"I am very worried about my nieces," said Mona, a merchant's wife from the restive Syrian city of Hama. "Soldiers have been trying to attack homes to rape the women, but thank God our men have so far been able to keep them at bay."
More than 200 civilians have been killed in Hama, a city of 700,000 in central Syria, since the army launched its latest crackdown on August 1. Telecommunications, electricity and water supply have been cut for the past 48 hours and there are reports of shortages in basic food stuffs as well as medical equipment. As army tanks took over the city's central square on Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council condemned the violence and called for restraint. In 1982, Syrian security forces killed at least 20,000 civilians in Hama as they crushed a rebellion.
The Syrian government, through the official news agency SANA and state television, has maintained that the army is protecting civilians from "armed terrorist gangs" that have infiltrated peaceful towns. But local residents told ABC News that mosques are under attack and the army is killing unarmed civilians.
Mona, who chose not to use her real name for fear of retaliation, said her nephews, five men between the ages of 20 and 34, have been braving heavy gunfire and mortar rounds since Monday as they try to distribute food to those most in need and drive the wounded in their pick-up truck to hospitals. She said they have also been trying to remove the dead from the streets and bury them in gardens.
"As my nephews were out there, bullets peppered everything in sight, bullets rained down. The army had spotted them and was shooting to kill them," she told ABC News.
With tanks positioned in and around the city, cemeteries, located on the outskirts of the city, have become impossible to access. According to Muslim law, bodies should be buried at the first prayer following their death, less than 24 hours later.
An activist in Hama, Sami, told ABC News on Monday that "snipers are shooting us. We can't go to the cemetery. Martyrs are being buried in the garden, not in the cemetery, we can't access the cemetery."
In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford called the Syrian regime's actions "abhorrent."
"The violence that the Syrian government is inflicting on Syrian protesters, from our point of view, is grotesque," said Ford. "The Syrian government does not tell the truth. They said there were armed gangs in Hama. Well, the only weapon I saw was a slingshot."
Ford said the U.S. government would "try to ratchet up the pressure" on the Syrian government, and relay "a message of support" to the Syrian people.
Hama Massacre in 1982
Hama had been besieged for a month until government tanks moved in and began shelling the city on Monday, the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. The government is believed to have launched this operation in an attempt to preempt expected large demonstrations set to take place after the nightly Ramadan prayers.
In a country where demonstrations had been outlawed until the state of emergency was lifted last April, prayers in mosques represent the only form of public gathering that doesn't require a permit from the Interior Ministry.
Phone lines have been cut since the evening prayers on Tuesday, along with the city's power and water supply, according to reports. "The situation is awful, the army has taken control of the city's main square, Orontes Square," said a middle-aged man who fled Hama at dawn on Wednesday. Mona, the merchant's wife, said the crackdown reminded her of 1982, when the Syrian army, directed by President Hafez Al Assad, father of current president Bashar Al Assad, crushed a rebellion in Hama, pounding the city with heavy shelling for nearly a month, killing at least 20,000 civilians and leveling the city's old quarter.
The memory of that massacre is still vivid in people's minds. Protesters in those parts of Hama still not under army control have been chanting "We are the grandchildren of 1982" over the last few days, according to Mona.
Eyewitness accounts have been rare because people are worried about their phones being tapped. The merchant's wife spoke to ABC News after fleeing to Lebanon.
In a Presidential Statement unanimously adopted Wednesday in New York, the United Nations Security Council condemned "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities" and called "on the Syrian authorities to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under applicable international law. Those responsible for the violence should be held accountable."
Earlier on Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a news conference that "Syria would be a better place without President Assad."
According to the United Nations, over 1,500 civilians and 300 members of the security forces have been killed since Syrian protests started in mid-March, and as many as 3,000 people have disappeared. "Please don't mention my name," "Mona" told ABC News. "I need to protect my brother and his children. They are still there and are refusing to abandon our ancestral home. Pray for them."