Kelly McEvers

Second of five parts

I'm standing next to a ridge, looking at the Syrian town of Salaqin. Just up on the ridge you can see the silhouettes of a mosque and couple of water towers. It looks like a very small, inconsequential town, but because it's on the Syrian-Turkish border it's very important to the rebels.

What the Syrian rebels are trying to do right now is carve out a kind of safe zone, a buffer zone where they can gather, assemble and plan attacks against the Syrian regime's army, and also a place where they can move weapons and money into Syria.

The destruction is total. In Jaar, a town in southern Yemen, an entire block has been reduced to rubble by what residents say was a powerful airstrike on May 15.

For the first time in more than a year, the sites of the escalating U.S. air war in southern Yemen are becoming accessible, as militants linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have withdrawn from the area. This retreat follows the sustained American air campaign and an offensive by the Yemeni government forces on the ground.

Yemen has long struggled as one of the least developed countries in the world. But now, after a year of protest and unrest that saw the country's longtime dictator step down, the situation for millions of Yemenis is dire.

Aid groups say some 10 million people are now without enough food to eat, and more than 200,000 children face life-threatening levels of malnutrition.

Yemen's offensive against al-Qaida has focused on territory in the south of the country that the militants have held for nearly a year. With the backing of the U.S., Yemen's army has cleared al-Qaida and its allies. But many local residents believe the fight is far from over. Kelly McEvers spent several days in southern Yemen and filed this report.

We're in a Yemeni army land cruiser with a shattered windshield. Our destination is the town of Shaqra, the last town in the al-Qaida badlands before the sandy ground turns into mountains.

In southern Yemen, government forces backed by U.S. advisers claim they are routing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups from territory that the militants had controlled over the past year.

This is the same al-Qaida that has tried to send so-called underwear bombers to attack U.S.-bound planes.

Abandoned Streets

Just outside the town of Zinjibar, it's clear that fierce battles went on here. It's deserted. There are no people, but there are an enormous number of bullet and shrapnel holes in the buildings.

A rash of kidnappings in Lebanon over the weekend, coupled with deadly cross-border attacks by the Syrian army, are all worrying signs that Syria's troubles are continuing to spill over into its smaller and weaker neighbor.

In the most recent incidents, a Sunni sheik known to support the Syrian uprising was abducted. In retaliation, several Alawites aligned with the Syrian government were taken. Days before that, the Syrian army shot several people on Lebanese territory.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Syrian uprising has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives. And since foreign journalists are rarely allowed in, many reports provide little beyond the number of people killed. But behind the numbers are lives. As part of an occasional series on those who have died, NPR's Kelly McEvers has this report.

Bassel Shehadeh started out as an IT major in Syria. But it became clear that what he really wanted to do was make films.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There was a deadly clash in northern Syria on Tuesday, but it was different than many other such episodes over the past 14 months of the Syrian uprising.

This time, United Nations monitors were watching. The monitors are in Syria to keep an eye on the government forces and the opposition, who are supposed to be observing a cease-fire and opening a dialogue.

But the trouble Tuesday began with a funeral the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The international peace plan for Syria is nearly a month old, and signs are pointing to a conflict that is becoming even more entrenched.

In the latest blow, two massive explosions rocked the outskirts of Syria's capital, Damascus, on Thursday, killing at least 55 people and injuring hundreds more.

It was Friday, April 27, when a car bomb exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. Syrian state television showed soldiers and civilians running from the smoke of the explosion under a bridge. Then the camera closed in on streams of blood and body parts.

The Syrian regime's narrative is that the uprising that has gripped the country for more than a year is not a case of people protesting and sometimes fighting for their rights; the official stance is that it's terrorism.

They called him "the spray man" for his graffiti that appeared all over the Syrian capital of Damascus. But in truth, 23-year-old Nour Hatem Zahra was an activist like any other activist.

He started protesting in Syria last spring. Back then, the opposition thought it would only take a few months to get rid of President Bashar Assad, as it had in Tunisia and Egypt.

Then Syrian forces started killing protesters, detaining them, torturing them. And the people started fighting back.

The U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Syria keeps unraveling. Syrian government troops were supposed to pull their tanks and soldiers out of cities and towns, while rebels were supposed to lay down their arms.

Yet hundreds of people have died in recent days, according to activists. And in some areas, visits by U.N. observers have been followed by intense violence.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Since the uprising began in Syria last year, there have been a lot of stories about soldiers who have defected from the army to join the rebels. This rebel group is loosely known as the Free Syrian Army, and it's starting to look more and more like an insurgency.

Not all soldiers who leave the army, however, decide to join these rebels. Those who simply escape the army altogether offer a rare glimpse into a military they say is committing unspeakable atrocities and a rebel force that's fighting back with its own brutality.

We can't tell you where Hussam and Rania live, but we can tell you they used to live in Syria's capital, Damascus.

Hussam was a creative director at a small marketing company he founded with a friend. Rania was the morning host for a radio station owned by the cousin of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Then came the protests all around Syria. Then came the phone call.

"The radio station called me, at home, and they said, 'Rania we have to say the truth,' " Rania says.

Last February, a group of young people were arrested for spray-painting graffiti on the walls of their school in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. They were beaten and interrogated. A year ago this Sunday, people went out to protest those arrests. And so began the Syrian uprising — an uprising that in some parts of Syria has turned into an armed insurgency and seen government troops respond with untold brutality. In all, thousands of people have died, with no clear end in sight.

If you're trying to escape the turmoil in Syria for the calm in Jordan, you have two choices.

You can go the legal way. Just get in a car and try to drive across the border. But that's not very easy these days. The Syrian government isn't letting many people out.

Or you can try the illegal way. Wait until nightfall, climb through a barbed-wire fence. It sounds dodgy, but if you make it over, you'll actually be welcomed by the Jordanian army. Troops will take your name, give you a drink of water, let you rest.

A key rebel stronghold in the central Syrian city of Homs has fallen to the Syrian army.

Residents fled as government forces bombarded the city's Baba Amr neighborhood for nearly a month. On Thursday, the rebels withdrew.

When the Syrian uprising began nearly a year ago, Baba Amr saw regular, daily protests. Then after months of being shot, detained and tortured, protesters began taking up arms. Those armed civilians were later joined by defectors from the Syrian military, and together, they called themselves the Free Syrian Army.

Yemen has become the latest Arab country to depose its dictator.

On Monday, the country's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is set to hand power to his vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, as part of an agreement reached late last year. The agreement was backed by the U.S., Europe and Yemen's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors. It was ratified by more than 60 percent of Yemen's voters earlier this week.

Now, the real work begins.

Now that the uprising in Syria has turned into a heavily armed conflict, many in the region are worried that the violence will spread beyond its territory.

Syria borders Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, as well as Lebanon, where clashes erupted last Friday in the northern coastal city of Tripoli.

Sunni Muslims in one Tripoli neighborhood began protesting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. They put up a huge banner on the side of a mosque that had a picture of Assad, wearing a military uniform, with a big red X across his face.

Syrian troops have fired rockets and mortars at neighborhoods in the city of Homs that have most fiercely resisted the government throughout the uprising.

Mainstream journalists are barred from entering Homs, so a team of activists decided to record the offensive themselves. The activists positioned their cameras atop buildings in the city. Each morning the view is blue sky, a minaret, a sea of rooftops. Then come the booms.

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