Middle East

Syria refugees tell of civilian misery in besieged Homs

Victim of Syria shooting recovering in Lebanon hospital, 19 Feb 12
Image caption Some of Syria's wounded make it to Lebanon despite big risks

The latest evidence from Syria suggests that President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing an all-out assault on areas still controlled by his opponents.

The BBC has spoken to Syrian refugees who say the situation in many towns and cities is increasingly desperate.

Getting information out of besieged Syrian towns is more and more difficult, but the latest shaky images, taken furtively from behind curtains, are ominous for people still trapped inside Homs.

Tanks advance menacingly down deserted streets near the suburb of Baba Amr. Dozens of soldiers trudge behind the tanks - evidence perhaps that the Assad regime is getting ready for for a final push on Homs.

In a hospital ward in northern Lebanon I met some of those who have managed to get out of Syria in recent days. They talk of a worsening humanitarian crisis, of a regime determined to crush its opponents.

The Syrian government denies targeting civilians, but one man from Homs says he was deliberately shot in the arm and leg by an army patrol. He says he was not a fighter - but no one is safe in the city now.

"The city's hospital is being used as a base by the army," he told me from his hospital bed. "No one who needs medical help can get it, so their only option is to escape."

In the next room lies a man who lost his leg to a land mine. It's a stark reminder that getting out of Homs is not that easy.

Image caption Refugees from Syria are housed in a damp, dilapidated school

Running a gauntlet

Here, on the northern frontier with Lebanon, the mountain border is relatively porous, but in recent days on the Syrian side fresh minefields have been laid.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Syrian troops have pursued fleeing refugees into Lebanon.

Conditions are also appalling at this time of the year. There is driving rain with snow at higher altitudes.

But still people take extraordinary risks. I watched a small group dashing across a river that demarcates this mountain border - carrying tiny amounts of food and medical aid into Syria.

I also spoke to a group of Syrian men - fighters with the Free Syrian Army (although it barely resembles a genuine fighting force and groups operate more as guerrilla units). With very basic weapons they cross over every few days to conduct raids on army bases and other targets.

Hundreds of refugees from across Syria - from Daraa, Homs, Hama and other cities - are now in the relatively safety of Lebanon.

I met a group of 11 families who have been given basic food and shelter in a Lebanese border village. Some have been here for months, other are recent arrivals.

Image caption Small groups of anti-Assad fighters carry supplies into Syria from Lebanon

Another man, who asked not to be named for his own safety, said the situation in the Baba Amr district of Homs was unbearable.

"The last time I was able to get in touch with friends there they said they were stuck indoors with no basic services. Right now any vehicles trying to leave are shot at. Even ambulances are being targeted," he told me, as children played in what used to be a classroom, almost oblivious to what they and their families had gone through.

Family tragedies

In another cold, empty room Abu Fahed cradled a tiny baby, born prematurely in exile. Their happiness with a new son is clouded by tragedy. He and his sick wife still mourn a three-year-old boy - murdered, he says, by the Assad regime.

Image caption Syrian children do not know when it will be safe to go back to Syria

"I was smuggling food into Daraa," says Abu Fahed. "So when officers came to the house looking for me, they took my son Muhammad as a hostage - saying they'd kill him if I didn't give myself up. They killed him anyway."

It is a desperate story, and the aggrieved mother's melancholy mirrors the dour, damp conditions in which they now live. This is no life, but they carry on for the sake of their new baby.

"I've lost one child - I can't bear the thought of losing another," she told me as I turned to leave.

As we left the school, the children defiantly chanted anti-Assad slogans. Their parents, who haven't heard from relatives stuck inside Syria for days, could not hide their concern and worry.

More on this story