|Syria's government said the army was battling 'armed terrorists' in Hama, a claim dismissed by the opposition [EPA]
The three young men were running to the Horany hospital to give blood when several shots rang out and 18-year-old Talha Khamees [WARNING: graphic video] fell to the ground, his own dark blood spilling from the hole where his left eye used to be.
As he lay sprawled on the road, Khamees was shot again, said a trainee doctor from Hama, a childhood friend of the young man, who spoke to Al Jazeera after witnessing the killing. The two other men, Omar al-Masri and Besher Ghannameh, also said to be just 18 years old, had run a little ahead of Khamees, but turned back when they heard the shot.
Syrian protesters help wounded compatriots [YouTube].
Al Jazeera cannot be held responsible for the content of third-party sites
Khamees was still alive, the young doctor said, but as al-Masri and Ghannameh tried to pull him to safety more shots rang out. Al-Masri was shot in the chest and died soon after. Ghannameh bled to death on the street after about half an hour, the doctor and others helpless to save him.
It was August 1, the second day of the assault on Hama. As during the siege of Deraa, President Bashar al-Assad's snipers were operating a shoot-to-kill policy as the regime's tanks pounded and terrorised the city. Thugs and secret police took over the streets, which for the previous month had seen the largest-ever protests for an end to the Assad family's 41-year rule.
The young doctor didn't know al-Masri or Ghannameh very well, but Khamees was a close friend.
"He was such a kind and brave guy," the 23-year-old medical student said. "He had a school exam due that day, but it was cancelled because of the military assault. So when he heard the call from the minarets of the mosques that the hospital needed blood, he went with his friends. I saw all three friends shot. They were shot by a sniper. It was the first time I cried since childhood."
The morning before, the young doctor had been woken at around 5am by the sounds of explosions. His home is in Hama's Hader district, one of the heaviest hit.
Syrian tanks had begun shelling Hama, a return to the nightmare of 1982 when Assad's father, former President Hafez al-Assad, ordered a military assault on the town to crush an armed rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 civilians.
A generation later, Hama's residents were again being bombed, shot, stabbed and looted by Assad's security forces for having turned out in massive numbers for peaceful, often joyous rallies, filling the city's central squares - week after week - with colourful flags, posters and chants calling for freedom and an end to oppression.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
The young doctor was at home with his parents and three sisters, the youngest of whom, aged nine, began crying in fear as the explosions shook the house.
"She came to my bed and gave me a hug. She asked: 'It's Bashar, right?' I said: 'Yes, but he'll never hurt you.' I tried to calm her down, but I could hardly calm myself down."
A Western official, quoted in the New York Times citing multiple sources, said security forces used anti-aircraft guns against civilian buildings in Hama during the assault.
At around 9:00am, the bombardment stopped and the young man's father, a doctor at the Horany hospital, said he was leaving to attend to the wounded. His wife tried in vain to stop him, knowing that doctors who treat casualties have been targeted for arrest by security forces, who have broken into hospitals to arrest and reportedly kill patients.
The young man went down to the street to discuss with neighbours how they might stop Assad's tanks and save their families from the violence. Women and children were led down to cellars while the young men tried to reinforce their homemade barriers.
"We built the barriers to try and keep them out of our street. We knew they wouldn't, but we tried. We know we can't stop tanks with stones."
"I'll never forget seeing the two guys who were mashed by the tank ... One had no legs. The other one, I don't know what I can say."
Later on, helping his father at the hospital, the young doctor would see the corpses of two young men who tried to stand their ground as Assad's tanks rolled over them [WARNING: graphic video] and their flimsy barricades: "I'll never forget seeing the two guys who were mashed by the tanks," he said. "One had no legs. The other one, I don't know what I can say. I'll never forget them."
In another neighbourhood of the city, an activist known as Sameh al-Hamwi, the name people from Hama give themselves, told Al Jazeera his elderly mother had begun calling out to God as the shells exploded outside, while his brother's wife fainted with fear.
"It was fear and confusion," al-Hamwi said. "We couldn't think what to do. I expected them to bomb my house. I spent 48 hours sitting, continuously working on my computer - contacting people to get the latest news from different parts of Hama. I fell asleep at the keyboard and remember the pain in my back when I woke up."
At the Horany hospital, the young doctor was struggling to cope.
"I was helping my dad and another doctor in the emergency room. I must have seen more than 50 injured; most were shot in the chest or had been injured from the attacks on buildings. I went home at around 4:00pm; I was so tired. It was the first time I had seen so much blood."
