

The Hama Massacre of 1982 is fresh in the minds of Syrians. Acting under orders from Hafez Assad -- the father of the current Syrian president -- the Syrian military brutally suppressed a revolt in Hama. Estimates of the number of casualties vary from 3,000 to 40,000. A 1983 Amnesty International report put the death toll on both sides as between 10,000 and 25,000.

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Once again, Hama is a stronghold of anti-government activists who have roiled the country for the past 18 months. Security forces rolled in with tanks and bulldozers.

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"So far they have razed 120 buildings," Osamah, a Hama resident who visited the neighborhood on Sunday, told CNN.

The neighborhood had been "the main gathering place" for those "peaceful and militant" who oppose President Bashar al-Assad's government, according to Osamah.

That is until last June, when the security forces decided to enter the district and completely take it over, several activists said.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported a "massive presence of terrorist armed gangs that threaten" the people of Hama. Other SANA articles referenced how security forces had found large amounts of weapons in the area.

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The government has consistently referred to anti-government forces as terrorists.

"The security forces started using artillery fire to shell several positions in the neighborhood," Abdallah -- another resident -- told CNN from Meshaa Alarbaeen.

"Some of the poorest people live here. The security forces targeted their homes indiscriminately. They really tried to make life impossible for the residents."

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A few weeks ago, security forces allowed the bulldozers to enter the district.

Several amateur videos purportedly shot over the past two weeks support the activists' claims. They show bulldozers flattening entire blocks while operating under the watchful eyes of security forces.

Eyewitnesses said security force members have been going building-to-building asking people to evacuate their homes.

"Most of the residents have left their homes. The majority of them went to neighboring areas in the province. Some are still sleeping in the streets, and only a few of them remain in their homes," Abdallah said.

Another resident reached by phone Sunday said she's been living on the street, along with her two kids, for five days after her husband was detained by authorities and her home was burned. She did not want to be named for safety reasons.

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Some Shabiha -- gangs loyal to the regime -- resort to other extreme tactics to intimidate those who do not want to leave their homes.

"A few days ago, a regime loyalist gang stormed one of the activists' homes and brought out his wife, undressed her and made her stand on tank as it drove through the neighborhood," Khaled, an eyewitness told CNN.

Residents said the anti-government sentiment is only growing, even after the razing of homes and intimidation of residents.

"The government wants to deny the activists popular support through leveling Meshaa Alarbaeen," Osamah said. "But this incident has only fueled more anger here."

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