(Foreign journalists are not allowed in Homs, the city at the centre of Syria's uprising. A translator born in the city returned for three days last week. This piece is based on his account, relayed to a Reuters correspondent well known to him. Please note strong language in 12th paragraph)
(Reuters) - When anti-government protests erupted in the Syrian city of Homs, police handed guns to government supporters like Ali, a factory worker. It wasn't long, he said, before he used his on the protesters.
A member of President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite sect, he says that to his mind, the protests against al-Assad's rule threaten his very existence.
"I'm defending my people," said the hefty, greying 45-year old. "We can't let them topple the regime, they'll go after us and kill us all."
Ali asked that his full name not be published for fear of retribution. His observations and those of others in Homs, were related by a native of the city to a Reuters correspondent well known to him, after a three-day return visit last week. Reuters and other foreign news organizations are not permitted to work in Syria.
Syria's uprising started out as a clamor for democracy. Nine months into the crisis, an artery of revolt runs right down the main M5 highway, from Idlib in the north to Deraa in the south. Homs and its one million people have long been its beating heart.
But in Homs, what began as peaceful protest has turned into a vicious sectarian fight. President Bashar al-Assad says unrest is being fomented by terrorists and foreign subversives, including militant Islamists, and denies accusations of systematic repression.
A vicious sectarian fight is now tearing Homs apart and overshadowing peaceful protest. Roads are blocked with checkpoints and some neighborhoods are carved up by trenches. Kidnappings are an almost daily occurrence.
Ali says hundreds like him now unofficially work for security forces. The factory now receives about $36 for every shift helping security forces patrol his neighborhood.
Those like Ali fear Syria's mass protests will turn into an attempt by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority to overthrow the government and the Alawites, who have been inextricably linked to the administration. Syria's protests have been driven by Sunnis in the impoverished countryside.
Alawites have been drawn into high posts in the security system that helped the Assad family rule for 41 years.
Ali says that when he shot at protesters, he had no idea if he killed anyone.
He does remember shooting a man in the leg, but shrugs off the recollection. "Screw him," he says.
RISE OF THE SHABBIHA
The United Nations says at least 5,000 Syrians had been killed in the violence and Syrian forces say they have lost 2,000. At least a third of the those killed died in Homs.
Damascus accuses the West of disregarding the number in the security forces killed in attacks and ambushes.
People in Homs say they are now divided by religious identities and prejudices that were once taboo, rifts which many have spent their lives trying to ignore.
Men have armed themselves to defend their neighbors. In the protest areas it is the Free Syrian Army, their faces swathed in scarves or black masks. A motley crew made up mostly of Sunni army deserters and volunteer rebels, they launch attacks with increasing frequency.
In Alawite neighborhoods like Ali's, armed men and the security forces have formed "shabbiha". The name is derived from the Arabic word for ghost. Shabbiha groups existed more or less under the surface before the uprising, but have grown since.
Fighting alongside Ali is an unemployed 20-year-old, Kareem. He is not paid as much as the older man - he says he gets about $18 a shift - and instead of a gun, the police gave him a bat.
"They sent us out to the market with them, in groups of 10 or 15, and we'd help them beat protesters," he says. "They didn't arm us but you can bring guns. No one asks questions."
Kareem says his family doesn't approve of him being with the shabbiha. They kicked him out when they heard, and only let him come home when he promised he would stop.
Homs was once a lively industrial town. Now, by 4 p.m., the city's bullet-riddled markets are emptied. Children are whisked home from school, cars disappear, and the few shops that bothered to open draw down their shutters. Dusk, say residents, is when the kidnappings begin.
"I wish I hadn't lived to see this," said Abu Firas, from the Alawite neighborhood of Nizha. "All these years, we lived together. Now we steal each other's sons."
No one knows for sure how the kidnappings first started but Alawites blame Sunnis and the accusation is reciprocated by Alawites. The government sees the involvement of 'terrorists'.
Holed up at home with his son and grandchildren for the evening, he says people used to kidnap to kill. But now, they are doing it as leverage to demand the release of another person being held hostage.
"You find a mediator, tell them who you kidnapped and who you want released in exchange. He works it out, and you pay him," said his son Firas, an unemployed restaurant worker. His relatives paid 30,000 pounds (about $545) to get a loved one released.
