When the gunfire fades between rebels and government troops in the besieged town of al-Houla, it is replaced by an even more frightening sound - the shelling of Homs, heart of the Syrian uprising, 20 km (15 miles) away.
“We are scared of becoming like Homs,” says Hamza, an activist contacted by phone from Beirut during one of the few hours al-Houla had electricity and a phone connection.
“But everyone is too scared to leave because our neighborhoods are surrounded by checkpoints and snipers. We are in an open-air prison.”
Al-Houla is one of many rebellious towns surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Cut off and struggling to get food and water, they fear being forgotten as international media attention focuses on Homs. The city of 1 million in the centre of Syria has faced 11 days of sustained shelling, killing hundreds of people.
Ever since rebels announced they had “liberated” several protest hotspots last month, security forces have intensified their crackdown on the 11-month uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.
They have surrounded areas of revolt with troops and armored vehicles and cut communication lines.
In al-Houla, Hamza said, government forces fire rockets randomly when residents try to organize flash protests in some of the town’s cramped concrete alleyways.
Soldiers have also used megaphones to hector residents. “They blast songs praising Assad over the speakers really loudly whenever residents try to protest or mourn the death of a resident. Other times they shout threats about how the rebels are traitors and we have to sit inside and listen,” Hamza said.
Activist accounts are difficult to verify as Syria has restricted access to journalists. It has become increasingly difficult to contact residents directly as telephone, Internet and mobile phone connections are usually cut off.
Only activists who have smuggled in sophisticated communications equipment are able to access the Internet.
But the sense of isolation described by Hamza is repeated in accounts of other towns cut off by Assad’s troops.
Activist Abu Omar had recently fled Rankous, 45 km (27 miles) outside Damascus. “The people in Rankous have no way to communicate, they are surrounded by tanks and troops, their phone lines don’t work and I fear that while everyone focuses on Homs they will be crushed and forgotten by the world,” he said.
Only 40 to 50 families remained, he said, while thousands of people had fled daily rocket and gunfire.
“The people still inside need help, their situation is dire,” he said. “We can only send in a few people each night to smuggle in whatever food and water they can carry with them. Many people are suffering because they’ve run out of their medications for things like diabetes or heart problems.”
SMUGGLING BREAD, MILK AND MEDICINE
From the snow-frosted mountain resort of Zabadani, an activist on Skype said troops broke a deal with rebels who held the town and sent reinforcements on Sunday to take over.
“They promised to stop shelling us if we would let them have the media victory of patrolling the central streets. For a few days they stuck to it, but yesterday they sent heavy deployments through the town,” said the activist, who is a doctor and asked not to be named.
Dozens were arrested, he said, including wounded people he was treating at a makeshift clinic, suspected of being rebels.
The armed rebels and army deserters who call themselves the Free Syrian Army have begun to overshadow what started as peaceful protests last March. Syria says it is fighting foreign-backed “terrorists” who are trying to destabilize the country.
Short-lived victories that saw rebels seizing towns like Rankous and Zabadani close to the capital have now given way to “tactical retreats” as tank-backed troops encircled the towns.
Like al-Houla, residents in Zabadani have resorted to smuggling to bring in bread, milk and medicine, activists say. They say they use secret mountain paths and wait for the cover of darkness to sneak in and out.
The doctor said that despite the hardships, he will stay in his hometown. He hoped the rebels would eventually be able to fight back.
“Now the rebels are planning revenge, I’ve already heard three loud explosions. I have faith they will eventually tire out Assad’s forces and succeed,” he said. “We are outgunned but unlike Assad’s gangs we have something to fight for.”