'There are checkpoints near the polls. That's how they find you'

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On the day of Syria's 'referendum for peace', Kim Sengupta in Idlib Province speaks to Assad's opponents who have been tortured and are too fearful to vote against the regime

They came for Ismail Abu Jabar at three in the morning, the secret police, the soldiers and an informer in a balaclava. The home was ransacked; there was a ritual beating in front of his terrified, weeping wife and young children and then he was dragged off, never to see his family again.

The treatment received during the next two months in captivity left the 34-year-old farmer with injuries to his head, broken ribs and seared burns to his back and stomach. There was little questioning: "They just enjoyed giving pain," he recalled. "They accused me of a lot of things, of being a traitor, my guilt was already decided."

Mr Jabar had been guilty of asking for reform: "We weren't calling for a revolution, for Assad to be hanged, not at that time. All we wanted was that the people, especially poor people, should be heard. But that was enough for them. You criticised and you became the enemy."

The vote that Mr Jabar and other activists called for was supposedly taking place in Syria yesterday in a referendum on a new constitution. This has been hailed by the Russian and Chinese governments as evidence of the regime's sincere desire for peace and democratic change. Bashar al-Assad declared in Damascus that it will "take the country to a new era of co-operation with the full spectrum of Syrians and draw a brilliant future for next generations".

But here in Idlib province the referendum is seen as a grotesque joke. It is not just the dead and the disappeared who have been disenfranchised; even if anyone did want to vote in this region fiercely resistant to the regime, they would have found it hard to find any of the 14,000 polling stations that the Interior Minister, Lt Gen Mohammed al-Shaar, claimed has been set up around the country.

"Is Bashar going to give up power? The voting room must be over there," Mr Jabar said, pointing in a direction where steady machine-gun fire and occasional mortar rounds were coming from troops attacking a rebel base on a hillside near Darkush, where we were meeting. "If you are trying to find somewhere to vote, you will have to go past checkpoints. A good way to catch [the] people they are after."

Mr Jabar was freed after his family raised 100,000 Syrian pounds (about £1,250) to pay a member of the Shabiha, the militia from the Alawite community to which the Assad family and the country's ruling elite belongs.

But he returned to his home in Qarqur to find his wife, Rahima, and four daughters, aged between four months and 11 years, missing. Friends had moved them soon after his arrest: it was felt they were vulnerable because he was a political detainee. The car they were travelling in was stopped at a roadblock and they have not been seen since.

"Of course I have tried to look for them, but I cannot move around freely because I might get caught, I know they are looking for me again. They showed no pity in prison. I saw terrible things, there was one man, a doctor they killed. 'Are you still breathing, you bastard,' the guard was shouting as he was kicking him. I try not to think about what they did to me in prison, I just worry about what has happened to my wife and daughters, but I feel helpless that I cannot protect my family."

For Obeida um Khalifa the dreadful uncertainty is over, all that is left is grief. Contemplating President Assad's pledge of a "brilliant future for next generations" would only bring more bitter tears. Her 19-year-old-son, Hamza, is now buried in the village cemetery, where his mother leaves wildflowers on his grave every day.

Hamza, a carpenter, was stopped at a checkpoint near the village of Basanqut a month ago, the troops were suspicious because of his full beard, indicating that he may be an Islamist. There was an argument, he was hit with rifle butts, thrown into a car and driven away, according to a cousin who was with him, but who managed to escape by running into a field. "They took him and tortured him," said Ms Um Khalifa. "I went with my brother to the police station but they knew nothing about it. We went to three other police stations. Then, I think it was eight days later, we found his body. They had killed my boy with a gun and left him in a ditch as if his life meant nothing, as if he was worthless." The security forces have visited the family home since to look for Hamza's older brother, Ahmed.

He, however, had already left for Turkey as a precaution 48 hours previously. "My husband is dead and I only have a daughter left with me now. My sons were looking after us, now we have to depend on our neighbours. But even if I don't see Ahmed for many years now, maybe never, I thank Allah he has gone, he is safe. But I do not know what we have done to deserve such suffering," whispered the mother, a woman in her early 50s, but prematurely aged with worry and sadness, as she sat on a threadbare rug on a cold floor.

Even if Ms Um Khalifa had her sons to support her, the situation would be desperate. A sweep by regime forces has cut off many of the supply routes from Turkey, making it difficult and dangerous to bring in food. The price of bread has risen by 500 per cent and items such as eggs by 300 per cent. Residents are foraging in the countryside to supplement their meagre diet.

But there are strong community ties and people share. And, in a conflict where the sectarian divide has widened with the bloodshed, there are examples here of Sunnis and Alawites helping each other out.

Commander Abdul Haq, the leader of the rebel group, acknowledged: "Yes, we have had Alawites who have been giving food to the other villagers. The regime gave them everything they need, so they can spare for the others."

This does not mean an end to acrimony. "There are Alawites in places like Shtarbak who have joined the Shabiha, they are given weapons and they attack us, they are treacherous, we have to look out for them."

There are persistent accusations that the regime is exploiting religious differences and trying to enshrine this in the new constitution. Article 3 states that Syria's president must be Muslim, over 40 years of age and someone who had lived in the country for more than 10 years. Wasim Sabagh, a revolutionary fighter from Homs and a Christian, said: "The last two points are to make sure that many in the opposition, who had been forced to live abroad would not qualify. But the first point shows how he divides and rules. He tells the world he is protecting minority communities like Christians and then he makes sure in the constitution that we are second-class citizens.

"Christians are being murdered in my home city and the regime says it is the Sunnis doing it. But we know what is going on; it is the agents of the regime who are the killers."

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