Activists said at least 54 people were confirmed killed by security forces on that first day of the assault, with a further 160 injured. Four days later, 109 people were killed in a single day. Activists estimate between 200 and 300 people were killed in the ten-day assault, but an exact figure has yet to be established, due to the ongoing security restrictions.
As well as snipers shooting at anyone trying to reach hospitals, tanks were deployed in front of Horany and the city's other main hospital, Bader.
|Activists said between 200 and 300 people were killed
in the assault on Hama [Reuters/YouTube]
Tanks also rumbled into the protest centre of Assi Square, where a large purple flag, which for weeks had hung, declaring: "Long live free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad" was torn down and replaced with graffiti on main streets, witnessed by a reporter for Time, reading "There is no God but Bashar," a provocative slur considered blasphemous and deeply offensive by many of Hama's religiously conservative Sunni Muslims.
Another graffito left by soldiers and security forces read "God Bashar and Maher Mohammed" referring to Assad's younger brother Maher, commander of the Fourth Division, believed to be responsible for many of the now estimated 2,000 deaths of civilians. Several hundred members of the security forces have also died in the near six-month uprising and crackdown.
In just two days, Hama had been transformed into a war zone, snipers on rooftops watching as Russian-made military trucks and green buses carried thousands of soldiers and security personnel to man the dozens of new checkpoints set up to divide Hama's neighbourhoods.
Shops were shuttered and streets deserted, except for the dead bodies left uncollected and rotting in the intense August sun. Electricity, phone lines and water supplies were cut to several neighbourhoods, with Avaaz reporting tanks shelling the main power station in Arbeen.
Families survived on food they had stocked at home and on offerings smuggled in from surrounding villages.
Syrian tanks enter Hama [YouTube].
Al Jazeera cannot be held responsible for the content of third-party sites
When they could get the bodies of their loved ones, families were forced to bury them in public gardens, being unable to reach the main cemetery due to shelling and snipers.
Avaaz and other rights groups are currently investigating the disappearance of scores of bodies, including at least 50 from a mosque in Assi Square. Avaaz citizen journalists have reported the presence of at least three mass graves in Hama since the assault began.
When they could no longer terrorise residents on the streets, gangs of shabiha "thugs", alongside plain clothes secret police, came breaking through doors, beating families in their homes before stealing gold, money and television sets.
"I had a big stick in case the shabiha came," said the young doctor. "They can kill anyone, steal anything and maybe even rape the girls. So I couldn't leave my family."
Mass demonstrations in Hama [YouTube]. Al Jazeera cannot be held responsible for the content of third-party sites
The young doctor was lucky not to have his door beaten down, but one young man, at home with his mother, was burned seven times with cigarettes and had his nose broken by regime thugs.
When an Al Jazeera contributor visited Hama after the assault, he described it as looking as if there had been "a real war for weeks, not a ten-day military operation". The tanks that had briefly left south towards Homs to allow the Turkish ambassador to visit Hama were redeploying to the city when he visited.
Fire engines did their best to wash the streets clean, but they couldn't disguise the dozens of burned-out cars and buses, nor the buildings charred by fire after being shelled, nor could they clean the blood stains. Military four-wheel drives with mounted machine guns stood guard outside the governorate headquarters in Assi Square and most of the city's businesses remained closed.
Passing from one area of Hama to the next was "as if I was going to another country", said the Al Jazeera contributor, such were the number of checkpoints. Many thousands of Hama residents fled the onslaught. A conservative estimate by an Avaaz citizen journalist put the figure at 5,000. Other activists put it much higher.
Even as they fled, families were not safe. The young doctor said that, on the morning of the second day of the assault, neighbours told him that members of the Masri family had been killed at the army checkpoint.
"I'll go on with protests against the criminal Bashar al-Assad forever ... Or for as long as I am alive"
The young doctor, too, fled the city for the relative safety of Damascus. As well as seeing friends shot and killed, five of his friends had been arrested, just a few of the 1,300 people a local member of the Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators Union said had been detained in Hama over the past fortnight.
With the killing, bombing, burning and looting done, and with the streets cleared of bodies, the regime invited journalists from Russian and Chinese media, the two nations still blocking any binding UN resolution against Syria, to visit the "acts of sabotage" perpetrated by "armed terrorist groups."
But while the regime engaged in its unique brand of Doublespeak, the Hamwis emerged from their homes again last Friday, in their thousands rather than their hundreds of thousands, unbowed to be met, again, with bullets.
"I'll go on with protests against the criminal Bashar al-Assad forever," said the young doctor. "Or for as long as I am alive."