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."