Deraa: If they die it is meant to be

Men extinguish a burning vehicle after shelling in Deraa by Syrian government forces.
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Feras's home town, Deraa, was the scene of the first mass protests last year, and three days later, of the first killing of protesters.

From then, and for the rest of March and April, the city's phones were cut off, leaving relatives abroad to imagine the worst.

Feras, who lives in Abu Dhabi, remembers being in "hell". "I could not call my family, mum, or dad, or my brothers or sisters," he said. "It was driving me crazy, but I reached a point when I thought if they died, they are martyrs, and it is meant to be, there is nothing I can do."

Despite trying every five minutes for weeks, he did not manage to get through to his mother until April.

And although the situation in Deraa had worsened, just speaking to her was a great relief.

Since then communication has improved, although the phone lines remain unreliable and are almost always disconnected at the weekend.

"With Deraa, the majority from there live outside the country," he said. "So being able to call family is important."

But in March, those calls included a constant background of the sounds of gunshots and shelling.

"Every three hours they would hear something. Some villages, like Bosra Al Harir, once a tourist destination as it has Roman archeology sites, have been completely destroyed.Some Free Syrian Army videos show their faces or roads, which is a big mistake, that makes it so easy to bomb the area, or where they live. But so far my family has been OK."

Of his extended family living in other areas, 20 have died. "They are martyrs now. Before I would get very upset, but no more. This was their destiny."

* Ola Salem, with additional reporting by Zaineb Al Hassani