ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
All this week, we've been hearing from parts of Syria that are controlled by the Free Syrian Army. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently returned from a weeklong trip there. And because such reporting is so rare these days, we've heard stories on both MORNING EDITION and on this program.
As Kelly witnessed on her trip, while rebel fighters hold pieces of territory, the better equipped Syrian army is still in a position to take that territory back. Kelly's final story begins in a town where weeks of heavy shelling have cleared out most of the civilians, and where the rebels tightly control the message.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: OK. So we're just pulling into a town called Derat Azza. But the most striking thing when you drive into town is that the people are gone. Shops are closed, shuttered. The only people you really see looks like - are rebels.
Seems like the only difference between this town and some other towns we've seen around here is that the regime made up its mind to target it. And once the regime did, there was really nothing they could do. The shelling started about a month ago. Rebel fighters say the regime's army targeted the town to force the rebels to give up control of a strategic hill nearby. Rebels took the hill last month.
People say the shelling usually starts at night and can strike anywhere.
The rebels take us on a tour of civilian houses that have been hit. Big hole here in the wall and the pillows are all exploded, destroyed, all the batting and the stuffing in the pillows is all over the place.
Was anyone sleeping in this room when it happened?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: A man and his wife. They survived the attack, and are now being treated in Turkey.
Here's another house that was hit. So this is a big pile of rubble here in front of the house, you can tell.
As we walk around town, we try to talk to the few people we see in the streets. But it's clear the rebels want us to stick to the tour.
Yeah. This wasn't a house. It was a store. It looks like it's just been torched.
In some ways, it feels like the same kind of tours the government gives. In the 17 months since the Syrian uprising started, the message has always been heavily managed. Because it's so difficult for Western journalists to get into Syria, we rely on amateur videos shot by activists and rebels and interviews conducted over Skype. Any news from the regime comes through state-controlled media. Both sides are notorious for leaving out key details.
But here in Derat Azza, it's not just about how the world perceives the rebel movement. It's about how their own people perceive it. The more the people in these towns think the rebels are their only hope, the more they're likely to support the rebels.
The next stop on the tour is to see women cooking on a fire, because cooking gas is too scarce and too expensive these days. It's a hundred degrees outside, but they're bent over hot coals, simmering eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers in a kind of stew.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMMERING FOOD)
MCEVERS: We try to shoo the rebels away so I can ask the women a question. I have to come in close and whisper.
Do the women ever think, like - do they ever blame the rebels for this, like, the regime is shelling us because these guys are here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Maybe, the elder one says, I don't know.
We convince the rebels to let us speak to one of the few families that has come back to Derat Azza. By now, though, we're being followed by a whole posse of rebel fighters. We ask the family the same question we asked the women cooking over the fire. When the shelling first started, who did you blame?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: As one woman tries to answer, a rebel is in the background telling her not to blame the fighters.
It's message control.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Message control, even at the village level.
Then another woman chimes in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: We protested against the regime, she says. The regime detained us, tortured us and shot us. So then the rebels came to protect us, she says.
It's a summary of the Syrian uprising in a nutshell. And it explains the catch-22 these towns are in now. Who would protect the people if the rebels weren't here? But if the rebels weren't here, would the government even shell the people at all?
Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.