By day, Homs is practically paralyzed. Refuse spews from dumpsters and floods the sidewalks, because garbage collectors are afraid to walk the streets. Residents say tax and bill collectors have not come for months. Once-busy thoroughfares are now unregulated by police. Traffic lights are ignored by the few dozen cars that zip past, drivers too scared to dawdle.
People say at least a third of workers have lost their jobs because their employers are out of business or it is no longer safe to leave their neighborhood.
Even among Sunnis who have not joined any protests there is a feeling the battle-lines have been drawn.
Four Sunni districts in Homs are completely mired in fighting with security forces. Only their inhabitants, or people who are smuggled in, can witness these fights. Activists send out video of sniper fire and flash protests in winding concrete alleyways. Some days, residents can see black smoke spiraling into the sky. And most nights, everyone hears the shelling.
Just to get from one neighborhood to another, residents have to pass through about six checkpoints, buttressed by walls of sandbags. The army is also digging trenches around at least one Sunni neighborhood -- such as Baba Amr, where the fiercest fighting takes place.
Sunnis worry the government is preparing a re-run of a 1982 Sunni Islamist rebellion that played out in Hama, a conservative city to the north of Homs. Then, former President Hafez al-Assad's men went in with indiscriminate shelling. They razed parts of the city, and killed more than 10,000 residents.
In Homs, most neighborhoods are part of a network of tight, winding concrete alleys so an army would have less mobility.
That's why people worry about the trenches.
"They're surrounding them, it's like a trap," said an Alawite worker passing a Sunni neighborhood. "Once the trenches are done, they won't be able to flee without trying to go through the trenches or the checkpoints."
Many say the only people they can trust now are their own. There have been daily migrations as Alawites and Sunnis head to places with the same sectarian background.
Even food-sellers say they have set up new trade routes that rely only on villages supplying goods that come from the same sectarian background.
To punctuate the gloom, people trade dark jokes about their city, as if to send messages about it to the outside world. "Welcome to Homs," runs one. "The cost of a trip is 250 pounds: Food, drink and death included."
The appearance of a security presence remains -- alleyways covered with graffiti slogans "down with the regime" are quickly coated in black paint.
But most soldiers appear nervous. Armed rebels have stepped up attacks on security forces, and checkpoints, residents say, are a common target. One soldier, pausing in a near-empty cafe after his shift at a checkpoint, was overheard to complain how his nerves were constantly on edge.
"I hate the situation. It's terrifying to be here," he said, shaking his head wearily.
At checkpoints, soldiers grip Kalashnikov assault rifles and cautiously inspect faces and ID cards before wishing residents a good day - a new, friendlier greeting than in months past. It has only made locals more suspicious.
"They're afraid," said one resident. "The security forces are stuck in a big mess."
Some Sunnis, thinking of NATO's operation in Libya, hope Homs may get foreign help. "We obviously need military intervention," said Mahmoud, a supporter of the protest movement. "My cousin was shot in the head at a protest. This is the reality we live in now. What else are we waiting for?"
Syrian authorities deny any policy to fire on civilians. After long delay, they agreed this week to an Arab League plan for international monitors. On Friday, the day after the first arrived, two security sites in Damascus were hit by suicide bombs, killing 40. The work, said the government, of terrorists.
In the dark, cramped alleyways of Sunni neighborhoods, volunteers go from door to door, seeking $10 donations to help support the growing list of families whose breadwinners have been killed, wounded or disappeared.
In one area where fighting is fierce, volunteers flip through a thick book where they write down the names of families in need. "Just going through four or five streets, we collect a hundred names," says one of them. They quickly make the rounds through the crumbling cement block homes, passing out envelopes with cash -- between $50 and $90 dollars.
Not everyone is intimidated by sectarian divides. Opposition activist Fadwa Suleiman, an Alawite, is now hiding in the homes of Sunni neighborhoods in revolt. Her face, framed by short cropped hair, has become a common sight at the protest rallies.
She says the government has intentionally stirred hatred between Alawites and Sunnis. "We cannot let the regime, with a simple ploy, make us slaughter each other to justify its existence," she told Reuters by Skype from her hideout.
Others regret an earlier lust for battle.
"At first I really wanted to crush this problem," said Hamdi, who used to be part of a shabbiha but recently stopped cooperating with security. "But then the fighting got worse.
"I saw them smashing the shops of people from the other sect. I saw the attacks. If I'm dragged into this, my son could be killed," he said, fingering the gun in his pocket. "I'm so sick of this. There must be some other way."
(Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Douglas Hamilton, Sara Ledwith and Ralph Boulton)